Social Categorization as a Manner of Creating Boundaries,
Avoiding and Discriminating against the „Other(s)”
As a pejorative or disparaging differentiation,
discrimination points to exclusions, borders or the
closure of the social world. Such negative behaviour
towards „the other(s)” is the effect of a fixed
social identity (social categorization), according
to which people express stereotypes (beliefs) or
prejudices (attitudes). The core of the present
article is formed by these elements conjoined with
the generic term „discrimination”. Therefore, this
article is an analysis of the processes of
maintaining discrimination-(re)producing boundaries.
Keywords: discrimination; social
categorization; stereotype; prejudice; racism
Borders as a manner of identification and differentiation
In a context of interconnections and hybridisations, in which concerns about the global dimension of knowledge and practices are increasingly important, we notice in equal measure disjuncture, fragmentation and dissolution, division of collective identities and a closure of the identity of the nations. Accordingly, the global world is characterized by the rise of individualism and particularism, as well as by claims of identity. In front of the challenges posed by globalization, national feelings have thus resumed their vigour. Borders have an important role in the mechanism of collective identity appropriation. They are the appearance of an identity expressed in terms of territorial delimitation. At the same time, borders further the definition of the self. According to Anna Triandafyllidou and Dia Anagnostou1, borders continue „to influence and assist in people’s construction of the self”. Moreover, borders are an imposer not only of an identity, but a supporter of difference too. They can be used as a manner of identification for those persons sharing the same cultural references, and as a means of differentiation against the different other. Hence, borders can be used by similar people to their own advantage in order to define themselves and set up their identity in front of the other(s). Group affiliations are symbolic borders which prescribe attributes to individuals as members of a particular group. The process assigning the individuals’ place in the social environment is known as social categorization. The identification and differentiation among individuals function on the basis of a cognitive process. The process of social categorization may thus generate discrimination when resemblance is established as difference. Accordingly, the next section discusses social categorization, with an emphasis on social identity theory. This analysis continues with a presentation of the other elements announced in the title of this study, such as stereotypes and prejudices, which contribute to creating boundaries. The answer to these elements may be discrimination. This is the case of racial and ethnic categories, which, once established, take part in creating disparity. This process is the response to unequal allocation of resources and opportunities among individuals, according to their association with a majority or minority group.
Social categorization as a symbolic boundary
Categorization is fundamental for the comprehension of the physical and social environment. According to Tajfel’s theory2, the segmentation and classification of the environment is achieved through „cognitive processes”. Moreover, the process of categorization originates in „both causal knowledge and similarity relations (…), which lead to the development of categories and (…) serve to organize knowledge”.3 The concept of „social categorization”4 forged by Tajfel in ’70’s also includes the meaning of social identity. His theory states that group affiliations are represented on a psychological level as social identities prescribing attributes to the members of a particular group. Part of the concept of „self”, social identity could be defined as a set of objective characteristics (nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, status, etc.) which allow the identification of individuals from outside. We talk about group affiliation when individuals define themselves and are defined by others as members of a formed social category (for instance, football players of a sport club, painting lovers, chess players, AIDS patients, young people, etc.). Formulated on the basis of similarity of its members, group affiliation allows them to identify themselves socially. Therefore, social groups provide their members with a social identification called „social identity”. It is considered that group affiliation is reflected in shared values, representations, emotions and attachment to a group, functioning as a link among group members. Identification with a group results from the „consciousness of belonging” to a social group. Although distinct, the group members who share „common characteristics” feel „alike”. Besides, they feel identical because they oppose to „others” 5.
Referring to the formation of categories,6 Tajfej’s social identity theory7 considers interactive situations of „self” and „other”. According to his theory, the identification of differences as symbolic borders between „self” and „other” are forged by a dual mechanism of identification with others and distinction from them. According to Tajfel, social categorization is achieved through a mechanism of resemblance (by assimilation) and differentiation (by contrast). The „self” is therefore defined through and against the other. In accordance with the interactive perspective, there are practices and interactions between individuals which contribute to creating boundaries. „Social identity” is thus the psychological mechanism of the linkages between individual and group. The reference established on account of similarities sets up the „consciousness of belonging” to the group. Accordingly, the individuals’ identification derives from the groups to which they belong. Moreover, social identity gives individuals a collective representation of what they are and how they should act in society. Their „in-group’s” interiorized norms and values allow identifying the individuals with the group. One can mutually consider that the affiliation with a social group induces the rejection of the other who does not belong to the group in question because he does not identify himself with it. According to Tajfel, social categorization leads to more striking similarities within, and differences between, groups. This is a generalized process, according to the „metacontrast principle”. Furthermore, the „metacontrast principle” applied to the „others” in comparison to the „self” implies a process of both categorization and self-categorization. The „self-categorization theory” developed by J. C. Turner8 on the basis of Tajfel’s observations foregrounds the problem of self-stereotyping. Turner considers that the elements grouped according to similarity or difference in relation to a specific prototype is conducive of a stereotyped image of all the members of a group. Since they resemble each other, the members of a group can mutually replace each other. This involves the idea that possessing similar qualities enables different groups to constitute themselves on the basis of mite „in-group” similarities and „out-group” differences, respectively.
