Conceptualizing Cultural Groups and Cultural Difference: The Social Mechanism-Approach

Ethnicities 4 (4):523-544 (2005)
The aim of this article is to present a conceptualization of cultural groups and cultural difference that provides a middle course between the Scylla of essentialism and the Charybdis of reductionism. The method I employ is the social mechanism approach. I argue that cultural groups and cultural difference should be understood as the result of cognitive and social processes of categorization. I describe two such processes in particular: categorization by others and self- categorization. Categorization by others is caused by processes of ascription: the attribution by outsiders of certain characteristics, beliefs, and practices to indi- viduals who share a specific attribute. Self-categorization is caused by processes of inscription and community-building: the adoption of certain beliefs and practices as a result of socialization and enculturation. I therefore shift the focus from groups to categories, and from categories to processes of categorization. I show that this analytical distinction between categorization by others and self-categorization can clarify an ambiguity in dominant debates in contemporary multiculturalism. I conclude by indicating how injustices, commonly associated with multiculturalism, can better be understood as socially generated injustices, and how government should deal with these injustices.
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