Historians have for a long time studied national, racist and religious stereotypes to understand and explain the mental background of peoplesí actions in the past. Social stereotypes, however, defined as a widespread image of a particular group in society, have so far attracted little attention within the historical profession. In contrast, the concept of social stereotypes has been intensively researched and developed within the discipline of social psychology.
This conference at the German Historical Institute London (28-29 October 2005) will discuss the question whether social stereotypes can help historians to understand the linkage between mentalities and social practices in the past. In contrast to being just misguided and prejudiced notions of reality, social psychologists now hold that stereotypes do not have to be derogative per se and that they fulfil certain functions for the individual, social groups and society at large. Stereotypes reduce an increasingly complex reality into manageable parts to which people act and to which they expect the other person to react.
Among the questions to be discussed at the conference are why and how social stereotypes were formed, how and by whom they were defined and sustained, and what their functions and consequences were and still are. This includes the question to what degree stereotypical notions of groups in society have defined areas of historical research. Finally, does the analytical category of social stereotypes offer insights other categories fail to do, and where are the particular advantages as well as weaknesses of this concept?
The case studies will provide examples from different countries and time periods. Panel I and Panel II will deal with occupational stereotypes, the former focusing on traditional jobs (the domestic servant and the agricultural labourer), and the latter on modern service professions (the white collar worker and the librarian). Panel III compares one stereotype (father) in three different countries, thus trying to highlight national particularities. Panel IV examines the image of defined social ranks in society (the aristocrat and the bourgeois), while Panel V focuses on those who uphold order in society and those who break it (the policeman and the criminal).
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