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Jan Kubik, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University
Martha F. Kubik, West Amwell Elementary School

In our daily lives, we are subjected to a never-ceasing barrage of information that assails all our senses and intellect. To cope with this stream we select, choose and retain only a small fraction of information that comes our way. This selection process is guided by complex cognitive mechanisms, whose end product is a simplified picture of the world "in our heads." The problem is that once we store a bit of information in our mind and begin using it, it gets "imbedded" in a complex network of associated ideas. We experience this process as "growing attached to an idea" and usually are reluctant to modify it. This selective and simplifying process of acquiring, storing, and using information results in the formation of STEREOTYPES, cognitive categories (schemas, models of behavior) that in turn govern our actions, that is they help us figure out how to behave in specific situations.

Most often, STEREOTYPES are defined as specific cognitive categories that people use when they think about and/or act toward other individuals or groups. It is very useful to analyze stereotypes on two, interconnected yet separate, levels: individual (cognitive) and collective (social).

On the individual levels, stereotypes can be seen as useful mental "shortcuts," mnemonic devices that help individuals simplify, order, and store knowledge about the KEY characteristics of individuals and groups they encounter and have to deal with. Individuals develop an emotional attachment to many stereotypical images they store in their memory and are usually reluctant to engage in the examination and verification of the "truthfulness" of such images.

But stereotypes also need to be analyzed on a collective (social) level, because they usually are formed on the basis of information an individual receives from his or her social (or cultural) environment. In other words, individually-held stereotypes reflect collectively held stereotypes. Such "collective stereotypes" are promulgated - deliberately or inadvertently - through the multitude of the society's channels of communication.

Importantly, stereotypes that are shared by a larger number of people may in turn reinforce material inequalities between groups of people ("they do not need or deserve anything") and may function as a means to reinforce unequal distributions of power ("they cannot handle this, we need to take care of them"). Often, groups that dominate the political, economic and social realms form and maintain stereotypes of the controlled (usually minority) groups. Stereotypes of minority groups evoke the opposite of what a dominant culture values. For example, if a dominant culture values hard work and independence, a minority group will be castigated for being lazy and dependent. Therefore, stereotypes tell us as much, if not more, about the characteristics of the group that generates the stereotypes as they do about the group they purport to define.

The core questions asked in this module are:

  1. What are stereotypes?
  2. What are their origins? Why are they so difficult to challenge, modify, and abandon?
  3. How to define and deal with religious stereotypes?
  4. How are stereotypes connected to the achievement and maintenance of political power and social inequality?
  5. Why are stereotypes particularly dangerous in inter-group conflicts?
  6. Why are stereotypes harmful, ethically, socially, and economically?
  7. How can stereotypes be overcome?

To learn more about the influence of Stereotypes on our global society, click on the links below:
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