Papers and resource materials for the global meeting on



Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Me – Us - Them[i]

By Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs (Jagellonian University, Poland)


Prepared for Working session I, “Overcoming stereotyped images of “the other”: Obstacles and possibilities”


Stereotypes defined


The word “stereotype” comes from Greek (stereos – hard, petrified, typos – pattern, mold). The term was introduced by the French printer Didot in 1789 for the plates used in printing. Later the term was used by psychiatrists and by Pavlov in his experiments (Kurcz, 1994), but the concept was introduced to social science by the American journalist Walter Lippmann in 1922 in his often-quoted Public Opinion. He thought that stereotypes, “pictures in our heads” determined culturally at least in part, are needed to simplify a complex reality. Stereotypes are overgeneralizations (often erroneous and oversimplifying) about reality, other people, based rather on assumptions and misinformation than on facts. Stereotypes do not take account of the enormous diversity of the people belonging to a given group. They do not consider the current circumstances of the individual. Stereotypes can lead to discriminatory behavior, and often serve to justify prejudice. Cognitive approaches (Leyens et al., 1994) see stereotypes differently, stressing that they are not necessarily linked to prejudice, as they are regular schemata used to process information. In Allport’s (1958) and newer studies, stereotypes do not determine prejudice nor discrimination, and sometimes are products of them. Nonetheless, a substantial number of empirical studies supports the thesis that stereotypes are a stable predictor of discrimination, although this relationship is not very strong.

            A host of factors are implicated in the etiology of stereotypes: social and cultural factors, the individual's personality structure, and social conflicts. Tajfel’s theory of social identification points to the process of identity development (people want to belong to a distinct group in order to improve their self-esteem and self-evaluation). A limited ability to process information (selectivity of perception and memory) and biological factors (sociobiology) are mentioned in different theories. In sociobiology, nationalism and racism are seen as forms of tribalism fed by culture (Wilson, 1998).

             These explanations employ different definitions. One group of definitions states that a stereotype is a “set of beliefs about the personal attributes of a group of people” (Bergmann, 1994, 575). To some extent such stereotyping is an inevitable part of the attempt to understand and simplify the complex social world (social categorization); this view is relevant to research on prototypes (Wygotski’s term, developed by Eleonor Rosh; see: Kurcz, 1994). Prototypes are sets of characteristics typical of a given category, and are culturally relative.

            Stereotypes can become so ingrained that people accept them without question. Social stereotypes blind people to individual differences, so they ignore each person’s uniqueness. They are sets of convictions associated with some group, generalized to all its members. According to another definition, a “stereotype is an image of an ethnic group existing in the consciousness of one group as a collection of interrelated beliefs and opinions” (Kapiszewski, 1977). Some studies stress passive adoption of stereotypes: we learn stereotypes, believing someone’s opinion without our own direct experience. Children are influenced by what they can perceive in their surroundings and what is confirmed in the general opinion.

            Hall and Lindzey (1978, 185-186) focus on the group as the source of stereotypes, and derive stereotypes from personifications. “A personification is an image that an individual has of him or herself or of another person. It is a complex of feelings, attitudes, and conceptions that grows out of experiences with need-satisfaction and anxiety... Personifications that are shared by a number of people are called stereotypes. These are consensually validated conceptions, that is, ideas that have wide acceptance among the members of a society and are handed down from generation to generation.”

            We learn stereotypes as children, listening to the comments of parents, teachers and our peers, absorbing their opinions, observing their behavior, watching TV, listening to music, reading textbooks and comics. Stereotypes make life easier because they do not require the effort of independent thought. They make the world seem simpler, and we can feel safer in it (“we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy”; Lippmann, 1922, 96).

            Psychological theories, particularly psychodynamic and ego-defense theories, say that projection of hostility through stereotyping represents displaced aggression (Miller, 1982, 27, after: Felseinstein, 1995, 263). In group theories, the cause of negative stereotyping is the need to defend one’s values and beliefs against alien culture (Felsenstein, 1995, 15). Hamer (1994, 27) emphasizes that “stereotypes shape or strengthen ethnocentrism and justify aggression against Others.” In such an understanding, stereotypes can be secondary to feelings of anger (most likely displaced anger) toward outgroups. They indicate the values and beliefs of the host group rather than the Other that they claim to define. “In the process of stereotyping, an imaginary line of demarcation is perpetuated by the host group, creating a needed sense of difference from the Other that is essentially defensive” (Felsenstein, 1995, 20). Such a demarcation line between Us and Them, although not always accentuated, unites the various theories related to the notion of the stereotype.

