Structural thinking about social categories
Postdoctoral Scholar, Geography of Philosophy Project, UCLA Department of Anthropology
Categorical reasoning is one of the cornerstones of psychological functioning, supporting explanation, induction, and learning in virtually every domain of knowledge, including reasoning about social categories. Dominant theories of social cognition focus on the role of internal/essential characteristics in representations of social kinds. Drawing upon an emerging literature in philosophy, I introduce an alternative to internalist thinking, called “structural thinking”, in which observed correlations between social categories and their properties are explained through stable external constraints, rather than derived from the inherent nature of the categories. For example, a structural explanation of why girls wear pink might appeal to the socio-cultural pressures that affect choices and their social consequences, as opposed to inherent color preferences. I will present a series of studies which trace the developmental trajectory of structural thinking from age three through adulthood, and establish it as a distinct, early-emerging mode of thought with a unique cognitive, linguistic and behavioral profile. Recognizing structural reasoning invites us to rethink theories of categorical representation both within and beyond the social domain.