How does one determine if an individual holds prejudice? Structuralist theory claims that every interactions is coded in a historically constructed context, that every person-to-person interaction is underlain with culturally formulated stereotypes based on assumptions each person has about the other. Structuralism provides that individuals attribute meaning to the other’s actions based first on race and gender. And, for every person, the assumptions are at least a little different. Conducting analysis of the racial structure of a society is based on individual-to-individual interactions, with no two individuals alike. So, we guess each individual acts differently in different social settings, dependent on the racial, gender, etc. composition of the individual’s environment, and the individual’s assumptions about these “indicators.” How the individual acts is a reflection of the individual’s assumptions about the individual’s peers and the environment.
An analogy to bring us to a question: Imagine a friend; have the friend tell a story in front two different groups of the friend; vary the content; you many not have to travel far to get to a memory; imagine yourself.
Why does the character of our communications change in different environments? What does this reflect? And when does this bias become discriminatory and how does someone detect it? Can we create a measure of discrimination that transcends culture? I like to think so. To be fair, I’ll attempt to answer some the posed questions from a personal perspective. Your insights are much more interesting to me than my own.
I tend to believe I change my speech to become more transmissible, understandable. I want the group I’m with to understand the ideas I’d like to convey, and understanding seems kind of habitual. For example, I think I learn much more efficiently if the knowledge is presented in a familiar fashion, a fashion by which I successfully learned information before. I guess this is true for other people. With prior exposure, I have some tangible basis off by which I can make realistic assumptions: I know X studies political science, so X will understand if I convey the idea as similar to this school of thought; Y doesn’t care, so I’ll condense it a lot; Z is four, so use four-year-old language; I’m familiar with this friend’s speech patterns, so this expression conveys what I want to convey (I catch myself using colloquial phrases that I’m consciously against); etc. These are personal as well as categorical. So, when I’m presented to a new person, how they act, especially in the first moments, is reflective of what I am assuming about the culturing of the other (as well as habitualized cultural actions of my own). These assumptions are based on past interactions with groups I, conciously or unconciously, associate with the other.
I would be discriminatory if my speech alterations are fabricated on false assumptions or those I know are cognitively based on false information. However, being exposed to an idea, even tangentally, can influence you, whether you believe it or not1.
The line between discrimination and accomodation in these situations is thin. I’m making assumptions about how the individual learns, and they’re based off of shallow understandings of the other person, and probably shallow understandings of the group I’m associating with the individual. I’m conciously aware that the most inarticulate person may have the most sophisticated understanding. But, this seems a necessary act: Each of us have been in a situation where we could not understand the other solely because of the manner of presentation.
In practice, it’s very hard to discern what is an assumption based on proper assumptions and what is based on culturally constructed assumptions. Structuralism and social psychology can perhaps inform me what this says about me, and other people; sociology may hold the methods.
I’d thought previously that an excellent trove of data could be created through an analysis of university students at dinner. This could further our understand better how gender composition affects speaking power dynamics. A more recent addition (derived from Bonilla-Silva, Rethinking Racism) is to use theories of structuralism. The most telling points, I think, would be the first moments that the sitting group or individual meets the standing group. Comparing these initial reactions, especially following the indivdual from group to group, should tell us a lot about assumptions individuals in the communities have towards race, gender, etc, and, since I would lalalove to conduct this here, a lot about tolerance at Denison. And a lot about power dynamics2. (Some thought derived from this article3, though after the original thought had its foundations.) However, I know how freaking unethical this sounds, and, I suppose, could be. So.. Until further fruition.
1 I wish I could cite it, but I read an awesome study on how birthers – those who don’t think Obama was born in the U.S. – were exposed to the idea that Obama was in fact an American citizen and many records of it exist, they were more likely to believe it wasn’t the case. Absolutely amazing. I think this is related.
2 The original idea was to study power structure by gender composition. That would have been superfun.
3Nice Girls Don’t Ask uses stories to illustrates normative roles for women, and Scaring the Boys (both from a book by Babock and Lascherer titled “women don’t ask,” chapters 2 and 3, respectively) reveals various (mostly economic, some social [successful women less likely to be married and have child) environmental factors which contribute to women’s power/economic minority status, in a hasty summary, how fulfilling societal norms increases individual self-esteem.