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Related: difference - group - ethnicity - sociology - zeitgeist

"Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians". [Nov 2006]

I've been thinking about the concept of national stereotypes for some time now. Partly the reason for this is that I am interested in all sorts of generalizations. The nearest philosophical concept to national, racial or ethnic stereotypes is the German term volksgeist (a concept first put forward by German folklorist and romanticist Johann Gottfried Herder) which is similar to Zeitgeist. The premise is simple: is there any truth in German gründlichkeit and pünktlichkeit, are the French good lovers or do they more frequently make love than the rest of Europe, do Italians really have better aesthetic judgement, are Belgians averse to authority, are the Dutch blunt and permissive? [Oct 2006]


Volksgeist (also Volksseele, Nationalgeist or Geist der Nation, Volkscharakter, and in English “national character”) is a term connoting the productive principle of a spiritual or psychic character operating in different national entities and manifesting itself in various creations like language, folklore, mores, and legal order.

Connotatively, the German word Geist is related in meaning to the Hebrew ruah, to the Greek pneuma, and to the Latin spiritus. Volksgeist is the spirit (Geist) of a people expressing itself in certain articulated creations. The shift to spirit as against expression, follows the shift from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law as in Saint Paul (II Corinthians 3:6). To the extent that the term is related to genius or to génie (as a derivation from genius), it is associated with the Roman idea of genius loci, the attendant spirit of a place, household or city, e.g., genius urbis Romae. Along with other parallel terms, the term Geist and Volksgeist, however, connote a spirit not outside but inside a certain entity.

1. Emergence of the Concept.
The distinction introduced by Leibniz between dead power and living power (vis viva)—the latter being understood also as a directive power—became the philosophical basis for the idea of a directive principle within historical entities guiding their existence in time and expressing itself in their creations. As a guiding principle the living power is not a logical or rational principle and could thus be connected with various concepts expressing the irrational directive principl e of human creations and evaluations as the French goût, the Italian gusto, the German Geschmack, or the English taste. Gusto has sometimes been associated with ingenio. --http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv4-66 [Oct 2005]


Nationalism is an ideology which holds that the nation, ethnicity or national identity is a fundamental unit of human social life, and makes certain political claims based on that belief, above all the claim that the nation is the only legitimate basis for the state and that each nation is entitled to its own state. In this form nationalism is a universal ideology, but the term also refers to the specific ideology of nationalist movements, which make political claims on behalf of a specific nation. These movements may dispute each others specific claims, but nevertheless they share the general nationalist ideology.

Nationalists define individual nations on the basis of certain criteria, which distinguish one nation from another, and also determine who is a member of each nation. These might include a shared language, shared culture, and shared values, but the most important is probably now ethnicity, the membership of an ethnic group. National identity refers both to these defining criteria and to the sense of belonging to that group. Nationalists see membership of nation as exclusive and involuntary, meaning that you can not simply join it like an association. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism [Oct 2005]

Generalizations about cultures or nationalities

Generalizations about cultures or nationalities can be a source of identity, pride ... and bad jokes.

(...) If national stereotypes aren’t rooted in real experiences, then where do they come from?

One possibility is that they reflect national values, which may emerge from historical events. For example, many historians have argued that the spirit of American individualism has its origins in the experiences of the pioneers in the Old West. --http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9598717/ [Oct 2005]

Ethnic stereotypes

Ethnic stereotypes in popular culture involve an overly-simplified, stereotypical or false representation of the typical characteristics of a members of an ethnic group in music, literature, print media, film and the performing arts.

In recent years, ethnic stereotypes in popular music have come under fire. This is often associated with Hip Hop culture, but goes back much further; Prince for example was widely criticized for his portrayals of African American women, particularly, in his music videos. Even earlier, The Rolling Stones endured some criticism for their portrayals of African American women in the songs "Brown Sugar" and "Some Girls". Also, the current hip-hop/rap portrayal of African Americans as "gangsta" has contributed to the media pool of misinformation. 50 Cent, for example, tries to live up to this racial stereotype. Also, the current portrayal of women in rap music has drawn a lot of fire recently.

For years, Hollywood's unofficial but de facto casting policy limited actors of color to character roles based on ethnic stereotypes. These roles ranged from bit parts to supporting roles or secondary leads.

One cliché in American war movies depicting United States soldiers in World War II is that they very frequently create self-consciously "diverse" teams of soldiers that end up as ethnic stereotypes themselves. Central casting will assign each featured military unit a Jewish-American, an Irish-American, an Italian-American, and a caucasian with a Southern or rural accent; in more recent films, these units will also be assigned a Latino and an African-American. This tradition lives on in more recent World War II movies such as John Woo's Windtalkers, in which the Native American characters are contrasted against the standard-issue ethnically mixed unit.

In the 1970s, a series of feature films that came to be known as blaxploitation movies brought stereotypical black American culture to the screen. Proponents argued that at least African American actors were getting work in leading roles, opponents believed the perpetuating of stereotypes was more harmful than helpful.

In the 1990s, film director Spike Lee received critism for his portrayals of African-American females based on ethnic stereotype. In the same decade, Quentin Tarantino was castigated for casting Pam Grier in a 'blaxpoitation'-type role (Jackie Brown), particularly by African American male film directors. Feminists rallied to the director's and the actress' defence, countering that the same black male directors did not themselves make a point of providing work for black actresses. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_stereotypes_in_popular_culture [Jun 2005]

Ethnic stereotype
An ethnic stereotype may be either an overly-simplified representation of the typical characteristics of members of an ethnic group or a falsehood that has been repeated so many times that is accepted by many people as generally true. The use of stereotypes often leads to misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

Some stereotypes, based on unbiased observations of actual behavior, can be accurate and useful:

Ethnic stereotypes are often described as either positive or negative. Negative stereotypes present inaccurate negative generalization of a group and thus are usually viewed as offensive - in many cases, negative stereotypes are expressed in the form of jokes: Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon are the "Polish jokes" that have gained a certain level of proverbiality in American popular culture, virtually all of which characterize Poles or Polish-Americans as either being invariably deficient intellectually, possessed of poor hygenic habits, or both.

Positive stereotypes describe inaccurate positive generalizations of a group. They may also be viewed as offensive as they may be viewed as putting an unfair burden or expectation on the members of the group in question, especially those who do not fit the stereotype.

Examples of positive stereotypes:

--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_stereotype [Jun 2005]

see also: character - stereotype - stock

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