            All these theories assume that the relation with a given group is connected with attributes perceived as dominant among this group and with positive or negative evaluations of those attributes. The theories differ in how they perceive the reasons for this. Some state that the relation of a person to the group can originate from the person’s stereotype of the group. Others state that a change in the relation can lead to a change in a person’s judgment about the group.

            Since the 1960s there has been a tendency to treat stereotypes as normal processes of categorization. Stereotypes, like any other categories, are stored in our long-term memory as cognitive representations called schemata. We activate them automatically and unaware, with little effort. When we do not posses enough information on a subject, we identify the subject with some category if possible, and take missing information from the schema or stereotype of the category. The reverse occurs when we have too much information. Then when some information contradicts an existing already stereotype, we create subcategories (Kurcz, 1994, 152).

            The attempt in experimental and social psychology, sociology and linguistics is to avoid treating stereotypes as a pathology, since stereotyping is unavoidable in the process of communication. There are currently two trends: the use of “stereotype” as a scientific term limited to a few social science disciplines, and the use of the term in the popular sense of the word even in legal documents. This is in contrast to the cognitive linguistic approach in which stereotypes are a specific form of information processing (Quasthoff, 1998, 13), and in which the value of stereotypes and their function in group consolidation are underlined.

            In social studies, two approaches to the relation between stereotypes and prejudice prevail. The idea that social stereotypes are the cognitive components of prejudice is contrary to Jarymowicz's idea (Jarymowicz and Codo, 1979) that stereotypes are centered around emotion, meaning that they result from it and are secondary to prejudices, which are the primary affective structures. On the other hand, Kurcz (1997, 24) states that a stereotype is not equivalent to an emotion, but as a cognitive representation (a term replacing her earlier “image”) can connect with various emotions. Thus, the emotion built upon a stereotype can be perceived as an indispensable component of prejudice, not of a stereotype. According to Brown (1995), stereotypes, as cognitive structures, do not have to be related to prejudice at all. The resolution proposed by Chlewinski (1996) is that the emotional component is significant in prejudice and frequent in stereotypes, although the two notions are hard to distinguish. Wilska-Duszynska (1993) proposes a similar view, in which some stereotypes might not contain an affective element. Descriptive and evaluative approaches to the problem of stereotypes do not have to exclude each other if stereotypes can be considered as components of attitudes.

            Since the 1970s there have been cross-cultural treatments of stereotypes (Said, 1978) in social psychology, literary and cultural studies. Stereotypes label race, ethnicity and sexuality, and reflect mental representations of the world of a particular social group (Gilman, 1986). According to Triandis (1994) stereotypes differ between particular cultures (individualistic or collective), and can be explored as an outcome of cultural conditioning (after: Felsenstein, 1995, 18).

            Traditionally, stereotypes were perceived as particularly rigid and resistant to change. Not all researchers share this view nowadays. More recent studies have shown that they “are capable of being systematically adjusted in accordance with the prevailing circumstances” (Steward et al., 1979, 2, 7-8, after: Felsenstein, 1995, 265). We would tend to the apparently paradoxical view of Leyens et al. (1994) that stereotypes are rigid and flexible as well. They serve various functions: they simplify complex reality and allow categorization when information is limited. They are adaptive (supplying a feeling of control in a social situation), defensive and fear-reducing (improving self-esteem, especially when a positive self-stereotype is confronted with a negative heterostereotype), and defining (stressing the distinction between the dominant and minority groups) (Said, 1978). They protect the ingroup value against “foreign” values, channel aggression, and facilitate communication within the group (Hamer, 1994, 19-26). They are bipolar, with positive and negative aspects (Allport, 1958). This idea is captured well in the statement that “every stereotype is Janus-faced. It has a positive and a negative element, neither of which bears any resemblance to the complexity or diversity of the world as it is...” (Gilman, 1985, after: Felsenstein, 1995, 13).

            Particularly useful for analysis is a model (Kofta and Sedek, 1992, 69, 70, 1995) stating that there are two types of stereotypes: the group member stereotype (a set of attributed personal features) and the group-soul stereotype (a theory of the whole group as a collective enemy conspiring to power and dominance). The latter is related to politics, not to interpersonal relations. This interesting thesis says that people can create an abstract stereotypical group representation which is largely independent of the stereotypical image of the individual member of it. In this view, stereotyping is a process of comprehending the outgroup as a collective enemy secretly attempting to subordinate “Us.”

            An examination of studies on social distance in the United States from 1926 to 1977 (Parillo, 2000) showed that while stereotypes may change, stereotyping remains. Leyens et al. (1994, 3) make a distinction between stereotypes and stereotyping, which is understood as “the individual process that takes place in a social context and is molded by it”; the absence of this distinction has caused many controversies around the concept of the stereotype. While stereotypes are “shared evaluative and descriptive beliefs about members of a category, stereotyping is an intra-psychic process whose main function is to make sense of the world. There is no pathology in stereotyping, but the content of stereotypes may be pathogenic” (Leyens et al., 1994, 18). We should be interested in the content of stereotypes, particularly in reference to victimized groups, but we should also focus on the motives of stereotyping. In opposition to the “kernel of truth” theory (Peabody, 1985) of stereotypes, we should study the content and motives of stereotypes to understand the holders of the stereotypes, not the objects of them.