On the other hand, identifying resemblances among members within a group („in-group”) can turn into a bias towards excluding members („out-group”). Therefore, the social categorization process has positive or negative effects in the social sphere. Such processes underlie cooperation or compliance behaviours in relation to certain norms concerning discrimination, exclusion or closure of the social space. Social psychology considers that social categorization mechanisms can be based on „prejudices”9 or „stereotypes” emerging within different contexts. Since we speak about beliefs and thoughts, it is impossible that they be objective. According to Fischer10, „prejudices” reflect „the attitude of the individual function of their own social affiliation, revealing an often negative evaluative dimension insofar as different types of persons or individuals are concerned. Therefore, we speak about an inclination acquired with the purpose of establishing a social differentiation”.11 In Fischer’s view, moral judgements occasioned by categorization processes contribute to building stereotypes. Such positive or negative characteristics – which are emblematic for social representations12 - become features of a specific social group. In addition, Fischer13 talks about „simplified descriptive categories whereby we try to situate the other or the groups of individuals (...), features or behaviours we assign arbitrarily”. Delia Grigore14 thinks of stereotypes as „a means of cognitive economy by reducing the individual to the group as well as by a sketchy explanation of the surrounding world (…). It is the easiest way of grasping difference or alterity”. According to Allport,15 stereotypes – taken as exaggerated beliefs that shape thoughts, feelings, actions – are consequences of the process of categorization. Once established, stereotypes and other forms of bias, such as prejudice, „do not operate merely as a group’s description”, but „as cognitive structures that influence the way in which others are perceived and in which information about others is stored and retrieved”.16
Allport argues that racial and ethnic categories reflect an essentialism that shapes the nature of stereotypes. Discrimination on an ethnic or cultural basis is known as „racism”. This ideology was formulated in the 19th century. Substantialist approaches of „groups” have shown that we can identify an „essence” for all group members (objective physical, psychological and cultural characteristics). According to such a view, groups are perceived as „objective socio-cultural entities”. Consequently, the notion of „racial features” treats race as a „meaningful category”. Nevertheless, objectifying cultural differences has led to the division of the world into races. Moreover, the evaluation of the other according to their own cultural references has generated a hierarchy of groups. Thus, the inferior other was often characterized as „barbarian”, „wild”, „underdeveloped” or „uncivilized”. The cultural superiority of a group over another and group classification on a scale of values are the result of a fundamental bias, that is, „ethnocentrism”. According to William Graham Sumner’s definition17, „ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of things by which one’s own group is the centre of everything, and all the others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” On the other hand, ethnocentrism, a „collective attitude that consists in evaluating others in terms of their own culture”18, is looking at one’s own culture as superior to all other cultures. The most eloquent example of this theory that develops the model of the human being within their own culture is represented by the Nazi doctrine, which claims the idea of the Aryan race’s superiority over another, in this case the Jews or the Gypsies considered „racially inferior” by Hitler. The Nazi political principles are guided by the belief that the superiority of a race over another justifies an unequal treatment of the members of the inferior race. This is one of the many examples of racism that led to an extreme point. Such Manichean thinking, which underlies the domination of a group over another according to its superiority, thus has a negative impact upon the group considered to be inferior. Otherwise, the finding of cultural diversity19 determined anthropologists to show that „there is neither superiority in culture – but only a relative diversity – nor classification criteria that can order different cultures hierarchically”20.
Theories of identity as construction and ongoing development that are already embedded in the field of cultural studies refer to an approach of „a self-identified group of people”21, such as an ethnic group, as social construction of a form of identification. Otherness is thus socially constructed, and the members of a group are situated in-between a relation of interaction with the members of the other group. This theory is supported by the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth.22 Referring to ethnicity, this anthropologist, inspired by the American interactionist sociologist Erving Goffman, shows in „Ethnic Groups and Boundaries” (1969) that ethnicity should not be seen as difference, but within the relationships between groups.
