Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Young Children's Inductive Generalizations about Social Categories: When Is Gender Essential?

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Young Children's Inductive Generalizations about Social Categories: When Is Gender Essential?

Article excerpt

As children construct social categories, children's knowledge of social groups influences their social behavior, attitudes, and reasoning. Several social cognitive theorists have proposed that both adults and children essentialize social categories (e.g., Bigler & Liben, 2007; S. A. Gelman & Hirschfeld, 1999; Prentice & Miller, 2006; Rothbart & Taylor, 1990). According to essentialist theories, adults and children assume that category members share an unseen, and possibly unknown, essence that causes them to share typical characteristics of the category. Consequently, both children and adults also expect distinct groups to possess different essences (e.g., S. A. Gelman & Hirschfeld, 1999; Prentice & Miller, 2007; Rothbart & Taylor, 1990). Among adults, the gender categories male and female are highly essentialized (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000; Prentice & Miller, 2006). Gender also is one of children's earliest social categories (Kinzler, Shutts, & Correll, 2010). By 2 or 3 years of age, children begin to label others as male or female and demonstrate knowledge of gender stereotypes (Carter & Levy, 1988; Fagot, Leinbach, & O'Boyle, 1992; Poulin-Dubois, Serbin, Eichstedt, Sen, & Biessel, 2002). In addition to learning common gender stereotypes, young children use gender to infer novel characteristics of individuals, including unseen biological characteristics (S. A. Gelman, Coliman, & Maccoby, 1986). The present study examined children's use of social categories for inductive inference from 3 to 5 years of age. Our goals were (a) to compare children's inductive inferences about novel biological properties with inferences about novel behavioral or psychological characteristics, (b) to examine whether gender has a special status in children's social reasoning by comparing children's use of gender for inductive generalizations with children's use of a more temporary and circumstantial social distinction, being members of the same school classroom, and (c) to examine variability across contexts in children's use of gender for inductive generalizations.

Essentialist thought is multifaceted and may be manifested in a variety of ways, including beliefs that category membership is innate, biologically based, stable over time, and immutable, and the assumption that category members share unseen internal features (S. A. Gelman, 2003; Haslam et ah, 2000). Rothbart and Taylor (1990) suggested that adults tend to view social categories as natural kinds. Because people assume that category members share many features, including hidden, nonobvious properties, as well as observable appearances, natural kind categories provide a basis for inductive inferences. Knowledge of an individual's category membership promotes inferences about characteristics that have not been directly observed. Furthermore, adults intuit that members of a natural kind category share an unseen essence that is responsible for their observable features and distinguish one category from another. Rothbart and Taylor also suggested that social categories perceived as being unalterable and having the greatest inductive potential are most likely to be viewed as natural kinds. Consistent with this view, among adults the tendency to essentialize varies across social categories (for a review, see Prentice & Miller, 2007). Haslam et al. (2000) asked adults to rate social categories on nine characteristics. Five characteristics were related to understanding of social categories as natural kinds: naturalness, stability, discreteness, immutability, and necessity. Gender and ethnicity were among the categories rated high on natural kind essentialism, whereas social class and political outlook were among the categories rated low. Smiler and Gelman (2008) also reported that adults essentialize gender. Essentialism may have important social consequences. For example, essentializing social categories is related to endorsement of stereotypes and a preference for stereotype consistent information (Bastian & Has lam, 2006, 2007). …

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