Doug Harmann and Penny Edgell
Photo: Richard Anderson
Why does classification by institutions like public health departments or universities often seem to lead to stigmatization? It's tempting to write off this tendency as malice or ignorance. But CLA sociologists Penny Edgell and Doug Hartmann suggest that it often stems from a complex mixture of good intentions and rigid expectations.
Americans usually say they value the ideal of diversity, but they also expect others to behave in particular ways, speaking English, for instance, or celebrating Thanksgiving, or worshipping a certain way. That way of thinking may unconsciously inform the way our institutions, like health departments and universities, are structured and the ideals of the people who work in them. When faced with populations whose habits, lifestyles, or incidence of illness deviate from the norm, the institution's response is "to decide that something is wrong with [these people]," Edgell explains. "They are perceived as problems."
Meanwhile, even outside the institution, people who don't belong to minority groups often don't see the inequalities resulting from the institutional response. That's one of the key findings, so far, of the American Mosaic Project, a multi-year study led by Edgell and Hartmann that examines how Americans view racial, religious, and cultural difference.
Americans embrace the concept of equality, Hartmann and Edgell say, but while whites tend to believe that our institutions create a level playing field, minorities don't. The ideals of fair play and justice that pervade our cherished national documents may account in part for this phenomenon, the two hypothesize. Because our commitment to equality on paper is so strong, people in the majority may have difficulty recognizing the unfair treatment that some groups receive from institutions in practice.
By Jack El-Hai and Danny LaChance