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What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

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All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.

How much hate is there on Facebook?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 March 2015

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

This blog post was inspired by one question Sonia Livingstone asked the Global Social Media Impact Study team after our joint presentation at SOAS. The question was addressing the relation between emotions and social media and in particular to what extent we agree with the stereotypical image that sees social media as the default display for negative comments and interventions.

In the first part of my answer, I was arguing that seldom ‘the negative’ is already in the gaze of many observers of social media. Sometimes, negative news, heated discourses, and reports of intolerance are so poignant and invite to instantly share that they gain a kind of momentum that clearly stands apart from any other type of information. Then, everyday online conversations could allude to the ‘theme of the day’ as it were.

But, after 15 month of fieldwork in southeast Italy I cannot really say that ‘the negative’ dominates social media. By contrary, if we take a look at the Facebook pages of people in Grano in any given day and apply some simple statistics, we will see that most of the times the negative comments represent less than 10% of the total number of comments, while sometimes they are negligible, hatred is virtually absent! Instead, people really prefer irony and wittiness to express their various disappointments and discontents on a daily basis.

This points to the issue that in what regards news, social media behaves quite similar to a classical broadcast medium such as TV; the main differences rest in its real-time, broadness, and reproductive nature, as well as in the possibilities of (usually) horizontal interaction using the same environment. But then, most people prefer to use social media to engage with the mundane, the personal. In this context, most accusations of social media as being shallow and negative come from the fact that both the public and the private are conflated in the same platform. As I showed elsewhere, in southeast Italy most people have solved this tense situation by finding alternative spaces where they could really be private: such as mobile messaging and WhatsApp.

This points to the second part of my response, which is about the different layers of intimacy people in Grano actually construct by means of social media. I have discussed this elsewhere, but, we can just think of somebody who uses mostly text messages to communicate with her fidanzato, phone calls with her parents, WhatsApp with her best friends, and share Facebook statuses and comments to everybody else. These different layers of intimacy suppose different sets of emotions that could be better expressed by different media. The mechanism by which people use different media to objectify the particular kinds of relations they have or want has been described in the theory of Polymedia.

Therefore, I suggest that most of the stereotypical allegations around social media are informed by a stereotypical understanding of media as a homogenous and consistent environment with well-defined purposes. And it is also true that most people I worked with see Facebook as imposed from the exterior, by some higher social and economic forces, and maybe this is why most of them do not see any problem if someday it will simply disappear.