Stereotyping versus Generalizing

Last week we drove the family car over to the one and only car wash our town has. As we pulled in to the only available spot, I said to my wife, “You know, the hispanics in this town [which is about 50% hispanic] sure do detail their cars frequently.” She promptly accused me of making a stereotype. I protested: first, taking care of one’s automobile is a good thing; second, I’m just drawing a generalization from observational data–you seldom-to-never drive by the car wash and not see three or four (there are only four chutes available) local hispanics detailing their cars. Again, I was accused of stereotyping; we dropped it.

But it got me thinking:

Is “stereotyping” just a pejorative term applied whenever any generalization of human beings occurs, or is it only stereotyping (rather than generalizing) when it’s unfair and/or demeaning? Is there a line drawn between legitimately generalizing human behavior (even when your independent variable is home town, ethnicity, religion, etc.) and stereotyping (used it it’s modern, negative sense)?

You plot your data, then draw your curves. And, sure, sometimes some of the data falls off the curve and ruins your r-squared, but–in general–the curve still fits the data. Humans aren’t rocks–I know–but does that invalidate all generalization of human behavior?

(Not that I indulge, or seek justification to indulge in, stereotyping. Just something I’ve been mulling over since last Monday and thought I’d offer up to y’all!)

It depends on exactly what you meant. If you meant “Hispanics, as a whole, detail their cars frequently”, ten, assuming it’s true, it’s not a stereotype. If you meant “All Hispanics detail their cars frequently”, then that would be a stereotype. Inductive reasoning is never stereotyping (that’s not to say that it isn’t without possible fallacies, just that stereotyping is not one of those fallacies); it is deductice reasoning that is stereotyping (sometimes).

The problem is, many stereotypes got to be stereotypes because they were commonly observed behavior! Unfortunately, having outsiders point out your group’s behavior to you can be viewed as an attack on your group – particularly if these outsiders have traditionally been hostile toward your group – even if the behavior being pointed out isn’t a “negative” one.

There are reasons for stereotyps, and they come from general observations, but are not universally true. Around here it is Orientals are bad drivers. I am sure that there are some good oriental driveres however I have not met them. Come to think of it I don’t know of any oriental race car drivers.


A generalization make a statistical point about a population group. It says nothing about the individual members of that group. It is descriptive only.

A stereotype is the mistaken application of a generalization to an entire population. By saying “Hispanics do X” you are guilty of using the language of stereotype, whether or not that was your intent.

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.

Stereotypes often result from a skewed origin, too. Lemme explain:

“Jews are money-hungry.” Where did that come from? Mostly from Jews being denied all forms of employment except those that involved lending, pawnbrokering, etc.

“Blacks are lazy and shiftless.” A lot of blacks have indeed been out of work, historically—because they could not get hired for many positions.

So even stereotypes which can arguably have a grain of truth can arise from circumstances that are the opposite of what they seem.




From WWWebster Dictionary

A stereotype is not necessarily derrogatory. It is, however, more than just a generalization about observed characteristics or behaviour.

If I did a survey of members of a group of people, and I then presented you with a graphic chart showing that 75% of the group’s members had blonde hair, and 25% have another color, I have neither generalized nor stereotyped. If I look at the chart and say: “GroupA’s have a lot of blondes”, I have made an observation, but not a generalization. If I look at a few individual survey data points and say: “GroupA’s tend to be blonde”, I have made a generalization, but I have not stereotyped. If I look at the chart and say: “I thought so; GroupA’s are blonde”, I have not only generalized, I have stereotyped.

How are the two different? When I generalize, I am taking specific data points and drawing a general conclusion about the group from the observed members. I don’t necessarily think of all members of the group as having these characteristics, but I have decided that it is more likely than not. My conclusion may and or may not be true, but the key is that I have not used the generalization of the specific data yet to create a template into which I cast all members of the group.

On the other hand, when I stereotype, I am painting all members of the group with my broad conclusionary brush. In my mind, ALL members of the group are pegged with the characteristic. I remember quite well my grandfather’s assertion that Jews were primarily driven in our society by greed; my dismay wasn’t so much that he had formed a generalized opinion (which was bad enough), but that he refused to concede that this wasn’t true of all Jews, absent some pretty substantial individual evidence (and even then I think he thought he was just being conned by the evidence).

Stereotyping is per se a ‘bad’ thing to do. This isn’t because it is necessarily perjorative or derrogatory; it is because stereotyping is incorrect logic. Some A are B, therefor All A are B. When it is used, as it often is, to refer to a particular group of people in a perjorative fashion, that just increases the impropriety of the behaviour. It isn’t any better to view blacks as athletically gifted than it is to view Scots as penny-pinchers.

Generalization, on the other hand, is not per se a bad thing to do. Logically, the fact that Some A are B can very well mean that A Lot of A are B. Sometimes, the generalization is incorrect; other times the generalization is quite correct. It may be correct to view English people as more worried about cleanliness than some other group; one would have to do studies to verify the conclusion. Generalization becomes difficult primarily when two things happen: there are few data points on which the generalization is made, or the data on which the generalization is made is incorrect. An example of the first would be to conclude something to be generally true about Asians based on spending time in Japan (this makes the assumption that Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians, etc. behave like Japanese); an example of the second would be to conclude that people from West Virginia marry their family members, based on stories you have heard. Far too many stereotypes have resulted from generalizations that were incorrect because of these two mistakes.

