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 les stéréotypes

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Date d'inscription : 22/08/2005

MessageSujet: les stéréotypes   30.11.05 0:54

Voici un article de The Guardian sur les stéréotypes

Johnjoe McFadden
Tuesday November 15, 2005
The Guardian

No, the Swiss aren't boring

Personality tests show that national stereotypes are constructed from hearsay and prejudice

'Themselves they consider in every way superior to everyone else in the world, and allow other nations a share of good qualities decreasing according to distance, the furthest off being in their view the worst.' Who are "themselves" here? Americans, Germans or maybe the British? In fact it was the Persians, described by Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC. But it could have been written about anyone. Nations tend to consider their own people to be more or less perfect, and everyone else to be pretty odd.

Alongside nationalistic egoism lie national stereotypes. Germans are supposed to be serious; the Scots dour, the Swedes boring, the French a bit haughty and the British fond of their bulldog spirit. But do these stereotypes have any basis in reality? Some stereotypes appear to have some validity, a kernel of truth. Women are generally considered to be warm and men assertive. Although the differences are small compared to perceptions, women tend to score more highly on personality test measures of warmth, whereas men score highly on assertiveness.
Psychologists have shown that much of the variation between people can be measured as scores along five dimensions of personality: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Jüri Allik of the University of Tartu and Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging in the USA performed personality tests on people from 36 different cultures to obtain a kind-of average personality for each culture group. The differences between average national personalities were small compared to the difference between individuals within a culture, but they did appear to be real. Not surprisingly, people who lived close to each other tended to have similar personalities: Americans were similar to Canadians, South Koreans were similar to Chinese, Black South Africans were similar to Zimbabweans.

But what causes these differences? Ellen Churchill Semple wrote at the beginning of the last century that "Man is a product of the earth's surface". Scots were dour because they had to put up with all that rain and Swedes were boring because, well ... Sweden was boring. This "environmental determinism" showed its darker side when twinned with that other bastard progeny of 20th century science, genetic determinism, to become the "blood and soil" of Nazism. When both fell from grace in the post-war world, they were replaced with cultural determinism. Culture, not genes or environment, was supposed to be what makes people different.

But Allik and McCrae's data hint at some subtle geographical influences: people from hotter countries tend to score more highly on measures of extroversion and openness. Yet cultural fault-lines are also apparent. White South Africans were similar to Europeans rather than Black South Africans; and the profiles of people in England and Northern Ireland were very different.

The human genome project has now put genetic determinism back on the agenda. The frequency of genetic markers is known to differ between Anglo-Saxons, Jews, Celts, Africans or Indians. Do these genetic differences make a difference to personality?

In Robert McCrae's most recent study he asked people to assess not their own personality, but a "typical" member of their community. The stereotypes were certainly there: Germans rated themselves as highly conscientiousness; Australians considered themselves to be extrovert, and Canadians thought themselves to be more agreeable than most. But these projections of stereotype had more or less no relationship with the actual personality profile of average citizens of each country.

Germans rate themselves as highly conscientiousness but they score just about the same on this trait as Turks, who consider themselves to be rather unreliable and lazy. Puerto Ricans consider themselves highly extrovert but they are apparently no more so than the French Swiss who consider themselves introverted. These results indicate that such perceptions are social constructs, based on hearsay and prejudice.

National stereotypes may seem relatively harmless, but when they are negative they can lead to prejudice, discrimination and even genocide. The finding that they are false should encourage us to hasten their demise.

· Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey and author of Quantum Evolution

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