Referring to the social relations among groups and socio-cognitive processes that are responsible for categorizing individuals, Pierre-Henri Castel et al23 examines how discrimination is established, starting from „the co-construction theory”. Willing to investigate the formation of social categories and the role of each participant in the discrimination bias, Castel Pierre-Henri et al. have carried out empirical research on the relations between work groups. They took into account the „statutory positions” of each member’s group. According to „the co-construction theory”, „the division establishing the categories is the result of information processing by the members of both interacting groups”.24 In addition, „the co-construction theory” states that „it is impossible that the position of the subject in a given relationship cannot have a specific effect”.25 These considerations allow authors to agree on the existence of „a discrimination bias” and of „different strategies linked to status” 26. While the high status group is preoccupied with maintaining its dominant position, the lower groups „seek to improve their social standing through „in-group favouritism” bias or even „out-group favouritism””27. Castel et al.’s theory thus differs from other discrimination theories, in that it takes into account the parameters applicable to such a situation. The strength of their theory is that discrimination occurs within both interacting groups. It shows that discrimination affects both groups, but in different degrees.
The categorization of individuals could be established on account of elements considered as defining a group, such as „statutory position” or race described above. Negative cognitive beliefs (stereotypes) or derogatory social attitudes (prejudices) contribute to prescribing attributes to the members of a particular group on account of their affiliation with that group. If they are transformed into negative or hostile behaviours towards the „other(s)”, stereotypes and prejudices lead to the closure of the social world and even to the exclusion of the other. Christos Govaris and Stravoula Kaldi claim that these attitudes exist in „the processes of categorizing social groups and acts as rational knowledge in order to separate and reject specific social groups”28, thus being expressive of discrimination.
Discrimination, the different treatment of others (understood in a negative way as exclusion, limitation, restriction, but also in a positive one as preference), exclusively on the basis of their in-group’s affiliation has not been eradicated nowadays, either. Criteria such as race, nationality, language, religion, social category, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, disease, affiliation with a disadvantaged social category, family situation, etc. continue to be the foundation of discriminatory attitudes. As a source for attitudes of negative discrimination, these elements have an important impact upon individuals. Discrimination affects the allocation of resources and opportunities to those persons who should benefit from similar advantages like a person that is not discriminated. Moreover, such attitudes remain a significant factor in shaping social and economic inequality.
Although significant efforts in combating discrimination have been made in today’s Romania, differences, disadvantages, disparaging attitudes and inequality still subsist. For instance, Roma people are subject to a special treatment within the welfare state. Policies of „positive (affirmative) actions” and „integrated approaches” („mainstreaming”) have been elaborated for Roma since 1990, when their status as an „ethnic minority” was recognised and they were identified as a „social problem”. There are strategies29 for preventing the discrimination of Roma people and for improving their situation.30 Thus, if there are some gains for the Roma minority in different spheres, significant disparities still remain. For instance, the labour force is a sector in which the Roma are discriminated. Besides, residential segregation by race remains a salient feature of contemporary Romania. In addition, wealth disparities continue to affect Roma’s social inclusion.
However, prejudices, stereotypes and the stigmatization31 of the different other can still define Romanians’ attitudes. In a state like Romania, which recognizes and works to maintain differences, there are still things to do in order to sweeten negative discriminatory attitudes. Both social policies in favour of minority groups and a change in mentalities could contribute to reducing discrimination.
ALLPORT, Gordon Willard, The Nature of Prejudice, New York, Addison-Wesley, 1979 .
BARTH, Fredrik, „Les groupes ethniques et leurs frontières”, in Philippe Poutignat, Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart (dir.), Théories de l’ethnicité, Paris, PUF, 2008 ), 203-249.
BĂDESCU, Ilie, CUCU-OANCEA, Ozana (dir.), Dicţionar de Sociologie Rurală , Bucureşti, Mica Valahie, 2005.
BEITONE, Alain et al, Sciences sociales, Paris, Dalloz, 2000.
BRAY, Zoe, „State of the art report reviewing the development and change of European” in Triandafyllidou Anna, Anagnostou Dia (dir.), EU Research on social sciences and humanities. Changing interests and identities in European border regions: EU policies, ethnic minorities, socio-political transformation in member states and accession countries. State of the Art, Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2006, 39-75,
ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/citizens/docs/cit2-2004-506019euroreg21916.pdf accessed in 2011, on June the 24th.
CASTEL, Pierre-Henri et al, „Biais de discrimination et statut social. Une étude de terrain sur les relations intergroupes”, Le travail humain 4-69 (2006): 305-315.
