Cultural Essentialism: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Definition of Essentialism
  • 1:05 Examples of Essentialism
  • 3:03 Essentialist Cultural…
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

This lesson will define cultural essentialism. This lesson will also provide examples of essentialist beliefs that can be beneficial to individuals but harmful to societies.

Definition of Essentialism

Perhaps you've heard a mother recall that her child was a 'crier' while another mother remembers that her child 'cried often.' This may seem like two ways of saying the same thing, but each implies something different. The second mother is describing a behavior. The first mother, however, is suggesting that her child was naturally inclined to cry, which is a form of essentialism.

Essentialism is the idea that people and things have 'natural' characteristics that are inherent and unchanging. Essentialism allows people to categorize, or put individual items or even people into groups, which is an important function of our brains. While essentialism is a simple way for individual people to categorize, it can be a serious problem for societies. Cultural essentialism is the practice of categorizing groups of people within a culture, or from other cultures, according to essential qualities. Let's look at some examples of individual and cultural essentialism.

Examples of Essentialism

Most children, when asked if rabbits who have been raised by monkeys are more likely to eat carrots or bananas, will usually answer carrots. They believe not only do rabbits eat carrots, but that they can't help but be carrot-eaters.

Some heart transplant patients report that they feel as if they will take on characteristics of their donors. They may believe that their donor was extremely generous to donate the heart, and they may imagine that they feel more generous themselves for having an inherently generous heart.

These assumptions have no basis in fact; they're predicated on essentialist views that attribute inherent characteristics to people and things. Seems harmless, right? So far, but let's take a closer look.

Take the commonly-held belief that men are better at math and science than are women. There is no biological basis for this belief, but because it's widely believed, teaching practices often favor men in math and science instruction by devoting more attention and resources to them. This results in more men trained in math and science. As a result, an interesting thing has happened - because people acted as if men were inherently better at math and science, they made it appear to be true! While essentialism allows individuals to simplify their individual worlds, it can contribute to unfair social practices like these. These practices can actually create the appearance of essential qualities.

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Additional Activities

Cultural Essentialism Activities

Activity 1:

Essentialism is the belief that a person or a group of people exhibit inherent characteristics that are innate to them. There are many essentialist beliefs when it comes to culture and gender. Think of three essentialist beliefs that have to do with culture or gender. Write them down in two to three paragraphs, and then explain why these beliefs may be harmful. For example, it is a commonly held belief that females are more emotional than males. People may feel that emotion is an essential component of being female. This can harm both females and males. People could assume that a female will be "overly emotional" and be unable to hold positions of power in a stable way. Likewise, people may assume that males do not naturally experience emotions, and as such men may feel constricted when it comes to expressing their emotions.

Activity 2:

Essentialism often leads to stereotypes, which are oversimplified and generalized ideas about the characteristics of a group of people. Most stereotypes are negative, but some are positive. Think of three negative stereotypes and three positive stereotypes. Discuss how they are examples of essentialism, and what factors might account for the stereotype given the fact that they are not inherent in the groups described. For example, a negative stereotype is that "girls are bad at math." This could be societally explained by girls historically being discouraged from taking advanced math classes. An example of a positive stereotype is that "Asians are good at math." This could be societally explained by the families in this culture placing great emphasis and high expectations on academic achievement, and the STEM fields in particular.

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