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What are the advantages and disadvantages of categorizing individuals? 

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Categorizing people has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that people can develop a set of expectations if they know how a specific group of people generally thinks, behaves, and operates. This can help a person prepare for meetings, conferences, and social outings. It also may help an individual understand the cultural characteristics of a group of people. This can help to ease tensions and create a better experience for all involved. For example, in some cultures and religions, married women and men will not have any physical contact with other people of the opposite sex. If I know this, I would not extend my hand to shake the hand of a married woman.

The biggest disadvantage is that not everybody will fit the perceived characteristics of a group of people. This can lead to embarrassing situations and create misunderstandings and misrepresentations. There have been many instances where people have made inaccurate conclusions, as individuals assumed a person would fit the mold of a given group. This action could become a form of discrimination because a person might be denied an opportunity, such as a job, based on appearance, gender, race, or religious affiliation. It also could lead to misunderstandings if a person assumes that an individual follows all of the perceived norms of a specific group. There are many variations of behavior or ways of conducting oneself within a given group of people. Using the handshaking example mentioned above, there are married men and women (within the religious or cultural group) who will shake the hand of people of the opposite sex.

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Categorizing people and/or stereotyping them can be of use both to individuals in their daily lives and to people who are trying to study society.

On the personal level, stereotyping allows us to understand our world without having to expend as much effort.  When we categorize people (as long as those categories have any grounding in truth) we gain cues about how to treat them without having to go through the difficult process of actually getting to know them.  For example, let us say that I do not trust salespeople.  Stereotyping them in this way allows me to be on my guard when talking to them without having to try to determine whether to trust any particular salesperson.  That way, I do not have to learn that a particular salesperson is untrustworthy “the hard way.”

On the level of social analysis, categorizing people is important as well.  When sociologists want to study society, they cannot really do so without putting people into groups.  If we study (for example) the impact of social programs on all individuals, it is harder for us to understand the world than if we categorize them as poor, middle class, and rich and then study them on the basis of those categories.

Of course, categorizing people can lead to very bad results.  Whenever we categorize people in our personal lives we run the risk of discriminating against them or treating them badly when they (as individuals) do not deserve such treatment.  When we categorize on the academic level, we run the risk that we will fixate on our categories and not realize that there are better ways to group people. 

Categorizing people, then, has its good and bad points both for individuals and for academics.

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