Social Science Shorthand: Defining Groups and Differences

Social Science Shorthand: Defining Groups and Differences

In the shorthand of journalism, social scientific constructs like statistical probabilities become concrete declarations of fact. A headline in Politico last month illustrates the point. The headline read, simply and with some wit, “Why Black Voters Don’t Feel the Bern.”

Of course, we don’t really mean to suggest, when we make such generalizations, that all “black voters” prefer Clinton. We’re talking about the tendency of group members, not absolutes.

There’s also the problem of actually defining who is in a group, and even what to call the group.

I recently spoke to the FBC-LEO conference in Miramar. For those not familiar with that particular collection of initials, that’s the Florida Black Caucus – Local Elected Officials. The organization, by name and mission, echoes other organizations at the state level around the country (like the Florida Legislative Black Caucus) and in Congress.

Long before these and other similar caucuses were formed, the NAACP was established. What can be awkward, today, about that organization is the name behind it: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Colored. A descriptor that in later decades was rejected as disrespectful.

Another hallowed organization seeking to advance the education and well-being of minority citizens, founded 35 years after the NAACP and nearly 30 years before the Congressional Black Caucus, uses yet a different term: the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). And, as Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni makes comically and uncomfortably clear in her one-woman show, One Drop of Love, the U.S. Census Bureau has utilized an even wider variety of labels over the decades.

This variability is not unique to the African-American community. I have a daughter, for example, who has ancestors who are Blackfoot (and my wife, ancestors who are Cherokee). When speaking of their ancestors, and those of other groups like Comanche, Seminole and Iroquois, do we say “American Indian,” “Native American” or something else?

Social scientists label us out of necessity. To compare and contrast group traits and behaviors, one must first be able to define the groups. We also, for efficiency’s sake, apply labels to the different groups, both to avoid the tedium of restating the full definition each time, and to give life to what otherwise might be Group A, Group B and Group C.

If I’m going to ask you survey questions and productively analyze the resulting data, I need to find out how to classify you according to various traits my colleagues and I have learned make a difference in attitudes, experiences and behaviors, traits like race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, income/wealth and family status.  So I’ll ask about these things, and limit your options (for comparability of data as well as efficiency in collection and processing), hoping you will be able to identify one (or more) of them as “yours.” But I might say “Hispanic” when you prefer “Latino,” or when you reject the broad categorization and consider yourself Mexican, or Ecuadoran, referring to a particular country of origin rather than the regional/cultural identification I proposed.

And if I use the term “native American,” you might say “yes” if you were born in Mexico or in the United States of America. In both cases, you would be correct: you are native to the Americas (though my intention, as a researcher, was to refer to Seminoles and Iroquois and Blackfoot).

Social scientists utilize labels of necessity, for efficiency and a kind of clarity that we know also obscures important truths. We categorize because there are commonalities of experience, attitude and behavior that tend to characterize members of certain groups and are different than the commonalities of experience, attitude and behavior that tend to characterize members of other groups.

There are always exceptions. Sometimes those “exceptions” amount to almost as many group members as those who are considered “typical.”

But it still is useful to recognize such commonalities as exist, especially when those commonalities are related fairly consistently to other important social, psychological and political experiences or behaviors. Because then we citizens can target our efforts to make our society more just, our communities more prosperous, and our people – that would be all of our people, regardless of category – more free.

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