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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Confronting Social Mores, One Stereotype at a Time

Being in Ahmedabad with ITSA has certainly caused me to think more critically about how I perceive others based on social cues. Although much of this thought has occurred in adjusting to city life here, the “Stereotype-Rank Game” used in the ITSA workshop curriculum, helped me to further reflect on these interactions.

To play, participants are given a post-it note with a certain occupation on it – for example, male lawyer, female adult beggar, secondary school student, ITSA intern, etc. Although participants can see the post it notes on others’ heads labeling what social group others belong to, they cannot see what occupation is stuck on their forehead.

Participants are thus asked to guess what label is on their forehead through noticing how others treat them when engaging in conversation.

The activity ends by having participants try to sit in a circle and guess the label on the post it.

Ultimately, participants make a chart of how much power each individual from a social category carries. For instance, students ranked that a school principal possessed more power than a vegetable seller.

It’s interesting because both times that I saw individuals play these games – the workshop facilitators played it while preparing for the workshop, and the secondary school students played in the workshop -  was striking because it drew attention to just how many social cues others provide in order to identify how they should treat others.

I noticed that when both workshop participants and the ITSA interns had an easy time identifying what occupation they were, but how they discovered this information varied. Despite the differences in upbringing of the Indian workshop attendees and foreign interns, their interactions took on a similar character. For instance, individuals who were beggars in this activity discovered this information because of the body language of others, such as when others in the activity would not make eye contact with them. On the other hand, individuals playing roles such as school principal inferred the occupation on their sticky-note through verbal cues.

Watching the interns and workshop attendees play this game proved to be a timely reminder in thinking about how social inequities are reproduced through daily interactions. Inequities do not just exist through material means, such as through differences in access to health or housing, but also within interpersonal interactions. Words become a special form of currency reserved for those deemed powerful enough to provide a response; principals may fall into this category, while beggars do not.

Although the activity is known as the “Stereotype-Rank Game,” it touches uncomfortably close to the unspoken assumptions underlying everyday life.

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