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Essentialism

Have you ever heard someone say something like "The French are so romantic"  or "All Germans are good at learning languages"? If so, you've experienced essentialism. 

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Essentialism

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Have you ever heard someone say something like "The French are so romantic" or "All Germans are good at learning languages"? If so, you've experienced essentialism.

Essentialism is a philosophical concept that relates to the idea of 'essence,' suggesting everyone and everything has a definable set of attributes essential to its identity. It is an interdisciplinary concept used in different capacities across disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, biology, gender studies, language and culture, and linguistics.

This explanation will focus on essentialism within the framework of language and cultural ideology.

Definition of Essentialism

Essentialism is a concept that can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy and the works of Plato and Aristotle. They each believed that all things (we've purposely chosen a pretty broad term here) have an 'essence' that inherently makes them what they are.

Inherently - A natural and unchangeable part of something.

Philosophical concepts can be pretty theoretical and tricky to wrap your head around, so it's easier if we apply essentialism to the study of human beings and human behavior from here on.

Essentialism works off the belief that groups of people (e.g., ethnicities, cultures, genders, etc.) naturally have set and defined characteristics that join them together and differentiate them from others. Essentialism aims to sort groups of people into permanent categories under the belief nature has assigned them unchangeable characteristics.

The concept of essentialism has been controversial since the beginning, with many theorists and philosophers claiming it is unnecessary to categorize people in such a way and that taking an essentialist viewpoint can lead to judgment, bias, stereotypes, and racism, as well as failing to account for individual human behavior.

Essentialism, group of people, StudySmarterFig 1. Essentialism suggests we are born with qualities essential to our identities.

Cultural Essentialism

Historically, essentialism has played an important role in the construction of social concepts such as race, ethnicity, and culture. So, why is this important to you as a language student? It is widely accepted that language and culture are inexorably linked and cannot or should not be separated.

Inexorably linked - Connected in such a way that the two things cannot be viewed apart.

The idea of the connection between language, race, and culture isn't new. In an academic sense, it can be traced back to the influential works of Edward Sapir (1921), who stated that language has a setting and those who speak a language belong to a race or culture that shouldn't be seen as separate.1

Behind cultural essentialism is the idea that people can be grouped and categorized into preexisting permanent categories based on essentialist qualities. It creates an idea that people are born with or are naturalized to share the same characteristics as others in their cultural groups.

As an example, it is often suggested that British people are more 'uptight' and 'posh,' whereas Americans are seen as being more 'loud' and 'brash.'

These assumptions are based on essentialist beliefs and the idea that every person from one country shares characteristics and behavioral qualities with everyone else from that country.

Can you see any issues with this?

As you were reading the above example, a term may have popped into your head - stereotypes. Essentialism is one of the main driving factors for the creation of stereotypes, but we'll cover these more shortly.

What is culture?

We've mentioned the term culture quite a few times so far, but what exactly is culture? Culture itself is pretty undefinable - it can comprise music, art, food, religion, dress, ceremonies, and more. But is it something that inherently defines who we are?

It can be tempting (and often easy) to think of culture as this preexisting all-encompassing term that defines and influences entire groups of people. However, there is an increasing body of literature that questions the idea of 'culture,' suggesting it is simply a convenient way to essentialize entire groups of people.

Theorists such as Eriksen (2001)2 and Dervin (2016)3 encourage us to question whether culture governs people or if people govern culture.

Essentialism, Indian wedding, StudySmarterFig 2. How would you define 'culture'?

Linguistic Essentialism

Essentialism can also be applied to the field of linguistics. The most common yet controversial is the idea that language is used in a static way by certain groups of people and that there is a direct link between factors such as race and class and language use.

These ideas have been widely debunked as we now recognize language as something that is in constant change and can be used, adapted, and learned by just about anybody.

Racial Essentialism and Linguistic Capital

If the concept of essentialism has been controversial since the get-go, why do we continue to see elements of essentialism in the conceptualizing of human behavior?

One argument is that essentialism can help to naturalize and reinforce bias and unequal social order.4 An example of this is the linguistic capital that native English speakers hold.

Linguistic capital - A sociolinguistic term coined by Pierre Bourdieu as a way of explaining the prestige, power, and status someone holds based on the language(s) they speak.