CATRINA, Sonia, „A fi rom în Europa comunitară. Despre drepturi şi justiţie socială”, Sfera Politicii 154 (2010), 43-50.
DOVIDI, John F., „Stereotyping”, in Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil (dir.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1999, 804-806/805.
DRĂGULIN, Sabin, <<Robin Hood>>: câteva observaţii sociologice”, Sfera Politicii 11 (2011), 114-121.
FISCHER, Gustave Nicolas, Les concepts fondamentaux de la psychologie sociale, Paris, Bordas, 1987.
GOVARIS, Christos, KALDI, Stravoula, Promoting recognition and acceptance of cultural diversity through cooperative learning in primary school,
http://www.iaie.org/download/turin_paper_govaris.pdf, accessed in 2011, on June the 27th.
GRIGORE, Delia, „Prolegomene. Repere conceptuale şi ipoteze de cercetare”, Delia Grigore, Mihai Neacşu, Adrian-Nicolae Furtună (coord.), Rromii... în căutarea stimei de sine: studiu introductiv Bucharest, Vanemonde, 2007, 4-8.
HOLYOAK, Keith J., „Psychology”, in Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil (dir.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1999, xl-xlix/xlvii.
JODELET, Denise, Les représentations sociales, Paris: PUF, 1993.
MOSCOVICI, Serge La psychanalyse, son image et son public, Paris: PUF, 1961.
PAVEL, Dan, „Minorităţile bine temperate. Repere pentru teoria democraţiei”, Sfera Politicii 138 (2009), 3-12.
TAJFEL, Henri, „La catégorisation sociale”, in Serge Moscovici (dir.), Introduction à la psychologie sociale, Paris, Larousse, 1972.
TAJFEL, Henri, „Social Identity and Intergroup Behaviour”, Social Science Information 13 (1974): 65-93.
TAJFEL, Henri, BILIG, M. G., BUNDY R.P., FLAMENT, Claude, „Social categorisation and intergroup behaviour”, European Journal of Social Psychology 2 (1971): 149-178.
The Romanian Government Strategy for the Inclusion of Romanian Citizens Belonging to Roma minority, published on 4 January, 2012 in The Official Gazette (MO/nr.6,
TURNER, John C., „A self-categorization theory”, in J. C. Turner, M. A. Hogg, P. J. Oakes, S. D. Reicher, S.D., M. S. Whetherell (dir.), Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987.
ZAMFIR, Cătălin, VLĂSCEANU, Lazăr, Dicţionar de sociologie, Bucureşti, Babei, 1998.
Zoe Bray, „State of the art report reviewing the development and change of European” in Triandafyllidou Anna, Anagnostou Dia (dir.), EU Research on social sciences and humanities. Changing interests and identities in European border regions: EU policies, ethnic minorities, socio-political transformation in member states and accession countries. State of the Art
, (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2006), 48,
accessed in 2011, on June the 24th.
This theory served as support for „the interpretation on the norms, practices, and representations made on Roma, which structure the social space of the countries they settled in.”, Sonia Catrina, „A fi rom în Europa comunitară. Despre drepturi şi justiţie socială”, Sfera Politicii
154 (2010), 43.
Keith J. Holyoak, „Psychology”, in Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil (dir.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), xlvii.
Henri Tajfel, „La catégorisation sociale”, in Serge Moscovici (dir.), Introduction à la psychologie sociale
, (Paris: Larousse, 1972); Henri Tajfel, M. G. Bilig, R.P. Bundy R.P., Claude Flament, „Social categorisation and intergroup behaviour”, European Journal of Social Psychology
2 (1971): 149-178.
For instance, it is acknowledged that national identity is in the first place the awareness of belonging to the national space, in opposition to those that do not belong to it, the consciousness of similarity and the recognition of the resemblance of the members, the feeling of belonging to a culture translated into a set of common elements acquired by each individual.
In moving from the study of perception mechanisms (1959) to that of social relations (1970-1984), Tajfel considers that the inclusion of individuals in groups according to categorial affiliations is the result of a reasoning based on induction or deduction.
Henri Tajfel, „Social Identity and Intergroup Behaviour”, Social Science Information
13 (1974): 65-93.
John C. Turner, „A self-categorization theory”, in J. C. Turner, M. A. Hogg, P. J. Oakes, S. D. Reicher, S.D., M. S. Whetherell (dir.), Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
According to Cătălin Zamfir and Lazăr Vlăsceanu, Dicţionar de sociologie
(Bucharest: Babei, 1998), 442, the „stereotype” (the emotional component of individual and collective attitudes) and the „prejudice” (their cognitive component on account of which we „relate negatively to a individual”) are the basis for „discrimination”. Thus, „discrimination”, as „unfair „treatment” of a person”, represents the actional, behavioural component of these attitudes.