The other trouble with generalizing is the reason for making a generalization. If I am using the generalization to make a shorthand statement about a complex concept (e.g.: saying that “Mexicanos are pretty religious” as a shorthand for describing the interrelationship of the Catholic church with Mexican culture), then the generalization may not be troubling; I may be wrong, but at least I’m not using it for an ‘improper’ purpose. But if I am generalizing because I want to think of a group a certain way, or treat that group a certain way, without having to do the work necessary to establish that my generalization is true, then one has to question the need for such a generalization. Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lives during WWII not because of stereotyping (no one in Washington truly viewed all Japanese Americans as likely to spy or commit acts of sabotage), but because of generalization (some Japanese Americans were felt to have stronger ties to Japan than America, thus they would likely commit sabotage or espionage, thus most Japanese Americans would potentially do so, thus we had to contain them to avoid the possibility). Even if the generalization had been true it would still have been poor thinking, resulting in an improper societal act.

In short, it’s how you deal with individuals, or how you impact them as part of a group, that determines why society should disparage your attempts at generalization (stereotyping, of course, is frowned on in large part because it negates individuality).
With this in mind, let’s test the statement in the OP:

Is this statement saying something about hispanics as a whole? That is, does the statement imply that every hispanic details his/her car? One could certainly interpret the statement that way, but it isn’t saying that directly. Had the statement been, “All the hispanics here detail their cars”, that would be a stereotype. Had the statement been, “You know, I bet José is out detailing his car”, that would be stereotyping. But by observing that hispanics (a group) do a lot of car detailing, based on a few data points (the observation of hispanic looking people washing their cars), that is merely a generalization which seems more likely interpreted as not being a blanket statement about all hispanics, but a statement about most hispanics.

Test the hypothesis now to see if it is an accurate conclusion from the available data:

Can you say that, because you often see hispanics cleaning cars that the hispanic population as a whole is obsessed with car cleanliness? Put that way, it is quite obviously an unsupported conclusion. There might well be a minority of hispanics who are into cleaning their cars, but they do it quite often; the vast majority might have dirty cars and they don’t care about it; this would still fit the data available. If you had observed that, of all the hispanics you saw driving cars, the vast majority of them had very clean cars, then you might have a valid generalization, and could ask yourself, now why am I making the generalization: to convey a shorthand notion, to simply make some random observation, or to

A very sogent analysis, DSY. The only point we seem to disagree is

The sentence “Hispanics here do X” is semantically identical to “All the hispanics here do X”. A class statement by definition addresses all members of the class. “Basketballs are round” does not mean that some basketballs might not be round.

I certainly am not calling Pantellerite a racist or implying that he is a horrible person, but the particular statement he references is an example of a stereotype. Ask yourself how it differs from the view “blacks [are] athletically gifted” which you use as another example of a stereotypical position.

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.

Action Jackson wrote:

That’s probably 'cause there aren’t very many orientals in Nashville, Tennessee (to invoke another stereotype :wink: ).

The statement in question from the OP is: “The hispanics in this town sure do detail their cars frequently.”

If it is a generalization, it is of the type: Some A are B, therefor Alot of A are B. If it is a stereotype, it conforms to Some A are B, therefor All A are B.

I am sorry, but the quote doesn’t imply that every hispanic details his/her car. It generalizes about hispanics as a group, implying that alot of hispanics behave this way. Had the poster said: All the hispanics here must detail their cars, that would be a stereotype. Had he assumed without knowing that a hispanic individual detailed his car frequently, then that is a stereotype, because it implies the idea that all hispanics do the same thing (cookie cutter analogy).

You state “The sentence “Hispanics here do X” is semantically identical to “All the hispanics here do X”. A class statement by definition addresses all members of the class. “Basketballs are round” does not mean that some basketballs might not be round.” This is an incorrect statement of semantics. “Hispanics here do X” is not semantically identical to “all hispanics here do X”; if it was, you wouldn’t NEED the word “all” to start the second statement. People in general would understand that the first talks about a group characteristic that many in the group share; the second asserts that all in the group share it.

As for the basketballs, the statement “basketballs are round” is not semantically compatible with “Hispanics here do X”. A semantically identical statement about basketballs would be: “the basketballs in here sure do bounce high”. No one would accept this to mean that all basketballs in the room must bounce high, but would assume from the statement that most basketballs would bounce high.

I have noticed that around here hispanics tend to detail there cars however there is a factor that has not been broght up, the cars. The cars being detailed are good cars that pass for muscle cars today. My bride has the same comment about them as she does for people who has fast power boats. “Small dick.”


A class statement is universal unless qualified. “Class A posesses quality B” is semantically equivalent to “All members of class A posess quality B.” This is the very heart of teh deductive process. In teh statement “All [class A] do X” the word all is unnecessary. It provides no additional information.

I did not, of course, claim that the basketball analogy was semantically identical to the statement in the OP. However, if you told me “the basketballs in this room sure do bounce high” I would assume that either every basketball in teh room bounced high or that you were careless in this use of language.

I notice that you did not address your earlier assertion that “blacks [are] athletically gifted” is an example of stereotype in relation to the present OP. Do you see that statement as distinct from teh pattern “hispanics detail their cars frequently”?

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.