A stereotype is a generalized perception of first impressions: behaviors presumed by a group of people judging with the eyes, criticizing ones outer appearance (or a population in general) to be associated with another specific group. Stereotypes, therefore, can instigate prejudice and false assumptions about entire groups of people, including the members of different ethnic groups, social classes, religious orders, the opposite sex, etc. A stereotype can be a conventional and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image, based on the assumption that there are attributes that members of the “other group” have in common. Stereotypes are sometimes formed by a previous illusory correlation, a false association between two variables that are loosely correlated if correlated at all. Though generally viewed as negative perceptions, stereotypes may be either positive or negative in tone.
Sociologist Charles E. Hurst of the College of Wooster states that, “One reason for stereotypes is the lack of personal, concrete familiarity that individuals have with persons in other racial or ethnic groups. Lack of familiarity encourages the lumping together of unknown individuals”. Different disciplines give different accounts of how stereotypes develop: Psychologists focus on how experience with groups, patterns of communication about the groups, and intergroup conflict. Sociologists focus on the relations among groups and position of different groups in a social structure. Psychoanalytically-oriented humanists have argued (e.g., Sander Gilman) that stereotypes, by definition, the representations are not accurate, but a projection of one to another.
Stereotypes are not accurate representations of groups, rather they arise as a means of explaining and justifying differences between groups, or system justification. Social status or group position determines stereotype content, not the actual personal characteristics of group members. Groups which enjoy fewer social and economic advantages will be stereotyped in a way which helps explain disparities, such as lower employment rates. Although disadvantaged group members may have greater difficulty finding a job due to in-group favoritism, racism, and related social forces, the disadvantaged group member is unjustifiably characterized as ‘unmotivated’ (he could find a job if he looked hard enough), ‘unintelligent’ (he’s not smart enough to have that job), and ‘lazy’ (he would rather take hand-outs than work).
Stereotypes focus upon and thereby exaggerate differences between groups. Competition between groups minimizes similarities and magnifies differences. This makes it seem as if groups are very different when in fact they may be more alike than different. For example, among African Americans, identity as an American citizen is a more salient categorization than racial background; that is, African Americans are more American than African. Yet within American culture, Black and White Americans are often seen as completely different groups.
For as long as there has been a human species, individuals have been different from one another. Persons have gravitated to groups of other persons like themselves. People create and develop categories of qualities by which to classify the groups; some were based on ancestry. Many of these groupings have become the key factors in determining which groups have political, social, and economic power in the world.
Automatic stereotype activation can be totally involuntary, and is described as the activation of categorically associated “nodes”, according to Leopold and Brown from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
For individual people there can be both positive and negative effects of a stereotype which is seen to apply to them. The overall effects of stereotyping are seen by many to always be negative. Some people believe that stereotypes are generally based on actual differences. Others believe that they are always false generalizations (by definition). For some individual people the effects of this might be positive or negative – a separate issue to whether they are positive or negative for society. Stereotypes can be self-fulfilling to at least some extent. Stereotypes can be deeply embedded in a culture. The term ‘stereotype’ is more often used once those perceived truths are put into arguments. There are some complicating factors which arise when the accuracy of stereotypes is discussed. One of these is that a factor leading to stereotyping can be the existence of a group of people who do share a characteristic. For instance, there might be a reasonably significant number of men working in sales roles, and showing little integrity and honesty. This can lead to the creation of a stereotype of a ‘salesman’ figure. In this limited sense it might be seen that the stereotype is based on a real group of people (i.e. salesmen who behave with little integrity).
Stereotype is often used as a form of dramatic shorthand for “stock character”. Stereotypes change with time. The unwitting use of some stereotypes appears awkward to a present-day audience which refuses to tolerate a representation of individuals based on that stereotype. Many other stereotypes pass unnoticed, sometimes even by those being stereotyped.
Hurst, Charles E. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. 6. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007