Development of Essentialist Thinking About Religion Categories in Northern Ireland (and the United States)

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Abstract

Social essentialism, the belief that members of certain social categories share unobservable properties, licenses expectations that those categories are natural and a good basis for inference. A challenge for cognitive developmental theory is to give an account of how children come to develop essentialist beliefs about socially important categories. Previous evidence from Israel suggests that kindergarteners selectively engage in essentialist reasoning about culturally salient (ethnicity) categories, and that this is attenuated among children in integrated schools. In 5 studies (N = 718) we used forced-choice (Study 1) and unconstrained (Studies 2–4) category-based inference tasks, and a questionnaire (Study 5) to study the development of essentialist reasoning about religion categories in Northern Ireland (Studies 1–3 & 5) and the U.S. (Study 4). Results show that, as in Israel, Northern Irish children selectively engage in essentialist reasoning about culturally salient (religion) categories, and that such reasoning is attenuated among children in integrated schools. However, the development trajectory of essentialist thinking and the patterns of attenuation among children attending integrated schools in Northern Ireland differ from the Israeli case. Meta-analysis confirmed this claim and ruled out an alternative explanation of the results based on community diversity. Although the Northern Irish and Israeli case studies illustrate that children develop selective essentialist beliefs about socially important categories, and that these beliefs are impacted by educational context, the differences between them emphasize the importance of historical, cultural, and political context in understanding conceptual development, and suggest that there may be more than one developmental route to social essentialism.

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