Social Categories of Identity: Should We Scrap Them?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

"Stereotypes Are a Real Timesaver."
The Onion

Historian Joan Scott speaks of the role of experience in constituting one’s sense of self. In her 1992 essay, "Experience," she addresses the use of personal accounts as evidence in historical practice, and cautions against what she sees as a lack of scrutiny on the part of investigators.

Individual experience is often used as evidence in science, particularly social science, and cultural studies. These have also been given a certain amount of privilege as truth, particularly in the study of identity among certain marginalized groups. For example, in the case of women’s studies, instamces from the past are routinely reexamined but specifically from a woman’s perspective, which was thought to be previously stifled or ignored. So this new point of view is often presumed to contain the "real story." Scott cautions that processes intended to uncover a reality that was overlooked, can be quite problematic.

When these experiences are taken for granted as truth or indicative of a particular narrative, it can actually reaffirm essentialist, ahistorical notions of identity, particularly among marginalized groups. If a particular woman’s experience is taken to be representative of all women, this may not be getting us any closer to a sense of truth. This attitude can actually be quite antithetical to the purposes of feminist and queer studies, or any project that seeks to illuminate the complicated nature of subjectivity for any "category" of individuals.

Furthermore, social categorical terms like race, ethnicity and gender, are often used in a very matter of fact way. When people speak of a queer or black experience, it’s as if this is an automatic marker of a particular kind of difference, and an assumed experience and identity constituted by that difference. People don’t often explain what these words mean to them, or what they feel those categories even are. It’s as if everyone just knows.

On the flipside, how else does one communicate a sense of identity that is informed by the discourses underlying cultural norms? It’s difficult to imagine how my experience as a first generation, American-Cuban woman raised in Miami by parents who were staunchly against the Cuban revolution, might not be similar in some fundamental ways, to the thousands of other girls growing up in a similar circumstance.

We must, of course, be very careful to pin down what it means to be Cuban, or any other descriptor, to a very specific instance in history and place. But if we can’t use culture, however carefully, as a marker of a particular kind of experience, then we risk denying that culture has any real meaning at all. And I think we know that’s just not the case.