Social Category & Social Aggregate Research Paper Starter

Social Category & Social Aggregate

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of social category and social aggregate and the different ways both phenomena occur and their patterns of social function individually and in social groups. Both phenomena are analyzed through different lenses including race, gender, and the theory of distributive justice, which seems to play a significant role in forming group norms. Other terms to be examined include stereotypes and adolescence. Applications will be presented that describe the impact of social categorization and social aggregation on group facilitation and resulting outcomes in building trust will be initiated. Issues of continuing research in these two phenomena will be further addressed.

Keywords Activation; Categorization; In-groups; Social Aggregate; Social Category; Social Identity; Sociodynamics; Stereotypes


Social categories refer to groups of people who share similar characteristics. Social aggregates refer to groups of people who happen to be at the same place at the same time, with no direct connection to one another. To better understand the potential relationships between social category and social aggregates, it would be helpful for readers to analyze the two phenomena as independently occurring social phenomenon, which must be analyzed as two distinct, separate, yet simultaneously occurring social phenomenon. While social categories may be focused on improving understanding the tendency for individuals to categorize themselves with like-minded or similar acting individuals, the social aggregate phenomenon tends to operate within the context of the group dynamic that follows when nonspecific individuals come together and operate within a group setting.

Social Category

At a social level, people are categorized into groups: ingroups and outgroups (Allport, 1954; Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Tajfel, 1981). This process of social categorization is particularly relevant for intergroup social psychology, as the distinction between individuals on the basis of category membership seems to be at the root of group-based phenomena, such as in-group favoritism, intragroup perceptions, stereotyping, and prejudice (Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002; Tajfel, Flament, Billig, & Bundy, 1971). In connection to other disciplines, theorists have described categorization as a process that operates on stimuli present in the environment, modifying and reconstructing them into new entities (McGarty, 1999; Medin & Heit, 1999). Through the process of modification and reconstruction, otherwise incongruent and disorganized objects become meaningful, assimilated to some stimuli, and, at the same time, differentiated and contrasted from others (Brewer, 1988; Oakes, Haslam & Turner, 1994).

The concept of self-categorization (Turner, 1985) and the related concept of social identity theory (Tajfel, 1982) offer an explanation of how group- and category-boundaries influence a wide range of behaviors, such as cooperation, conflict, and interpersonal trust among individuals (Buchan, Croson, & Dawes, 2002; Kramer, Brewer & Hanna, 1996). In contrast to personal identity, which is “highlighted by thinking of the self in terms of unique attributes,” one’s social identity comes into play when one thinks about one’s similarities with the members of one’s ingroup and the differences one has with an outgroup (Deaux, 1996, p. 780).

Category-Based Trust

Previous research has indicated people tend to recognize race and ethnicity as especially compelling social categories (Brewer & Campbell, 1976; Tajfel 1982). Second, researchers have long pointed to the effects of intergroup boundaries on interpersonal trust (Tajfel, 1982), predicting that individuals trust in-group members more than out-group members. In fact, Brewer (1999) defined in-groups as "bounded communities of mutual trust and obligation that delimit mutual interdependence and cooperation" (p. 433). Brewer further noted that this trust is generalized to all category members: "An important aspect of this mutual trust is that it is depersonalized, extended to any member of the in-group whether personally related or not" (p. 433). This is the essence of category-based trust. However, it is important to note that individuals within specific groups may or may not specifically interact with one another.

Other studies have addressed the role of category-based trust for other types of social categories, such as gender (Orbell, Dawes, & Schwartz-Shea, 1994), university affiliation (Tanis & Postmes, 2005; Yuki et al. 2005), and experimentally created "minimal groups" (Buchan, Croson & Dawes 2002; Yamagishi & Kiyonari 2000). These studies generally report strong, but many times conditional, effects of social categories on trust. For example, John Orbell, Robyn Dawes, and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea (1994) found that both men and women expect women in general to be more trustworthy than men. Similarly, Martin Tanis and Tom Postmes (2005) found that when participants could only identify each other by category memberships, they extended higher levels of trust to in-group members than out-group members (Simpson, McGriccon & Irwin, 2007, p. 529-530).

