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Psychological essentialism in the socio-economic domain: integrating social representations theory with the cognition and culture framework

Carter, Neil (2021) Psychological essentialism in the socio-economic domain: integrating social representations theory with the cognition and culture framework. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004593


Research on psychological essentialism has focused predominantly on either the folk-biological domain or on social categories in which membership is often believed to be genetically determined. Meanwhile, studies of essentialist representations of socio-economic categories are scarce, and have typically been conducted in cultural contexts where meritocratic ideals are pervasive and the subject of social stratification and categorisation on the basis of ‘class’ is less prominent than elsewhere, or by contrast where class categories are confounded with beliefs about ‘caste’ and therefore tend to be explicitly naturalised. However, the concept of ‘Belief in Social Determinism’ as a specifically social or cultural dimension of psychological essentialism has suggested promising avenues for the study of representations of socio-economic categories, particularly in the UK, where ‘class’ remains a salient topic; and though it may seldom be perceived in biological or natural kind terms, it nonetheless often appears to be understood as an ascribed rather than achieved form of category membership or identity. This thesis builds on previous strands of research in cognitive, developmental, social and cultural psychology and cognitive anthropology, in which essentialism is argued to be neither modular nor unitary, but rather a domain-general cognitive bias arising from fundamental psychological mechanisms and comprised of several related but conceptually distinct components. Combining the perspective of Social Representations Theory with the broader Cognition and Culture framework, three studies examine the ways in which these components are invoked in this particular domain and some of the key relationships between them. Study 1 analyses social representations of socio-economic categories and of the potential for movement between them (i.e., social mobility) in the UK public sphere, specifically within 4 the mainstream news media; Study 2 explores experiences of and perspectives on social mobility and socio-economic category membership through semi-structured interviews with socially mobile individuals themselves; and Study 3 tests individuals’ intuitive beliefs about socio-economic categories and the crossing of socio-economic category boundaries with an experimental survey, specifically designed to capture social determinist beliefs. Together these studies provide some compelling evidence of the co-existence of forms of individual and category essentialism in the socio-economic domain in the UK, along with a detailed qualitative insight into examples of social determinist representations that are clearly incongruous with much of the prevailing political rhetoric concerning social mobility.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2021 Neil Carter
Library of Congress subject classification: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Sets: Departments > Psychological and Behavioural Science

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