Social Categories: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:01 What Are Social Categories?
  • 1:27 Theory on Social Categories
  • 2:38 Conclusions of Robber's Cave
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Social categories can be based on something as broad as race or as specific as height, but they are always socially important. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines a social category, and explore some theories on how it influences group behavior and identity.

What Are Social Categories?

Although you may not give it much thought during your day-to-day life, you belong to so many different collections of people, each affecting and shaping your life in different ways. There are obvious groupings like gender and race that influence how people perceive you. But, what about the other groups you are associated with? If you reside in the United States, you live in a state alongside thousands of other people. Beyond that, you live in a country with millions of other people. While you don't know and certainly don't interact with all of them, you are nevertheless associated with them.

The groups to which I am referring are known as social categories, and they play a very important role in your life and the opportunities that you are given. In psychology, a social category is a collection of people that have certain characteristics or traits in common, but they tend not to interact with each other on a regular basis. For example, teenagers are a social category because they are all within a particular age range and share certain characteristics. However, they don't necessarily interact with each other simply because they are teenagers.

One of the defining factors of a social category is that the individuals are connected by characteristics and traits, but they generally have no connection beyond that. This is important to note because it differentiates social categories from social groups, which are collections of people with shared characteristics that do interact and acknowledge their connections to each other.

Theory on Social Categories

The concept of social categories and social groups is something that scholars have studied since the 19th century. But, it has actually been a strong area of interest for researchers since the 1950s, specifically within the experiments of social psychologists Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif. In a series of studies known as the Robber's Cave Experiment, the researchers took a group of 12-year-old boys and put them into a summer camp environment. The aim was to observe how social groups emerge and what happens when they come into conflict with one another. Initially, the boys comprised only a social category because they didn't know each other, and the only thing they had in common was the fact that they were all summer campers age 12.

Once the group was split in two, the researchers observed that certain standards and expectations began to develop within the two groups. Some began to take on leadership roles while others were more passive. This is important because it suggests that once they were specifically acknowledged as being a group rather than a category, the boys began to bond over certain things. Soon, the group became more cohesive as the boys recognized that they were part of a collective that could be differentiated from the other group of boys.

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