In this lesson, we will define and learn how to recognize biases, assumptions and stereotypes in written works. We will also practice identifying these elements with a few writing samples.
Biases, Assumptions, and Stereotypes
They’re sneaky. They’re common. They show up in many different kinds of writing from many different kinds of authors. They try to make their way into your brain and change the way you feel about people or things.
They’re biases, assumptions, and stereotypes, and part of being an effective reader is recognizing these devious little devices and thinking about them critically. This lesson will help you learn how to do that.
Let’s start with biases.
What is a bias? Bias occurs when a writer displays a partiality for or prejudice against someone, something, or some idea. Sometimes biases are readily identifiable in direct statements. Other times a writer’s choice of words, selection of facts or examples, or tone of voice reveals his or her biases.
We all have biases that reflect our opinions and our particular outlooks about life. That is perfectly normal and simply part of being human. Therefore, nearly every piece of writing exhibits some sort of bias. A reader’s job is to recognize biases and think critically about them to determine how much they affect a writer’s presentation of his or her subject.Recognizing biases takes practice. As you read, ask yourself the following questions to help you identify biases:
- Does the writer use overly positive or overly negative language about the subject?
- Does the writer use emotionally charged language about the subject?
- Does the writer use vague or generalized language about the subject?
- Does the writer omit any important facts?
- Does the writer add information and evidence that seems unnecessary just to bolster his or her point?
- Does the writer fail to properly cite his or her sources?
If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you can be pretty sure that the writer has some sort of bias toward the subject. Now let’s practice.
See if you can pick out the writer’s bias in the following sample.’Cats and dogs can both make good pets. Dogs can be affectionate, but they are extremely difficult to care for.
Cats, on the other hand, are also very lovable, cuddly animals, and they require only moderate care that isn’t too time consuming.’Take a closer look at the writer’s choice of words. Which animal does the writer prefer? Cats or dogs? If you said cats, you are correct, and you have just identified a bias!
Let’s move on to the next sneaky little device: assumptions.
Assumptions are points in an argument that a writer takes for granted and doesn’t prove with evidence. We all make assumptions everyday based on our experience, culture, education and beliefs, and assumptions are present in every piece of writing. In fact, assumptions can be very good things because they provide common ground between writers and readers and free a writer from having to prove every point he or she makes.Readers do, however, have to be conscious that assumptions exist and make an effort to identify them and think critically about whether or not they are valid.
To recognize assumptions in a piece of writing, first identify the writer’s claim. What is the writer trying to prove? What does he or she want readers to accept? Now think about the reasons and evidence the writer presents to support his or her claim. Finally, reflect on what the writer has left unsaid or taken for granted about his or her argument, those ideas that hover in the background and must be accepted if the argument is to work. Those are the assumptions.
Let’s practice with a couple samples. Here’s the first:’I simply refuse to vote for a candidate who does not live a good, moral life. Congressman Smith has been accused of being involved in several romantic affairs, so his opponent will get my vote.’The writer is claiming that she will vote for Congressman Smith’s opponent. Why? The Congressman has been accused of being involved in several romantic affairs and, therefore, does not live a good, moral life.
Now think about what the writer has left unsaid. What is she assuming? She assumes that politicians need to be morally upright personally to do their jobs properly, that the accusations against Congressman Smith are true, and that the opponent does live a good, moral life. Let’s try another.’Anyone interested in high-speed, high-quality, reasonably priced printing should purchase one of the latest models of Precision Printers.
They come with everything that will meet all your printing needs.’The claim here is that the reader should buy one of the latest models of Precision Printers. The reasons supporting the claim are that Precision Printers are high speed, high quality, reasonably priced and meet all printing needs. The writer assumes, however, that every user has similar printing needs, that other printers aren’t as fast, don’t produce as high-quality a product and are more expensive, and that older models aren’t as good.
We’ve all heard the word stereotype dozens of times, but what really is a stereotype? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a stereotype as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
‘ Stereotypes distort reality and provide skewed views of whole groups of people based on their sex, age, race, religion, or abilities.Readers can recognize stereotypes by thinking critically about how writers describe certain groups of people and members of those groups. Does the writer identify a unique individual according to the characteristics of a group? That may be a stereotype.
Does the writer identify a whole group as having the same characteristics without acknowledging individual differences? That, too, may be a stereotype.Once again, let’s practice. Here’s a sample.
See if you can identify the stereotypes.’For a blonde woman, Ella is especially intelligent and articulate.’Is Ella, a unique individual, not supposed to be intelligent and articulate because she is blonde and a woman? The writer is presenting a stereotypical view of both groups. Let’s try one more.’The Native Americans living on this reservation in the 1880s were surprisingly industrious and eager to learn.
‘This sample exhibits a strong stereotype about Native Americans, suggesting that they may be lazy and uninterested in learning.
Let’s review. Part of being an effective reader is recognizing biases, assumptions and stereotypes and thinking about them critically. Bias occurs when a writer displays a partiality for or prejudice against someone, something or some idea. Readers can ask themselves a number of questions about a writer’s language, facts and evidence in order to recognize biases.
Assumptions are points in an argument that a writer takes for granted and doesn’t prove with evidence. To recognize assumptions, readers should identify the writer’s claim and reasons and then think about what the writer has left unsaid or taken for granted about his or her argument.The Oxford English Dictionary defines a stereotype as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.’ Stereotypes distort reality and provide skewed views of whole groups of people based on their sex, age, race, religion, or abilities. To recognize stereotypes, readers should ask themselves if the writer is identifying a unique individual according to the characteristics of a group or identifying a whole group as having the same characteristics without acknowledging individual differences.Learning how to recognize sneaky little devices like biases, assumptions, and stereotypes will make you both a better reader and a better thinker.
After finishing the lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain what biases are
- Recognize biases in writing
- Define assumptions and demonstrate how to recognize them in writing
- Consider how stereotypes can be inserted into someone’s writing