Subjective essentialism and the emergence
Vincent Yzerbyt and Steve Rocher
Being able to make sense of the surrounding social environment is no doubt one of the major wonders of our cognitive apparatus. In most instances, perceivers encounter no difficulty in assigning people to social categories (Bodenhausen & Macrae, 1998; Fiske, 1998, 2000; Leyens, Yzerbyt & Schadron, 1994; Oakes, Haslam & Turner, 1994). According to one strand of research, such an achievement stems from people's ability to recognize regularities and patterns that are available in the social setting. From this perspective, social categories impose themselves upon observers. An alternative perspective holds that perceivers play quite an active role in the representation of the social world. Specifically, observers are thought to rely on abstract knowledge in order to organize the incoming information.
The distinction between these two approaches is a key issue whenever we ask ourselves the question of the origin of stereotypes. After all, are those beliefs that social psychologists and lay people alike call stereotypes the mere reflection of the environment in what could be seen as rather passive perceivers? In contrast, should they be seen as the product of a more active, yet partly unconscious, process that builds upon perceivers' naïve theories? In line with an impressive body of evidence, the present contribution takes it that the second viewpoint provides a more faithful description of the processes involved in the acquisition of social knowledge. That is, beliefs about a social group tend to emerge because perceivers construe the group in terms of some a priori theoretical knowledge.
In the present chapter, we would like to build a case for the crucial role of essentialist theories in the emergence of stereotypic beliefs. In agreement with the extant literature on the social psychology of stereotyping and intergroup relations (Allport, 1954; Fiske, 1998; Leyens, Yzerbyt & Schadron, 1994; Oakes, Haslam & Turner, 1994; Spears, Haslam, Ellemers & Oakes, 1997; Sedikides, Schopler & Insko, 1998), we hold that stereotypes refer to the features that are thought to be associated with a particular group. According to our subjective essentialist view (Yzerbyt, Rocher & Schadron, 1997), however, stereotypes are likely to be a bit