Social categorization—the collective definition and naming of categories of perceived phenomena—is fundamental to human cognition and culture. Given that it is so fundamental, it is not surprising to find that it has inspired a range of divergent social science approaches. These can be crudely divided into contrasting emphases on content or process.

To take content first, writing in 1903, Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1963) argued that social structures generate classificatory systems; culturally specific categorizations of the human body, animals, and the wider world, and the relationships between those categories, symbolize and rework relationships of opposition and alliance within and between groups. Later works in this structuralist vein, such as Claude Levi-Strauss’s Totemism (1963), developed the notion that the natural world provides classificatory material that is "good to think with," particularly about social relationships.

The basic axiom, that the social categorization of the world represents or dramatizes social structure, underlies Mary Douglas’s anthropological discussions of cosmology, ritual, and symbolism (1966). Pierre Bourdieu took the idea further in analyzing modern French relationships between stratification, consumption, and categories of taste, style, and symbolic value (1984). Other authors, even though abandoning the structuralist underpinnings, have since explored similar territory (Lamont and Fournier 1992). The theme that the categories of culture are systematically related to social structure has inspired the academic fields of cultural studies and social studies of consumption.

Within social psychology, the study of social categorization has emphasized process. The most prominent contemporary theoretical school derives from Henri Tajfel’s "minimal group" experiments. These provided evidence that when people are arbitrarily placed in one of two groups in a laboratory setting, with no history of animosity and nothing at stake, intergroup negative discrimination results (1970). Reflecting the human need to create cognitive and social order, social categorization is, it is argued, sufficient in itself to generate identification of and with in- and out-groups. A large literature continues to develop and critique this paradigm (Brewer and Hewstone 2004, pp. 145-318).

Finally, another processual approach hinges upon the distinction, originally methodological, between "groups" and "categories": The first is a human collectivity that is defined by and meaningful to its members, the second a collectivity that is defined from outside (during a census or survey, for example). This leads to a contrast between processes of group identification and of social categorization and the argument that identification is always a matter of internal self- or group identification, external categorization by others, and the relationship between the two (Jenkins 2004). Power—whose definition prevails— thus becomes central to our understanding of social categorization.

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