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June 23, 2018

Problem of categorisation


June 23, 2018

A year before my matriculation exams, the principal of our school called eight students from our class of 35 to his office and declared: “You eight will ace the board examination this year”.

Then began a series of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities where we would either be clubbed together or given important competitive positions. Countless avenues were provided for us to benefit from each other’s insights and increase our chances of acing the exams. However, the principal and teachers showed the rest of the students only enough support to ensure that none of them failed. They didn’t want to be associated with failure.

It was a strategic move by the principal. He understood – or rather assumed – that his resources were scarce so he made optimal use of them to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The aforementioned strategy partly comes from a book on the principles of economics. But its application here means that the principal’s strategy of categorisation was as capitalistic as it gets because he treated his students like commodities to further his school’s interests – even if he was consciously unaware of it.

Later, I found out through my friends that many schools adopted similar strategies – though sometimes not as formally and consciously. The question is: why is this form of categorisation, and the process of awarding resources on the basis of it, harmful for students as well as people as a whole?

First, statistics speak for themselves. The strategy of categorisation and the utilisation of resources for the ‘fittest’ could partly explain why only eight percent of students have scored high marks in their matriculation exams over the past 10 years, according to the Punjab Bureau of Statistics. A decade before that, the average was slightly close to five percent.

Beyond mere statistics, this strategy creates lifelong mental restrictions for people. The eight of us did score high marks in our exams. The closed networking technique that the principal involved the eight of us in continues to be integral to date. Our interactions with the rest of our class are slightly different from the way we interact with each other. They often poke fun at us for being bookish and we tease them for being the opposite.

The categorisation doesn’t apply correctly to either of the two (informal) groups because it appears to be based on a normative but unscientific assumption that ‘acers’ are more bookish than ‘non-acers’. Unsurprisingly, deviations from this assumption are widespread.

However, our beliefs about the normativity of ‘acers’ and non-acers’ are heavily dependent on the school principal’s philosophy under which we were conditioned. The pride or shame associated to being an ‘acer’ or otherwise continues to have an impact on us.

Such implicitly incoherent but influential categorisations are not just made in schools. They are also prevalent in homes, offices and many other institutions. In almost every family, we find parents referring to one of their children – usually a boy, even though empirical evidence would suggest otherwise – as ‘the smart one’ while their other child might be labelled as ‘the lazy one’. This can happen as early as when children are just toddlers and their brains are still in the making.

These categorisations almost always severely overestimate or underestimate a person’s actual personality traits. However, their psychological impact is such that they produce a particular kind of behaviour among individuals, which spreads among groups and communities in the long run.

The notion that boys do better in mathematics, for instance, reinforces confidence among boys to score better in the subject, but keeps the confidence levels of girls lower – even when they do perform better, which evidently is a common occurrence. Lowering the confidence of girls in this respect feeds patriarchy well.

The problem is that we tend to apply categories in a stereotypical manner. Lipmann, a well-known social scientist, said that stereotypes are processes in which “we do not first see and then define, we define first and then see”. The understanding applies widely to gender roles and class inequality as well, as noted above. In the end, stereotypical categorisations in our society tend to uphold a normative social order, which is driven by patriarchal and capitalistic values.

This is not to say that categories and titles aren’t important at all. But they need to be applied flexibly to individual actions rather than stringently to people. The categories within India’s caste system, as history reveals, were originally not meant for individuals as a whole but their actions – ie, their occupations. While occupations – or actions – were categorised, the choice of opting for an occupation was supposed to be flexible. As a result, a person could change his/her occupation. Theoretically speaking, his/her caste title would also change after this.

Applying categories flexibly to actions only rather than stringently to people is a better way to understand why two of the Nobel peace prize winners – Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi – silently or openly supported the violent crimes committed by their states when they were in positions of power.

Since these stereotypical categorisations are based on patriarchal and capitalistic values, a project to eradicate them because they negatively impacts the growth of individuals – especially those who belong to marginalised groups – requires some structural changes in society.

The writer is a research assistant at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies of the Lahore School of Economics.

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