Again, while trust may be more present with in-groups such as in-group trust, every individual within the group may not be interactive, as group categories represent the group in its entirety.

Categorization by Race

Brent Simpson, Tucker McGrimmon, and Kyle Irwin (2007) indicated that group categorization also extends to issues of race. The United States is far more segregated by race than other categories such as gender or university affiliation (p. 529). As a result, most individuals are more gender independent than racially interdependent. For example, American households are far less likely to be racially heterogeneous than to demonstrate gender heterogeneity (Hobbs, 2005). In further examining issues of race and category activation, Lorella Lepore and Rupert Brown (1997) determined that when primed with category words, such as the word "Black," people high in explicit prejudice showed a greater automatic stereotype activation than people low in explicit prejudice. However, when primed with a stereotypical term, such as the word "lazy," both groups showed the same levels of stereotype activation.

Additional research on stereotyping and prejudice of African Americans, women, and the elderly demonstrated that explicit and implicit attitudes may even operate with apparent independence (Blair & Banaji, 1996; Greenwald, Banaji, Farnham, Nosek, & Mellott, 2002; Henry & Hardin, 2006; Perdue & Gurtman, 1990). For example, the degree to which participants unintentionally associate traditionally gendered vocations such as nursing with women and construction with men is unmoderated by participant gender or participant willingness to explicitly endorse gender stereotypes (Banaji & Hardin, 1996).

Explicit Prejudice

In addition to the relevance of stereotype activation, Nazar Akrami, Bo Ekehammar, and Araya Tadesse (2006) indicated that daily social interaction is not “based on primed stereotypes or social categories, and people, in their social interaction with members of other ethnic groups, tend to base their categorization on the target person’s external markers” (p. 519). Lepore and Brown (1997) suggested that stereotyping and category priming can be differentiated. They further argued that people with high and low measures of explicit prejudice might have different cognitive representations of categories and their associated stereotypes. Their research showed that participants with high measures of explicit prejudice tended to automatically activate their stereotypes when primed with specific category words. They concluded that these groups exhibited different activation levels when primed with category words but not when primed with both category and stereotypical words. Also, similar to Devine (1989), they found that people with high and low measures of explicit prejudice did not differ in their knowledge of cultural stereotypes.

Elisheva F. Gross and Curtis D. Hardin (2007) suggested that there are "several rigorous ways to test if stereotypes are being used in social judgment," (p. 141) and they integrated the most important of these to demonstrate that "common beliefs about adolescents are indeed used as stereotypes in judgments of adolescents" (p. 141). One test is to assess the degree to which individual differences in endorsing a stereotype discriminately predict perceptions of stereotyped social targets. From an inquiry perspective, a question that could be asked: "Is a given adolescent perceived as more rebellious to the extent that one endorses stereotypes of adolescents?"

A second test is to assess the degree to which common beliefs about a group are more easily or even automatically associated with that group compared to other groups. For example, are words like "moody" and "risky" and "rebellious" more easily associated with adolescents than adults? A third test is to assess the degree to which an experimental manipulation of the cognitive accessibility of a stereotype discriminately affects perceptions of stereotyped social targets. For example, is a given adolescent perceived as more rebellious when adolescent stereotypes are cognitively salient? (Gross & Hardin, 2007, p. 141).

If explicit, conscious beliefs about adolescents operate as stereotypes, then the stereotypes may operate "implicitly." Indeed, other common stereotypes involving ethnicity and gender are known to operate in the absence of the perceiver's intentions, conscious awareness, or control (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Hofmann, Gawronski, Gschwedner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005). Given that multiple stereotypes seem to operate in regard to adolescents, this information provides some cogency in regard to previously held concepts.

In summary, categorization and category stereotype activation are fundamentals of social information about social categories. Moreover, stereotypical information is a necessary part the social information people use to understand the social world.

Current research has shown that stereotype activation and implicit prejudice are somewhat inevitable, adding support to John A. Bargh's (1999) statement that "evidence of controllability is weaker and more problematic than we would like to believe" (p. 361). Based on this evidence, additional research needs to be conducted to determine the effects of stereotypes on group norms and potential interactions. Such a study might involve better differentiating between social categories and social aggregates.

Social Aggregate


(The entire section is 4714 words.)