Conceptualizing Difference

Note: This post is mostly for future reference: something I can point students to if this topic comes up in class (as it sometimes does), although comments are of course welcome.

One of the features of our current age is a breakdown in representation. A few decades ago we were comfortable bunching people into various groups and representing them in various ways: “Americans believe such-and-such,” or “Japanese think in such-and-such a way.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to national groupings, we would say “East Coasters are such-and-such,” “women are such-and-such,” “men are such-and-such,” “Californians are such-and-such,” etc. But in our current age we tend to view this totalizing or essentializing impulse with increasing skepticism. After all, there is a huge amount of variation between individuals. Even neighbors or members of the same family have different priorities, belief sets or tastes. How can something that claims to represent a huge group of people, like “Americans” or “Japanese,” possibly be valid? Think of the fairly simple statement “Americans like cheese.” We might recognize that a lot of US cuisine features cheese, or that per capita cheese consumption in the US is higher than some other countries. But at the same time, we realize that not everyone who is American likes cheese, and we each probably even know several cheese haters ourselves. Therefore we have increasingly come to realize that such representative, totalizing statements are invalid, that even small groups are not uniform, and that we’re all defined individually.