2.8 ‘Difference’, power and discrimination
These first few sections have emphasised the point that differences are always produced in a social context, and that a key part of that context is power relationships. As pointed out earlier, a key element of Foucault’s social constructionist approach is that the way in which people are categorised in society (for example, by gender, ethnicity or age) involves an exercise of power that reflects the ideas and interests of dominant groups. One of the key arguments against essentialist views of difference is that they reflect, and at the same time help to perpetuate, inequalities of power and status.
Section 3 noted that the ways in which the terms used to describe people from certain ethnic, geographical or national backgrounds have changed significantly over time. In addition in the British context, the labels attached to people seen as ‘minorities’ have always been defined by the white majority, that is by those with power. Labelling a group of people as ‘different’ in some way can itself be seen as an exercise of power, a way of putting people ‘in their place’ and fixing them there. Defining an individual primarily in terms of their apparent ethnic identity – for example as black, or African–Caribbean, or Asian – is a way of defining them as ‘different’ from a supposed white ‘norm’, and of playing down any similarities with others. The same can be said of attaching labels to people on the basis of a supposed disability, or sexual preference, or age.
The construction of people in terms of their supposed ‘differences’ from an imagined ‘norm’ or ‘majority’ tends to involve making sweeping generalisations about people on the basis of categories such as their ethnicity or gender. Individual differences, as well as similarities across groups, are lost as people are seen primarily as disabled, or ‘elderly’, or gay, for example. Decisions about individual needs, such as those relating to health and social care services, are then based on widely shared assumptions about people belonging to that group.
Often, these generalisations about groups – or stereotypes – are negative, since they reflect the differential power between those in the ‘majority’ and those categorised as ‘minorities’ or ‘different’. So, for example, women may be defined as less rational than men, or black people as less intelligent than white people: in these instances, men and white people respectively are characterised as the ‘norm’. These negative stereotypes both reflect existing inequalities – patterns of sexism and racism in society – and at the same time help to perpetuate them, for example by denying women and black people access to jobs that require a ‘cool head’ or complex intellectual skills. In other words, stereotyping people as ‘different’ can lead to discrimination.
So attributing fixed ‘differences’ to people is not a neutral process but one that both reflects and reproduces inequalities of power and status. The next activity is an opportunity to reflect on your own experience of prejudice and discrimination.