The formation and perception of one’s self are greatly affected by society and societal context due to the role they play in psychological development and achievement of personhood. There are numerous works on the influence of societal content and context on individual development, and most of them center on the belief that this influence is significant because they predetermine the perception of reality, identify proper emotions and thoughts, and define determinants of social equality and interactions.
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These aspects are the major focus of most of the sociological writings, but not all of them are correct and clear, while others are infuriating and dubious. Still, all of them are interesting to consider in developing a sociological background.
To begin with, it is essential to note that all works on social psychology pay special attention to several areas of interest – social influence (significant impact of one’s social environment on their development and personal growth), social cognition (drawing connections between the perceptions of self and one’s social environment), the link between social structure and individual experience based on one’s role in social structure, and the criticality of history and culture when it comes to understanding the development and achievement of personhood (Branaman 1-3).
I believe that such a distribution of the areas of interest is worth of attention because it is associated with numerous opportunities for conducting a comprehensive analysis of the influence of societal context and content on an individual due to viewing the individual and society from different perspectives. For instance, it is obvious that society is perceived as a combination of historical and cultural characteristics that are supplemented with a specific structure. Making society a multidimensional concept, in my mind, makes it possible to focus on separate aspects, thus potentially bring more value to the understanding of the connection between a human and their social environment.
Just like the concepts of sanity and insanity are constructed based on cultural and societal differences, the same is true for the development and achievement of personhood. This phenomenon is associated with the existence of cultural stereotypes and the very fact that people tend to prejudice others based on their cultural backgrounds as well as prejudice themselves by behaving in a particular way, so they correspond with the generally acceptable and recognized stereotype.
This assumption is the foundation of the theory developed by Snyder, Tanke, and Bercheid (Branaman 31). I find this approach absolutely correct and relevant because, regardless of the level of economic and social development, all people tend to think within the socially acceptable frameworks.
Stereotypes can be defined as shared knowledge structures pertaining to particular social groups. Just like reality is constructed by social context, the same is true for the understanding of beauty, gender, power, behaviors, rituals, etc. It affects the specificities of bringing up children, building personal relationships, and arranging interrelations with other people in the society (Branaman 37). In this case, I support the belief that the major challenge with stereotypes is their persistent influence on the construction of societal context (Branaman 35). I choose to stick to this statement because it recognizes that stereotypes shape one’s reality and appropriate perception of the world.
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More than that, this theory does not ignore the fact that stereotypes limit individuality because they dictate the rules of normality and call upon people to behave in a particular way, treat their body and other people in a generally acceptable way, and deal with their life in a specific manner. That is why I find the theory focusing on stereotypes the most brilliant and relevant among all of those that were mentioned and described in the book.
Stereotypes commence developing in early childhood as a result of interactions with the social and cultural environment in which individuals live. At the later developmental stage, adolescents start to endorse various stereotypes more because they become more experienced and influenced by beliefs and perceptions of adults, e.g., teachers and parents, and so on. In many people, stereotyping occurs automatically despite their actual attitude to stereotypes. Others may also wrongfully consider that their beliefs and attitudes can be easily changed at any moment (Branaman 30). However, although a person may recognize the inaccuracy of beliefs he or she holds, they may negatively affect his or her life.
The influence of stereotypes is difficult to overestimate because they define the majority of responses, interactions, communications, and sometimes even choices that fill our lives. As Snyder showed in his experiment on the influence of physical appearance on a conversation, our perception of a person can depend on our opinion whether they are attractive or unattractive (Branaman 31). This experiment provided me with evidence that it is not the physical attractiveness per se that makes other people more social, charismatic, and friendly, but rather our attitude to it.
If the value of physical attractiveness and the constant reinforcement of its importance were not supported by the endless circle described in Snyder’s experiment, it is possible that we would judge others differently with no regard to their appearance. For example, if the attractiveness was not directly linked to the complex (and more ancient) processes of mating and reproduction, it is possible that it would not influence modern human beings in the way it does.
The fact that stereotypes imply a particular (mostly negative) attitude to a phenomenon or a quality has multiple implications. For instance, throughout the time, stereotypes, and especially the racial ones, largely contributed to social inequality and segregation. At the same time, prejudices may also negatively affect the life of those people who have them. Stereotypes pertaining to gender and appearance make it particularly apparent.
