Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Changing Categories of People

I heard a historian yesterday say that the current concept of American "teen ager" came to exist in the 1930's and 40's. Prior to that time few young people went to high school, and people in their teens were generally just young workers. When the Depression made jobs scarce, kids stayed in school, and the trend continued. The law also kept teen agers out of military service. So there came to be a population of post adolescent kids who were not in the work force. Then along came the transistor radio, small and cheap enough to be under the control of the kids themselves, and there grew up a body of programming serving the teen agers, and I would add, a teen age market was created. Thus in a relatively short time Americans had come to conceive of a subpopulation of Americans called "teen agers". (Note that some religions still enroll people as members about the age of puberty.)

I understand that Western society earlier had created a new conceptual category of the "child", having earlier seen (and dressed) children as young adults.

If you think about it, the 18th century abolished the class of people categorized as "slaves". The word comes from "Slavs", derived from from the widespread enslavement of captured Slavs in the early Middle Ages. In Portugal, in the 15th century there were both African slaves and European slaves from Russia and the Baltic states. People in the United States apparently applied the concept only to those with African ancestors, and in the time of slavery there were elaborate categories developed to categorize people of partial African ancestry. After the Emancipation Proclamation there were no more slaves, and we have gradually developed a category of "blacks" as those people who self-define themselves in that way. (One of my "black" friends has an Irish grandfather and a German grandfather.)

The women's suffrage movement changed our mental category of "woman" to allow women not only to vote but to take on other civic responsibilities, as modern feminism has changed the attributes attached to "women" in the workplace.

My point is that such culturally defined categories, which are very important in determining the way we think and the inferences we draw, are quite malleable. Because we generally learn these categories unconsciously through "acculturation" we tend to take them as more substantial that they really are. A rose may be a rose may be a rose, but we have come to think of people as teenagers who we once (not so long ago) would have thought of as young adults.

The corollary is that we should not place too much faith in the inferences we draw about people from the artificial social categories in which we have pigeon-holed them.

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