Within the past few years, each of you has participated in at least one common activity: completing college applications. Besides writing your essays, acquiring your transcripts, and securing your letters of recommendation, you likely had to complete a personal information form, which, along with asking your name, address, and social security number, requested you to check the boxes that indicated your gender and your race or ethnicity. Did your pen pause over those boxes before you marked a particular one? Did you consider leaving the boxes empty? Did you wonder why the questions were relevant?
Universities and colleges collect the information as a way of measuring the extent of “diversity” within their institution. Over the last decade, for various political, social, and even economic reasons, a huge push to promote diversity not only in classrooms but also in workplaces has been evident. But what exactly is meant by the word “diversity”? Diversity is commonly defined as being “composed of differing elements or qualities” (Merriam-Webster 2011) and, more specifically, in the context of social groups, the concept of diversity embraces the ideals of acceptance and respect, and an understanding that groups are made up of unique individuals.
When regarding diversity within the context of mass media, it is important to consider the extent to which an array of representations of individuals or social groups are being presented and the degree to which a multiplicity of voices are being heard or reflected. One must question how individuals and social groups are being portrayed and the underlying reasons for certain patterns of portrayals. Research (e.g., Bandura 2002; Bissell and Zhou 2004; Grogan 2008) has shown that the mass media have played an important role in contouring how individuals perceive and feel about themselves and about others. Every day, individuals make quick judgments about others based on race or ethnicity, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, class, and age. These judgments, whether fair or unfair, accurate or inaccurate, are based on information gathered not only over years of experience and interactions with family, friends, and other social networks, but also from the constant bombardment of media images and messages that most humans encounter from an early age. This bombardment is almost unavoidable. For instance, though an individual may choose not to own a television in his or her own home, televisions are commonplace in doctors’ offices, at airports, and at restaurants.
Exploring and discussing media representations of social groups can be quite complicated. Clear-cut social groups actually do not exist. They run across each other, with each individual a composite of various social groups. For example, you might be a Hispanic lesbian female college student whose family background is upper middle class. Which part of your identity is most important in defining you is really your decision. Nevertheless, as a society, we tend to identify individuals with a main social group. So, although you might believe that your identity of being a female college student is most important to you, another person may consider that your main identity is that of a Hispanic individual.
Thus, one of the challenges in writing this book was to decide which social groups to focus on and how to avoid the tendency to oversimplify these social groups and disregard how they relate to each other. We decided to address the following major social group categories: race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and class. For race/ethnicity, the book covers American Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans. The selection includes groups that had the earliest experiences of underrepresentation or distorted portrayals in the US mass media (i.e., American Indians and African Americans) and also includes those groups that are growing in population in the United States and that are increasingly being represented in the mass media (i.e., Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Arab Americans). Within the United States, the number of individuals who identify themselves as being of mixed race has grown. Thus, an additional chapter is devoted to mass media representations of mixed race individuals and couples.
Although the main focus of this book is on social groups that are defined for the most part by uncontrollable characteristics such as physical attributes, a chapter that slightly diverges from that focal point is also included. That chapter is the one on religion. The authors felt it was important to also discuss depictions of religion and faith given the increasing conflation of religion with other social identities. While individuals choose their own religion, how society views their selected religion is fundamentally out of their control and may have major repercussions for their own sense of personal identity.
The authors acknowledge that many other social groups could have potentially been discussed in this book, including such groups as Russian Americans, Italian Americans, lawyers, strippers, or doctors. The list is endless. Think of this book as a starting point for you to go on and explore some of the other social groups in society. As you read through the text, consider issues of intersectionality. It is our combination of identities that makes us individuals. Social groups do not experience things as a monolithic entity, reacting as one mind. One race, gender, age, or class of people will not respond as one mind to a media representation of their group. As you read about the media examples in this book, consider them critically, and make connections for yourself, in addition to considering the connections the authors of this text have tried to make for you between social groups. Think about how one depiction might be viewed positively by some and negatively by others, and how there are varying levels along this continuum. It is important to contextualize issues, placing one social group within the framework of others, and to consider how diverse communities inform and intersect with one another.
To provide you with a basis for understanding why it is important to consider how social groups are being represented in the mass media, in the remaining sections of this introductory chapter we will first introduce you to the concept of social identity and then present you with a preliminary picture of why the social group categories we explore in the book should be examined.
Social identity is a concept that came to the fore in the 1960s and early 1970s, primarily due to increased concerns regarding group conflict. With events such as the Vietnam War, civil and women’s rights movements, and the Arab–Israeli conflicts, researchers began to make efforts to understand the roots of the conflicts and how identities might come into play in these group conflicts. Social psychologist Henri Tajfel was one of the more prominent scholars to delve into this question. He was interested in understanding the sources of group conflict and the role of social identity. In his influential work on social identity, Tajfel defines social identity as a self-concept that is based on group membership and the emotional attachments associated with that membership (Tajfel 1974). When an individual identifies him/herself as a group member, his/her beliefs, interests, and actions tend to become aligned with those of the group.
Social identity develops as a social process whereby people categorize not only themselves but the people around them as well (Abrams and Hogg 2004). Humans have a natural drive to categorize or partition the world into units in order to cut down and simplify the amount of information they need to deal with and process. They create schemas or interrelated conceptual units of information that help them encode, remember, and react to incoming information. What often results is the emphasis of differences between the schemas and a de-emphasis of differences within them. In terms of the categorization of people, the same process occurs. Individuals have an inclination to accentuate the shared qualities that they have with members of their own group, while stressing the differences they have with people belonging to other groups. What results is a clear distinction between in-group members and out-group members.
As stated earlier, the groups to which an individual belongs and with which identification takes place can be widespread. An individual’s social identity can be considered as being made up of multiple identities. Some of the core identities recognized by researchers (e.g., McCann et al. 2004; Wander, Martin, and Nakayama 1999) include gender, age, racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, national, religious, and class, with many of these identities intersecting. Given the understanding that identities are developed through a social process, one can see the potential role of mass communication in influencing the development of each of these identities. Through mass communication, individuals can be exposed to information related to their identities. The information can play a part in creating, reinforcing, modifying, negotiating, or adding to identities.
When discussing the social inequities that exist within societies and between nations, one of the most often discussed underlying reasons for the inequities is race or ethnicity. In such discussions, the terms “race” and “ethnicity” are often used interchangeably even though in actuality they are distinct.
Race was originally understood as a classification of individual genetics. An assumption was made that if a person was of a particular geographic origin, he or she would have certain physiological characteristics. With a better awareness of the variance that exists across individuals, the categorization of individuals based on biology was recognized as unrealistic. Several scholars from the social scientific community and the humanities called for the entire abandonment of the term “race.” Instead, many have called for the use of the term “ethnicity” instead.
Ethnicity encompasses one’s own heredity, national origin, and culture (i.e., beliefs, norms, values associated with one’s own heritage). The word combinations often found in terms of individual background (e.g., African American, Japanese American, Arab American) are reflective of this. They highlight an acknowledgment of not only the citizenship but also the deeper cultural background of the indi...