Week 5: Deconstructing Stereotypes

I was really looking forward to this week’s workshop at the Nuffield Theatre. I always feel somewhat confined when working an a purely academic environment, whether that’s in a lecture theatre or a class room. Most importantly, Patrick’s workshop highlighted the advantages and disadvantages of how people use stereotypes in reference to culture. The workshop was light-hearted, energetic, relaxed and informal but significant in my study of communication and culture.

Two important questions we considered were:

What do we mean by stereotypes and

generalisations?  

How does this affect intercultural
communication?

Patrick started the workshop by finding out our names, where we were from and our background. By generalising our background- for example, deeming me rough due to being from Luton- he instantly highlighted a flaw in stereotyping; that is that generalising is exactly that- GENERALISING. By making sweeping, broad assumptions about someone’s character due to their background  holds little weight and doesn’t allow one to get to know an individual at all.

However, on the other hand we explored how stereotypes can be beneficial in our communication among cultures.

Stereotyping can be helpful. When we meet a person, we compare them to people we have met before if they share similarites, for example, cultural similarites e.g. living in the same country, having a similar accent etc. As we’ve experienced someone who shares these similarites before, we found our initial impressions of what this is person is likely to be like.

The problem comes when people assume that stereotypes are facts – stereotypes/generalisations only give good indications of probabilities, and while some of these maybe true, the main thing to understand is that a person is an individual and holds many qualities outside of their stereotype that make them who they are.

When reading up on the subject I came across some work that I agreed with and felt I should share it:

“Stereotypes as a form of ‘ordering’ the mass of complex and inchoate data that we receive from the world are only a particular form — to do with the representation and categorization of persons — of the wider process by which any human society, and individuals within it, make sense of that society through generalities, patternings and ‘typifications’. Unless one believes that there is some definitively ‘true’ order in the world which is transparently revealed to human beings and unproblematically expressed in their culture — a belief that the variety of orders proposed by different societies, as analysed by: anthropology and history, makes difficult to sustain — this activity of ordering, including the use of stereotypes, has to be acknowledged as a necessary, indeed inescapable, part of the way societies make sense of themselves, and hence actually make and reproduce themselves. (The fact that all such orderings are by definition, partial and limited does not mean that they are untrue — partial knowledge is not false knowledge, it is simply not absolute knowledge.)

There are, however, two problems about stereotypes within this perspective Firstly, the need to order ‘the great blooming, buzzing confusion reality’ is liable to be accompanied by a belief in the absoluteness and certainty of any particular order, a refusal to recognize its limitations and partiality, its relativity and changeability, and a corresponding incapacity to deal with the fact and experience of blooming and buzzing.” (1)

So how does this affect intercultural communication? In short, stereotypes sometimes allows to justifiably act in a certain way that is not insulting or disrespectful but generalised. For example, bowing when meeting a Chinese person in China. However, stereotypes can be used in a disrespectful and inappropriate way by assuming that someone is limited by their culture and epitomises a generalised view of their culture and by acting in accordance to this, communication between people from different cultures breaks down.

(1) Richard Dyer, The Role of Stereotypes ,in Paul Marris and Sue Thornham: Media Studies: A Reader, 2nd Edition, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

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