The Paradox of Marginalisation II

In a previous blog post I argued that when we expect people of certain groups to behave a certain way (the way that fits our stereotype of the group they belong to) but also to not behave that way (because we disapprove of it), we condemn people from these groups to unavoidable disapproval: if their behaviour fits the stereotype, their behaviour is devaluated by disapproval because the traits that conform the stereotype are devaluated, but if their behaviour challenges the stereotype, then it is also disapproved of precisely for not conforming to social expectations.

One might respond to my diagnosis by arguing one of two things. First, that the paradox emerges from an equivocation in the term “expectation”. Second, that there is a symmetry at the heart of the paradox that would allow us to derive the opposite conclusion: that there is a positive double bind such that whatever people from these marginalised groups do we cannot but get social approval for our actions. I will address each one of them in turn.

First, one might argue that the kind of expectation at play in stereotypes is very different from the kind of expectation we talk about when we say that values engender expectations (i.e., that approving of a certain behaviour P from an agent a implies expecting such agent to behave as to P): the one is descriptive (or predictive, if you will), while the other is prescriptive. And while it is is true that expectations, in general, have no normative value, recent work by Knobe, Prasada and Newman (2013) reveals that, when dealing with social concepts, our expectations do have a strong normative dimension, and S.J. Leslie has already noticed that this has direct consequences on the marginalisation of social groups, and in particular women. Thus, what we expect from women, men, etc. is not only descriptive of our very concept of men, women, etc. but has also a normative dimension about what makes someone a “real” woman, a “real”, man, etc. (That is why they have called these “dual character concepts”).

The second issue is harder to deal with, for it is true that the paradox could be run “in reverse”: when we expect people of certain groups to behave a certain way (the way that fits the corresponding stereotype) but also to not behave that way (because we disapprove of it) this could mean both that if you belong to any one of this groups, you cannot escape disapproval and that if you belong to any one of this groups, you cannot escape approval: if your behaviour fits the stereotype, your behaviour is approved precisely for conforming to social expectations, but if your behaviour challenges the stereotype, then it is approved of because the traits that conform the stereotype are devaluated in your context. So it should be a win-win situation for members of these groups. Yet, we know de facto that this is not so, so there must be a flaw in my reasoning.


I have thought about it and I cannot find a non ad-hoc way out, like arguing that disapproval tendencies are stronger than approval ones, so any help here would be greatly appreciated.

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