How Malleable Is Categorization by Race? Evidence for Competitive Category Use in Social Categorization

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We contrast 3 theoretical viewpoints concerning the factors affecting social categorization by race: (a) the classical theory of social categorization highlighting the role of a priori accessibility and situational factors, (b) the classical theory augmented by a principle of competitive category use, and (c) competition between race (but not gender) and coalition with race (but not gender) encoded only as a proxy to coalition. Study 1 documents a confound that renders important portions of previous research difficult to interpret. In Studies 2 and 3, race categorization was stronger than categorization by more weakly accessible categories when situational support in terms of topic relevance was comparable across categories. A situational focus on race further increased race categorization. Race categorization was reduced in the presence of strongly cued cross-cutting coalitions. Race categorization also was depressed when situational factors promoted comparative processing of cross-cutting categories while cues to potential coalitional divisions were held constant (Study 4). Accessibility, topic relevance, and cuing cross-cutting coalitions had the same effects on gender categorization as found for race categorization (Study 5). Taken together, the results suggest that classical theories of social categorization have to be augmented by a principle of competitive category use that is not limited to a competition between race and coalition.

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