Typically speaking, those who speak English at a native level are assumed to be more intelligent than those who speak less-dominant languages, such as Afrikaans. Do you think this is based on scientific evidence or on essentialist ideas of how certain people are expected to be?

Negatives of Essentialism

The primary issue with essentialism is that it overgeneralizes, stereotypes, and ignores the idiosyncrasies of human behavior.

Idiosyncrasy (plural. idiosyncrasies) - The behavior and thought processes unique to an individual.

Let's begin by looking at stereotypes.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are generalized and widely accepted beliefs about particular groups of people. Typically speaking, they are oversimplified and fail to account for the individuality of human beings.

When we think about the impact of stereotypes, we tend to think of the harmful nature of negative stereotypes; however, positive stereotypes exist too, and can arguably be just as damaging. Positive stereotypes appear in phrases like "People from Thailand are so friendly" or "Everyone in Ireland is so happy."

Although these statements appear favorable, their all-encompassing nature removes individuality and can pressure people into believing they are supposed to be or act a certain way.

Dominant Cultures

Research has found that people are more likely to accept stereotypes as truth when they are centered around less-dominant cultures. People are more likely to question generalizations in dominant cultures, such as the United States and the UK, but are more willing to accept generalizations of behavior in lesser-known places.3 Remember, what is considered a lesser-known culture will differ depending on the person and their geographical location.

Discrimination

When we remove the 'human' factor from categorizing and defining whole groups of people, it can inevitably lead to the justification of discrimination, bigotry, and racism. Over time, these discriminations can evolve into cultural dogmas.

Cultural dogmas - A set of beliefs about a group of people that is widely accepted and no longer questioned or doubted.

When an entire group of people is believed to be or act a certain way without any room for the consideration of individuality, it can have devastating effects. Consider historical events such as the Holocaust and global colonization; what role do you think essentialism played?

Consider the role of essentialism in the creation of stereotypes. How can these lead to discrimination? Can you think of any current issues that are potentially due to cultural, racial, or linguistic essentialism?

Essentialism Examples

Examples of cultural, racial, and linguistic essentialism can be seen all over. The most obvious and observable examples exist in stereotypes. Let's look at some well-known cultural stereotypes and, considering what you now know about essentialism, decide how you feel about them.

English speakers are more intelligent.

French people are arrogant.

Thai people are friendly.

Mexicans are lazy.

Moroccans are always late.

Jamaicans are happy.

Perhaps the sentiment behind some of these statements isn't so bad, or some observations are based on elements of truth. However, the declarative and essentialist language potentially makes these statements problematic. Can it ever be true that all Moroccans are always late? What do you think?

Essentialism - Key takeaways

  • Essentialism is a philosophical concept that relates to the idea of 'essence.'
  • Essentialism works off the belief that groups of people (e.g., ethnicities, cultures, genders, etc.) naturally have set and defined characteristics that join them together and differentiate them from others.
  • Cultural essentialism is the idea that people can be grouped and categorized into preexisting permanent categories based on essentialist qualities. E.g., Australians are laid-back.
  • Some theorists believe that the concept of culture itself is essentialist and is simply a convenient way of defining and categorizing groups of people.
  • Essentialism can lead to stereotypes, discrimination, and racism.

References

  1. E. Sapir. Language, race and culture. 1921.
  2. T. H. Eriksen. A critique of the UNESCO concept of culture. Culture and rights, anthropological perspectives. 2001..
  3. F. Dervin. Interculturality in Education. 2016.
  4. J. McIntosh. Language essentialism and social hierarchies among Giriama and Swahili. 2005.

Frequently Asked Questions about Essentialism

Essentialism is a philosophical concept that relates to the idea of 'essence,' suggesting everyone and everything has a definable set of attributes essential to its identity

One of the main critiques of essentialism is that it doesn't account for individual human behavior and can lead to bias, discrimination, and even racism. 

Being an essentialist can mean several things, such as living a life with only the essential items or viewing people as being born with traits essential to their identity.

Cultural essentialism is the idea that people can be grouped and categorized into preexisting permanent categories based on their shared cultures. 

Essentialism in education refers to teaching students the basics, such as Maths, English, and Science.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Choose the best definition of inherently

What did Edward Sapir (1921) say about language, race, and culture?

Complete the sentence:Essentialism is one of the main driving factors for the creation of _____.

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