Gustave Nicolas Fischer, Les concepts fondamentaux de la psychologie sociale
(Paris: Bordas, 1987), 104.
Fischer, Les concepts
According to Serge Moscovici, La psychanalyse, son image et son public
(Paris: PUF, 1961), „social representations” include attitudes, opinions, beliefs, values, ideas. In Denise Jodelet’s opinion formulated in Les représentations sociales
(Paris: PUF, 1993), „social representations” are „a form of socially elaborated and shared knowledge with a practical target, which contributes to the creation of a reality shared by a social group”.
Fischer, Les concepts
Delia Grigore, „Prolegomene. Repere conceptuale şi ipoteze de cercetare”, Delia Grigore, Mihai Neacşu, Adrian-Nicolae Furtună (coord.), Rromii... în căutarea stimei de sine: studiu introductiv
(Bucharest: Vanemonde, 2007), 5.
Gordon Willard Allport, The Nature of Prejudice
(New York: Addison-Wesley, 1979).
John F. Dovidi, „Stereotyping”, in Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil (dir.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 805.
William Graham Sumner (1959 ), Folkways: A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs and Morals
(New York: Dover Publications, 1959 ), 13.
Ilie Bădescu, Ozana Cucu-Oancea (dir.), Dicţionar de Sociologie Rurală
(Bucureşti: Mica Valahie, 2005), 169.
It seems that the „notion of humanity, which includes, without distinction, race or civilization and all forms of the human species, was developed very late and had a limited expansion. But for large fractions of human history and tens of thousands of years, this notion seems to have been totally absent” (Bădescu, Cucu-Oancea, Dicţionar
, 169). Indeed, the recognition of cultural diversity has not been in place for a long time. It is the twentieth century that recognizes differences and cultural diversity. The cultural cohabitation has become one of the most important stakes for the 21st century, since humankind has entered the era of multicultural civilization. One of the most important objectives of our century is to create a bridge between different cultures.
Alain Beitone et al
, Sciences sociales
(Paris : Dalloz, 2000), 200.
Zoe Bray, „State of the art”, 49.
Fredrik Barth, „Les groupes ethniques et leurs frontières”, in Philippe Poutignat, Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart (dir.), Théories de l’ethnicité
(Paris: PUF, 2008 ), 203-249.
Pierre-Henri Castel et al
, „Biais de discrimination et statut social. Une étude de terrain sur les relations intergroupes”, Le travail humain
4-69 (2006): 305-315.
Castel et al
, „Biais de discrimination”, 306.
Castel, „Biais de discrimination”, 307.
Castel, „Biais de discrimination”, 305.
Castel, „Biais de discrimination”, 305.
For 2012-2020, The Romanian Government Strategy for the Inclusion of Romanian Citizens Belonging to Roma minority
, published on 4 January, 2012 in The Official Gazette
(MO/nr.6, http://www.anr.gov.ro/docs/Strategie_EN.pdf) refers to „sectorial measures” like educational field, employment, health, housing and small infrastructure, culture and social infrastructure.
Because of their „extreme poverty”, Roma people are subject of a „redistributive social policy” (Sabin Drăgulin, „Guvernul «Robin Hood»: câteva observaţii sociologice”, Sfera Politicii
11 (2011), 114-121.
An interesting analysis of interethnic relations in contemporary Romania has been made by Dan Pavel, „Minorităţile bine temperate. Repere pentru teoria democraţiei”, Sfera Politicii
138 (2009), 3-12. This political scientist considers that assigning an identity (categorization process) is „a racist, nationalist, xenophobic act” (p. 6). His empirical study of the recent concert of Madonna and of the football game between Steaua Bucuresti and Ujpest Budapest confirms that „this sort of conflicts still stand firm. And despite all the efforts made towards putting an end to these frictions, they still hold on, being based on feelings of hate and wrath” (p. 3).
SONIA CATRINA – Licenţă în filologie, Universitatea din Bucureşti, master interdisciplinar în ştiinţe sociale la Şcoala doctorală în Ştiinţe Sociale din Bucureşti, Europa Centrală şi Orientală, doctor în so-ciologie, Facultatea de sociologie şi asistenţă socială, Universitatea din Bucureşti, România, în cotutelă cu Şcoala doctorală în ştiinţe sociale, Universitatea „Victor Segalen”, Bordeaux 2, Franţa, actualmente este cercetător asociat la Institutul de sociologie „Dimitrie Gusti” din cadrul Academiei Române.