Social Categorization Definition
Social categorization refers to the way a person’s mind clusters together individuals who share important characteristics. A person mentally groups people on the basis of their demographic features (e.g., sex, age, ethnicity, or religion), personality and interests (e.g., extraverts, nerds), and occupation, to name some of the most common types of social categories. This process has several important functions. It provides a person with a way to organize and structure his or her understanding of the social world. For each meaningful social category, a person is likely to have some preconceptions about what members of the category are like. Rather than having to start from scratch in figuring other people out, a person often identifies the groups they belong to and then makes some starting assumptions about their characteristics, given these group memberships. If you learn that your new next-door neighbor is a lawyer, for example, you can start to form an impression just on the basis of this category membership.
Sometimes a person is provided with categories (as when someone tells a person his or her occupation), and sometimes a person must infer another person’s category membership based on observable evidence (e.g., one can often—but not always—easily infer someone’s sex or approximate age on the basis of physical appearance). Membership in some categories is based on very clear criteria (e.g., the category “college students” is defined by attending a college), but some categories are much fuzzier. There is no strict criterion for being a nerd, for example. However, a set of characteristics seems typical of nerds, resulting in a mental image, or prototype, of the category. In such a case, putting someone into the category is based more on how much the person resembles one’s mental image of that category, rather than on meeting a clear set of rules about category membership. Even in the case in which there are clear criteria, resemblance to a mental image of the category may still be important. A divorced homemaker in her 50s who returns to school to get her bachelor’s degree may technically be a member of the category “college students,” but perceivers may not think of her as a member of the category because she does not match the common prototype of the category.
Context and Importance of Social Categorization
Whether discussing people, objects, or events, categories are essential for mental functioning. Without them, people would not be able to make sense of the complex, multifaceted environment around them. By grouping similar items into categories, the world acquires structure and meaningfulness. This process of organizing and structuring the world into categories involves two related processes. First, when thinking about people who belong in a particular category, one mentally emphasizes their shared characteristics while minimizing their differences or unique individual characteristics. When one thinks of the category “nerds,” one thinks about the characteristics that are common to members of the category. Second, one also accentuates, or emphasizes, differences between different categories. When a person thinks of nerds, he or she thinks of the ways nerds are different from other comparable kinds of people (such as jocks or artsy types).
By identifying category memberships, people can make inferences about individual members when they have incomplete information about them. For example, a person might feel confident that the nerd would be interested in going to the Star Wars film festival. “Likes science fiction” may be a facet of his or her image of what nerds are like, so once the person categorizes the other person as a member of the “nerd” category, he or she feels confident in making this assumption. Applying typical features of the social category to individual category members facilitates the social judgments people make, but the benefit of this increased facility comes at the cost of potential inaccuracy. Some nerds actually don’t like science fiction, some men don’t like sports, and some women don’t love taking care of children. A major by-product of social categorization is the process of stereotyping. Generalizations will rarely if ever apply to all category members, and in some cases, people might even hold generalizations about social groups that do not even apply to most category members. Social psychologists have identified several ways that people come to hold erroneous or greatly exaggerated stereotypes about social groups.
Social categorization differs from other kinds of categorization in that the person doing the categorization is also potentially included into the relevant category. Social categorization results in carving the world into ingroups (the groups to which one belongs) and outgroups (the groups to which one does not belong). Because people have a strong tendency to think favorably about themselves, they also tend to evaluate their ingroups favorably. This tendency, paired with the previously mentioned tendency to accentuate the differences between groups, results in another potentially toxic result of social categorization: prejudice. If a person feels that his or her group is superior to other groups, ingroup favoritism and discrimination against outgroups may be common byproducts. Given the widespread existence of prejudice and intergroup conflict, from Northern Ireland to South Africa and right around the globe, the potential dangers of social categorization are evident. Social psychologists have been keenly interested in understanding whether social categorization, per se, is sufficient to explain prejudice and ingroup favoritism or whether other conditions must also be present.
Implications of Social Categorization
Social categorization is inevitable, as people could not function without some way of organizing and simplifying the complex social world around them. However, social categorization carries with it the risk of stereotyping and prejudice and the injustices sometimes associated with them. Fortunately, there is flexibility in the way people categorize other people. People need not always focus on race or sex or other common bases for prejudice and conflict but can look to shared categories that unite them with others (e.g., “members of our community” rather than ethnic subgroups). And they can emphasize multiple category memberships of others, rather than reducing them to a single dimension (e.g., “intelligent Mexican female actress” rather than just “Mexican”). When people think in terms of multiple categories, they begin to recapture the constellations of characteristics that make each of them unique.
- Bodenhausen, G. V., Macrae, C. N., & Hugenberg, K. (2003). Social cognition. In I. Weiner (Ed.), Handbook of psychology (Vol. 5, pp. 257-282). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.