·      Allport, G.W. (1958), The Nature of Prejudice, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

·      Bergmann, W. (1994), “Prejudice and Stereotypes.” [In:] Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Ed. by V.S. Ramachandran, San Diego: Academic Press, vol. 3.

·      Brown, R. (1995), Prejudice. Its Social Psychology, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.

·       Chlewinski, Z. (1996), “Koncepcja interkulturowych badan stereotypow, uprzedzen oraz tozsamosci narodowej i religijnej w krajach Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej. Aspekt psychospoleczny.” [In:] Psychospoleczne podstawy relacji miedzy narodowosciami Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej. Ed. by Z. Chlewinski, B. Roznowski, Z. Zaleski, Lublin: Instytut Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej, 7-28.

·      Felsenstein, F. (1995), Anti-Semitic Stereotypes. A Paradigme of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.

·      Gilman, S.L. (1985), Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness, New York: Ithaca.

·      Hall, C.S., Lindzey, L. (1978), Theories of Personality, New York: John Wiley & Sons.

·      Hamer, H. (1994), Demon nietolerancji. Nie musisz stać się prześladowcą ani ofiarą, Warszawa, Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne.

·      Jarymowicz Maria, Codo J. P. (1979), “Spostrzeganie podobienstwa ‘ja-inni.’ Poszukiwanie wlasnej odmiennosci,” Studia Psychologiczne, no. 2.

·      Kapiszewski Andrzej (1977), Stereotyp Amerykanów polskiego pochodzenia, Krakow.

·      Kofta Miroslaw, Sedek Grzegorz (1995), “Stereotyp ‘duszy grupowej,’ wybory parlamentarne, a postawy wobec osob pochodzenia zydowskiego.” [In:] Kolokwia Psychologiczne, vol. 4.

·      Kurcz Ida (1994), Zmienność i nieuchronność stereotypów, Wydawnictwo Instytutu Psychologii PAN, Warszawa.

·      Kurcz Ida (1997), “Jezyk – Poznanie – Stereotypy.” [In:] Percepcja i interpretacja spolecznej i politycznej sytuacji w Polsce. Ed. by Ida Kurcz and Jerzy Bobryk, Instytutu Psychologii PAN, Warszawa, 11-34.

·      Leyens Jacques-Philippe, Yzerbyt Vincent, Schadron Georges (1994), Stereotypes and Social Cognition, Sage Publications, London.

·      Lippmann Walter (1922), Public Opinion, New York, Harcourt Brace.

·      Parillo V. (2000), Strangers to these Shores. Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States, Boston, Allyn and Bacon.

·      Peabody D. (1985), National Characteristics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

·      Said Edward (1978), Orientalism, New York, Pantheon Books.

·      Tajfel H., Turner J. (1979), “An Integrative Theory of Intergroups Conflict.” [In:] The Social Psychology of Intergroups Conflict. Ed. by W.G. Austin, S. Worchel, Monterey, Brooks/Cole.

·      Quasthoff Uta M. (1998), “Etnocentryczne przetwarzanie informacji. Ambiwalencja funkcji stereotypow w komunikacji miedzykulturowej.” [In:] Stereotyp jako przedmiot lingwistyki. Teoria, metodologia, analizy empiryczne. Ed. by Janusz Aniusiewicz and Jerzy Bartminski, Towarzystwo Przyjaciol Polonistyki Wroclawskiej, Wroclaw, 11-30.

·      Steward Robert A., Powell Graham E., and Chetwynd Jane S. (1979), Person Perception and Stereotyping, Westmead, Saxon House.

·      Triandis H.C. (1994), Culture and Social Behavior, McGraw Hill, New York.

·      Wilska-Duszynska Barbara (1993), “’My’ i ‘oni’ – mlodziez wobec etnicznie ‘obcych.’ [In:] Tolerancja i uprzedzenia mlodziezy. Raporty z badan, Wydawnictwo Instytutu Filozofii i Socjologii PAN, Warszawa, 11-85.

Wilson Edward O. (1998), O naturze ludziej, Wydawnictwo Zysk i S-ka, Poznan.

[i] Fragments of the book: Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, ME US THEM: Ethnic Prejudices Among Youth and Alternative Methods of Education. The Case of Poland, Cracow, Universitas, 2003, ss. 325.