Essentialism’s Pervasiveness: Not Just a Western Phenomenon

I ran across this interesting article on the BPS Research Digest Blog. I found it poignant that essentialism is a trait prevalent in non-western cultures as well.

Essentialism is quite a broad term, but in general refers to the notion that people assign elements, or entities with specific and set properties. My experience with essentialism is based in gender studies, and I am thinking of Donna Harraway’s desire to dispel the image of the quintessential “princess.” Or in other words, Harraway argues that women ought not fill the notion of “princess” because this term is strictly culturally based and not universal to all women, or princesses for that matter. Of course, many critics within gender studies take a non-essentialist view on matters of defining set qualities between the sexes. These critics hope to dispel the notion that men and women have set–essentialist–personality, behavioral, cultural, and gender traits. In the context of defining gender, to think essentially means to say that there are inherent and immutable qualities about women and men that cannot be overlooked when categorizing them.

Another example of thinking essentially would be to conjure the notion of the circle. We can draw a circle, and say that it looks like a circle, manifesting our idea of what a circle ought to look like, but, according to Plato, this simulacrum of a circle cannot physically represent a perfect circle.

Understanding notions of essentialist versus non-essentialist thought becomes an important debate regarding the understanding of the abstract qualities comprising our world and how we interpret them in contrast to how we supposedly “explain” their “exactness.” Taking a critical look at essentialist ideas also helps us further take apart cultural traditions and “norms,” and by extension, essentialist biases that hinder intellectual thought.

Here’s the article:

Selection of Dalai Lama reveals psychological essentialism in non-western culture

the 14th Dalai Lama as a boyIf you believe that there’s something inherently doggy about all dogs, or fishy about fish then you’re really indulging in a spot of psychological essentialism – the idea that entities are imbued with some kind of innate characteristic that marks them out as distinct. In one form this thinking can become mystical. Is there something special about Michael Jackson’s sequined glove or is it just a hand-shaped piece of material like any other glove? If you think it’s special then you’re seeing the history of the item as part of its essence.

The sentimentality we feel towards heirlooms or holiday souvenirs shows that even the more materialist among us can be prone to the occassional essentialist flutter. Now in a short letter to the journal Trends in Cognitive Science (TICS) the psychologists Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman have argued that the way the current Dalai Lama was selected demonstrates that essentialist belief is also apparent in non-Western cultures.

Referring to eye-witness accounts of the search for the 14th (current) Dalai Lama, Bloom and Gelman write:

“The relevant section concerns the testing of a particular two-year-old boy in his remote home village. A group of bureaucrats brought with them the belongings of the late 13th Dalai Lama, along with a set of inauthentic items that were similar or identical to these belongings. When presented with an authentic black rosary and a copy of one, the boy grabbed the real one and put it around his neck. When presented with two yellow rosaries, he again grasped the authentic one. When offered two canes, he at first picked up the wrong one, then after closer inspection he put it back and selected the one that had belonged to the Dalai Lama. He then correctly identified the authentic one of three quilts.”

The psychologists say their point isn’t that these objects were imbued with some mystical essence, but rather that the Tibetan bureaucrats believed they were. “We take this as evidence of the ubiquity, naturalness and importance of psychological essentialism,” they concluded.

Link to full-text of letter to TICS (via Paul Bloom’s lab website).
Link to Wikipedia entry on essentialism.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Pop Culture Issues.

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