Chapter

Why Do We Essentialize?

Susan A. Gelman

in The Essential Child

Published in print May 2003 | ISBN: 9780195154061
Published online September 2007 | e-ISBN: 9780199786718 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195154061.003.0012

Series: Oxford Series in Cognitive Development

 Why Do We Essentialize?

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The question of why we essentialize gives rise to a variety of other questions, concerning issues such as where essentialism is located, or what properties of the mind give rise to essentialism. Essentialism has many benefits; it provides a framework for making valuable category-based inferences, for example. Furthermore, the many ways in which children essentialize the natural world reveal precocious abilities to categorize and benefit from categories. Yet essentialism also carries with it serious costs. It encourages and justifies stereotyping of social categories (including those of race, gender, and sexual orientation), and perpetuates the assumption that artificial distinctions (such as caste or class) are natural, inevitable, and fixed. This chapter argues that essentialism is rooted neither in its costs nor its benefits, but falls out as a consequence of children being very good at a number of other skills: distinguishing appearance from reality, searching for causes, noting correlational clusters, and understanding how labeling works.

Keywords: essentialism; children; child psychology; causes; categories; cognitive capacities; domains

Chapter.  14546 words. 

Subjects: Developmental Psychology

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