Frameworks and stereotypes

It is evident that we approach the social world, and specific social settings, with a body of “framework” assumptions about what is going on, and how we should behave. Here is how I put the point in an earlier post:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation. (link)

Erving Goffman is the sociologist who is best known for exploring this view of social action (linklinklink). We might describe frameworks like these as providing stylized ways of interpreting situations — stereotypes; and as providing heuristics for how one should behave in such situations.

Such frameworks are especially visible in social settings that invoke race, gender, and power (link). Individual participants have schemata or stereotypes through which they construe the behavior of others, and they have scripts on the basis of which they behave in these kinds of situations. The racial code of the Jim Crow south prescribed frameworks of interpretation and action for all actors — black and white men, black and white women. And, of course, often both schemata and scripts are incorrect and misleading. For example, the person who perceives the approaching group of loud teenagers as “menacing” may also fall into his or her own script of aggression or flight — rather than permitting a pleasant and constructive social encounter to unfold. 

Examples of false construal are common in mundane situations as well. The professor who sees the student who is constantly playing with her phone in class may interpret her behavior as boredom and disrespect; whereas a trained observer may see signs of insecurity and anxiety in the behavior instead. And the two different construals may lead to very different behaviors on the part of the instructor and the clinically trained observer — punitive on the part of the professor and supportive on the part of the clinical observer.

This feature of social action is probably relevant to the question of police-civilian interactions that lead all too often to aggression and excessive use of force by police officers. When assumptions about race and potential for violence frame the officer’s perception of a situation, the likelihood of excessive force is amplified. And this suggests an avenue for addressing excess force: find ways of disrupting the received frameworks on the basis of which the police officer perceives and interprets situations involving young men of color. (This is the purpose of “hidden bias” training.)

What is interesting about social-cognitive frameworks like those mentioned here is that they are causally powerful. When a group of people have internalized a particular set of attitudes and beliefs about other people, their behavior is likely to lead to specific kinds of future interactions. And this tendency produces important social dynamics — in the workplace, in universities, and in domestic settings. Racially charged frameworks give rise to racially charged behavior — which creates a cycle of toxic social relations among individuals in the group.

To what extent is the individual actor a prisoner of his or her social-cognitive framework? Is social creativity possible? Can individuals arrive at new interpretations of social scenes, or are they constrained by their existing cognitive framework to see only what they expect to see? 

If this line of thought were correct, then it would be impossible to overcome racial, gender, or class expectations. Individuals would be “algorithmic”, living out the implications of their ways of interpreting the behavior of others. But in fact, human beings have an ability to think reflectively and critically about the frameworks on the basis of which they interpret the social world and the behavior of others. This is the most fundamental value of a tolerant and inclusive social environment: it encourages each individual to try to see the world through the experience of others — and thereby to alter one’s own framework assumptions about how the world works and how to behave. (Here is a recent post on the importance of cultivating a genuinely inclusive social environment; link.)

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