These two types of prejudices may significantly impact children’s perceptions of their intellectual and academic abilities, as well as social skills. For instance, girls may tend to underestimate their capabilities in sciences and math even if they show excellent results during classes because success in the given areas of performance does not conform to the social role prescribed to them. Individuals may fear stigmatization due to inappropriate behavior and, for this reason, aim to conform to the social environment. At the same time, even by thinking that others criticize them, people may develop anxiety, poor adjustment, and performance (Branaman 34).
Therefore, it is possible to say that stereotypes adopted from the social environment can create barriers to the individual’s self-realization, success, development, and even health as they contribute to the development of stress and depression in case a person does not meet social expectations.
The experiment related to the ideal research assistant is interesting from a feminist point of view because it shows how the assumed ideals of male participants (job interviewers) influenced the behavior of female participants (jobseekers). The experiment is especially valuable in its ability to show that women have to adjust to particular prejudices to ensure they are able to complete a task successfully (job interview).
The findings of the experiment indicate that every individual is expected to comply with a preassigned gender role – socially determined norms of behavior which vary depending on gender. It means that gender roles are manifested in an appropriate masculine or feminine look, speech, manners, gestures, spheres of social activity, and so on. It is suggested that the society encourages the implementation of prescribed gender roles and disapproves any attempts to change them. Thus, women are trapped in the same prejudice circle that dictates them the rules, and the rules are reinforced by women’s willingness to comply with them.
Another problem related to the perception of male and female is discussed by Orenstein. Although I agree with the author that female desire tends to be rarely addressed and therefore represses the girls’ sexual selves, I would also like to point out that the teacher presented in the chapter does not directly address this problem as well. Thus, the teacher’s limited options in sex education prohibit her from discussing the problem.
At the same time, the desire and sexual activity of boys are not only addressed but, in some ways, become the core of the sex education program. The author correctly points out that female sexuality is mostly reduced to reproduction and protection (Branaman 36). Therefore, the prevalent focus on male interests as the primary and female interests as secondary/subordinate (discussed by Snyder as well) is common not only in the existing prejudices but school’s curricula as well.
The given case demonstrates how the mainstream patriarchal ideology can be supported by multiple social institutions including the educational ones. The sexual education program emphasizes the subordinate and purely functional role of women in the society. In this way, it contributes to the formation of personal beliefs regarding individuals’ capabilities and place in the society. In the given situation, women are compelled to hide their sexuality and seek mates in order to fulfill their main goals in life, i.e., motherhood.
It means that, our perception of the body, sexuality, and self is highly defined (and limited or expanded) by the established or “normalized” stereotypes about men and women, where, as Orenstein points out, little attention is paid to the central theme (e.g. sexually transmitted diseases) and deeper focus is provided to the normalization (here: the rules of desire) (Branaman 37).
The perception of body discussed by Miner is also fascinating because it demonstrates how one can assess a variety of rituals by distancing from the source (him/herself). It might not be at first evident that Miner describes common daily activities of Americans, such as brushing teeth or visiting a doctor (Branaman 39). The article allows me to evaluate my own daily rituals from a stranger’s point of view.
It demonstrates that the culture in a developed country such as the USA is still defined by certain rituals that are rarely perceived as rituals by natives. The same applies to gender, sex, race, and other prejudices that can be recognized as transformed rituals that continue to shape our behavior. To adjust, we have to act, speak, express emotions, and communicate in a certain way that is defined by little rites and beliefs about each other. Thus, we as individuals and personalities are defined by our social and cultural environment.
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In conclusion, it is possible to say that stereotyping is detrimental to both individual and social well-being and it interferes with the sound development and self-realization of people. At the same time, low levels of stereotype-based discrimination and inequality may be regarded as the signs of social health. The review of the literature revealed that individuals inherit different stereotypes from the environments in which they live and people with whom they interact. Although they may recognize that prejudices are wrong, stereotyping is usually an automatic and subconscious process. Therefore, to mitigate risks associated with prejudices, it is possible to raise awareness of negative impacts of stereotypes.
Branaman, Ann. Self and Society. Blackwell Publishers, 2001.