The Case Of The Ivory Tower: Accuracy And Stereotypes

November 20th, 2011 | Categories: Class, Role

The question asked the most about stereotypes is whether stereotypes are accurate? This was also the first question asked by researchers after Lippmann (1922) brought the term from its original meaning into its modern usage.

Early research on accuracy sought to find whether there was a ‘kernel of truth’ to stereotypes. That is to say, whether there was some scientific foundation that stereotypes which attribute some characteristic to some group could be shown to reflect the actual occurrence of that characteristic in an appropriate sample of that group’s population (Madon, Jussim, Keiper, Eccles, Smith, & Palumbo, 1998). Although anecdotal evidence of stereotype accuracy abounds, to make the claim that stereotypes are accurate is to claim that any anecdotal incident of a stereotype being accurate is not a coincidence but can be generalized to all of the members of an entire cultural group.

When I present about the topic of stereotypes, I offer three answers to the inevitable question of whether stereotypes are accurate. The first is the most simple and direct and, not surprisingly, the one I offer the most.

Researchers have not found evidence that stereotypes are accurate. For example, Katz and Braly (1933), LaPiere (1936), and Klineberg (1954) all concluded that stereotypes were either not accurate or that their accuracy was indeterminable. In other words, researchers using standard accepted research practices did not find that stereotypes were accurate. If experts could find no evidence that stereotypes were accurate, then surely there can be no basis for non-experts to draw such conclusions merely from their personal anecdotal evidence.

When this answer does not satisfy my audience, I provide this additional answer.

Stereotypes sometimes seem to be accurate because they are distortions of cultural values. Consider this example. In Mexican culture a high value is placed on family. This is not uncommon for a collectivist culture. However, this cultural value can be distorted through the lens of an individualistic culture in which nuclear families are valued highly. Neither cultural value of individualism or collectivism is problematic. However, ethnocentrism can cause distortion of how values are privileged. Through this distortion the value that Mexicans place on family is distorted so that all Mexicans are described stereotypically as living in small crowded homes with too many people. Although the stereotype may be (mis)perceived as accurate if viewed as based on the cultural value, the stereotype is not accurate. Instead, it is a distortion of this cultural value. First, the stereotype distorts the cultural value by generalizing it to all Mexicans. Second, the stereotype distorts the cultural value by imposing a negative interpretation on it.

This answer to the question of whether stereotypes are accurate often leads to naysayers demanding explanation of one after another stereotype to test my theory. Preemptively then, let me provide another example for you. Take the case of the ivory tower stereotype. This is perhaps an obscure stereotype but is nonetheless one that is treated as accurate and often taken-for-granted especially in political discussion.

The Ivory Tower is a place in which academics metaphorically reside. The tower is the place where academics are far removed from what the average person experiences. The presumption inherent in the stereotype is that academics are unaware of, and by extension unconcerned with, the plight of the average Joe and Jane.

This ivory tower stereotype is based on a cultural value that academics have a long-term orientation. In this way, there could be a kernel of truth to this ivory tower stereotype. Academics may spend a considerable time reading, studying, and writing. This is necessary because conducting and publishing research is a several year process. Academics may focus so much on their research that they ignore other aspects of the world and even their own lives (hence me writing this blog at 10:30 on a Sunday night when my partner would prefer that I was sitting beside him on the sofa relaxing). Academics may avoid exploring the everyday reality of the topics they study lest they become too overwhelmed, distracted, or even debilitated by trying to help that group. This may explain why a biologist trying to find a cure for cancer likely does not spend many hours visiting terminally ill cancer patients or why a political science researcher is not typically the background of a politician.

In sum, academics may focus on the long term outcomes of their efforts rather than the short term outcomes. The Chinese proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” is apropos here. The academic researcher’s task is to theorize and problem solve in ways that help over time, not necessarily immediately. In this sense, that some academics are distanced from the practical everyday experience of the topic and people they study is a necessity of the job. Does this cultural value, then, provide evidence that the ivory tower stereotype is accurate? No. Instead, the stereotype is a distortion of a cultural value that gets generalized across the population and is viewed negatively.

Despite the thoroughness with which I attempt to provide this answer to the question of whether stereotypes are accurate, there are still some who pursue an answer to this question relentlessly. To them I provide my third answer.

Each person has multiple identities. An academic in an ivory tower may also be an avid swimmer, Polish, female, in her mid-sixties, heterosexual, blonde, wear glasses, and be particularly short. Each of these aspects of her identity provide a basis for stereotypes: the jock, the pollock, the bitch, the senile old bag, the breeder, the dumb blonde, the four eyes, and the Napoleon complex. Any of these stereotypes is one-dimensional because by definition stereotypes describe one cultural group and (typically) one characteristic. Therefore, any single stereotype can not account for the multi-dimensionality that is the birth-right of every person. For example, the ivory tower and four eyes stereotypes are contradictory to the dumb blonde or jock stereotypes. So, none of these can always be accurate for this hypothetical academic.

Earlier this week I lunched with a charming friend who is male, Japanese, a speed skating coach, a partner in a successful business, and likes Opera. What single stereotype could “accurately” describe a person with this combination of multiple identities? Might there be anecdotal moments when he meets stereotypes of “men,” of “Japanese,” of “speed skating coaches,” of “entrepreneurs,” and of “opera lovers”? Perhaps. However, anecdotal evidence is not sufficient support for the claim that stereotypes are accurate.

The answer to the question of whether stereotypes are accurate is simpler than my three extensive answers discussed here. No. Stereotypes are not accurate.

Katz, D., & Braly, K. W. (1933) Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.
Klineberg, O. (1954) Social psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
LaPiere, R. T. (1936) Type-rationalizations of group antipathy. Social Forces, 15, 232-237.
Lippmann, W. (1922/1965) Public opinion. New York, Free Press.
Madon, S., Jussim, L., Keiper, S., Eccles, J., Smith, A., & Palumbo, P. (1998) The accuracy and power of sex, social class and ethnic stereotypes: A naturalistic study in person perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 1304-1318.

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