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What’s wrong with essentialism?

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This paper identifies and discusses four distinct meanings of essentialism. The first is the attribution of certain characteristics to everyone subsumed within a particular category: the ‘(all) women are caring and empathetic’, ‘(all) Africans have rhythm’, ‘(all) Asians are community oriented’ syndrome. The second is the attribution of those characteristics to the category, in ways that naturalise or reify what may be socially created or constructed. The third is the invocation of a collectivity as either the subject or object of political action (‘the working class’, ‘women’, ‘Third World women’), in a move that seems to presume a homogenised and unified group. The fourth is the policing of this collective category, the treatment of its supposedly shared characteristics as the defining ones that cannot be questioned or modified without undermining an individual’s claim to belong to that group. Focusing on these four variants enables us to see that the issue is sometimes one of degree rather than a categorical embargo.

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