To Categorize, or Not To Categorize, That is The Question (Part 1)

In my last post, I talked about categories, particularly race and gender. Let’s dive farther into the general idea of categories this week.

Our brain’s ability and need to categorize serves a base function in our day-to-day lives. Think about the sheer VOLUME of information your brain processes in nanoseconds–size, shape, smell, taste, color, texture, temperature, time, weather, movement, etc–often below any real level of our awareness. This rapid processing helps us navigate our complex environment with efficiency and, arguably, a fairly high degree of learned accuracy.

Let’s say you’re out for a stroll. It’s a beautiful day in your neck of the woods. The sun is shining, nary a cloud in the sky. You keep seeing these tall (size!) things with green tops (color!) and black/brown/gray stems, some smooth, some rough (color! texture!). While their tops rustle in the gentle breeze (weather! movement!), their columnar stems (shape!) appear stationary (lack of movement!). Now, if you’ve been on this big, blue marble of ours for even a relatively short period of time, you probably know that these things are what we have collectively categorized as “trees”. And in your experience with trees, you expect them to “appear” and “behave” a certain way when you encounter them, even if they don’t all look exactly the same. So unless you’re strolling through Middle Earth or the Land of Oz where trees can speak and move, you learn to reasonably expect trees to appear and behave consistently, regardless of context (excepting an external cause perhaps, like a tornado).

Your individual understanding of trees is learned via others as you make sense of the world. Now, you could assert your individuality and define and label trees per your own preferences, but effectively communicating with your fellow humans about trees requires a shared understanding of “what a tree is”. In other words, “what a tree is” is socially constructed. While trees existed long before humans evolved, they were so named and defined by us. It was through the process of human interaction that trees were thus categorized. To wit, we have collectively agreed that there are such things as trees and we have collectively agreed on what trees are.

This collective agreement applies to everything in our world. We have ascribed shared meanings and definitions to tangibles, such as bananas and mouse pads, as well as intangibles, such as reputation and cultural heritage. We can touch, smell, and taste bananas (at least for the near future), but “banana” as a shared concept is a social construct, identified by its size, shape, color, taste, texture. While we can’t touch, smell, or taste reputations, “reputation” as a shared concept is also a social construct. We typically know what differentiates a “good” reputation from a “bad” one and that while it can take a long time to build good reputations, they can be ruined in a matter of minutes.

Good so far? Everybody with me?

Now for the BIG REVEAL…drum roll please…

Race and gender are also socially constructed.

“WHAT?!?!”

“But Tonya,” you might be thinking, “men and women are biologically different! And skin color varies due to the amount of melanin in the epidermis!”

Indeed.

But the categorical meanings we have collectively ascribed to those differences and variations are all socially constructed. “What a man is” versus “what a woman is” are shared concepts we have constructed through social interaction.

“Gotcha. So if we collectively define things such as trees, bananas, reputations, and gender through our interactions with one another, then we can be nearly certain that our social constructs are ‘correct’ and ‘right’, right? Wisdom of the crowd and all that?”

Sometimes. But we’ve made our share of collective mistakes over the centuries. A geocentric universea flat earthseparate but equal, to name a few.

So then, what if our collective beliefs about race and gender are wrong too?

Til Part 2.

With profound apologies of oversimplification to arborists, cognitive psychologists, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, and others. And though he wasn’t referenced, I feel obligated to acknowledge Joyce Kilmer.

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