The making of our categories

Published 7 July 2015 / By Ole Jensen

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We all organise our world as we live through it, categorising our experiences, with our categories based on who we are, what kind of cultural baggage we carry with us. As I will elaborate below, our categories are continuously tested and updated. The problem arises when category becomes associated with stigma, and when those living with the stigma feel they have to present themselves according to how they expect others to perceive them.

A couple of years ago, I entered a photo into a competition at Woking Photographic Society, of which I am a member. The photo was titled ‘Lady in blue’. The judge generally liked it, but he had one problem; he didn’t understand the title because he couldn’t find the lady. I was a bit miffed, as the burqa-clad Afghan woman was the only person in the entire photo. Obviously, the blue blur did not match the judge’s ‘lady’ category. Not many burqas in Surrey anyway!

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was doing some fieldwork in Hamburg as part of the EUMIA project. It was the first day of my stay, and I was discussing the itinerary of the next few days with a female project worker. The focus of the project was immigrant parents’ involvement in the schooling of their children, and the next day we would be meeting some Afghan women. I found this very interesting and mentioned that I had spent a couple of years in Afghanistan, working for an NGO. ‘Oh’, the project worker said, ‘I am Afghan myself’.

I remember being surprised, though working in Afghanistan does not necessarily involve a lot of face-to-face encounters with Afghan women. But the surprise nevertheless kept nagging me. Did I expect to spot an Afghan when I saw one?  Was I looking for, if not the burqa then something else that could objectify the Afghan dimension? More fool me, of course, in previous with the previous experience thrown in.

In one sense, it is relatively straightforward. We operate with our categories, and everyday experiences then cause us to affirm or revise them, at least at an individual level.  You get thrown out of balance by an Afghan woman in Hamburg, you take it onboard and move on, category revised, wiser by a bit. But a different concern, reflecting more entrenched divides, comes about if you are constrained by how you think others categorise you.

Earlier this year, my wife mentioned that she had talked to the mother of our daughter’s best friend in school.  She had recommended a tutor she had used: ‘She is Pakistani, but she is a good teacher’, she said. Of course, it is the but that matters here. When the mother, herself from Pakistan, felt she needed to qualify the fact that the tutor is Pakistani, then that would seem to reflect how she expected us, the majority population, to perceive them, holding their category against them.   Yes, it is perhaps a stray remark, but it also resonates with findings from fieldwork I have previously carried out locally, in 2008-09. I referred to it as a ‘culture of suspicion’, with British-Pakistanis asking what their life stories, which we recorded, eventually would be used for. ‘We trust you’, they said, to me or my research assistant. ‘But how much do you know’? We got our stories, but we never managed to entirely erase concerns over how they would be used.

At the end of the day, it becomes about the stigma that a category carries with it – being Pakistani, being Muslim – and preparing for the reservations others might have. Continuously so, as we saw the other week, when David Cameron urged Muslim community leaders to do more to stamp out the radicalisation leading to defections to IS. But isn’t this basically what he asks them to assure him and us: “They are Muslims, but they are OK.”?