Do categories help us embrace diversity?

  • January 8, 2023

Their proliferation suggests that at least some people think so

Reading the New York Review of Books recently my eye fell upon an advertisement for a book about “Caring for LGBTQ2S People”. I was intrigued because although I read my (non-expert) share about gender debates I had not come across the 2S tag before.

I discover it stands for a (contentious) neologism, Two-Spirit, that has been applied only to gender identity in indigenous people – initially in USA and Canada, which explains why it doesn’t have much currency in the UK. And browsing about the meaning of this term I came across another unfamiliar initialism: LGBTTQQIAA.

What this got me thinking about was partly how off the pace I am about terminology and gender identity. But also about a familiar question that arises from the use of categories – the value of lumping vs splitting. On the face of it the LGBTTQQIAA string looks like an example of splitting; after all it contains ten tags and that’s without 2S. On the other hand it represents a sort of lumping – based upon the assumption that all these things share something that means they belong together. This lumping isn’t universally supported, and in particular there has been some questioning of the idea of putting sexual orientation and gender identity into a single category – even it turns out from some trans quarters.

I call this a familiar question because it is to me; it has featured for years in debates about psychiatric diagnostic labelling – most recently prompted by the latest editions of the DSM and to a lesser extent ICD classificatory systems which lump (they’re all mental disorders) split a bit (single figures for numbers of chapters) and split again (dozens and dozens of individual diagnostic terms within each chapter).

The examples of gender and psychiatry illustrate one problem with categorisation. At the start a few simple categories look useful – highlighting important differences that deserve our attention. But it soon becomes clear that a few simple categories don’t cover the ground, so more categories are generated in an attempt to fill the gaps and make the system comprehensive. For example the DSM experience is of increasing numbers of categories, each iteration coming at a shorter interval from the last but never achieving the aim of exhaustive coverage – reminding me of Zeno’s paradox. Personality disorder bucks the trend: it’s still lumped in (who you are as a mental disorder) but at least in ICD-11 the downstream splitting into multiple subtypes has been, to some extent at least, resisted.

Do these categorising systems help to nuance discussion and thereby combat rigid attitudes, improve research, policy and practice, or do they lead us in the wrong direction and encourage pathologizing by diagnosing difference? In other words – categories are the embodiment of discriminating decisions: do they encourage positive or negative discrimination?

Using descriptive categories can be useful, and not just in reminding us not to be solipsistic. They help us make sense of and navigate a complex environment, and they can inform important decisions in, say, healthcare, policy, legislation or education. However categorising also has risks, of reifying and essentialising differences and – depending upon the specific vocabularies employed – of creating and pathologizing a sense of otherness of those categorised. Away from gender and psychiatry this concern is often raised in relation to debates about racism. To quote a recent newspaper article:- “We live in an age saturated with identitarian thinking and obsessed with placing people into racial boxes.” The article trails the writer’s new book, which he describes as “…a retelling of the history both of the idea of race and of the struggles to confront racism and to transcend racial categorisation,…”.

I find opinion divided in my personal network. Some think that, especially in relation to gender, the proliferation of categories/labels is no bad thing – reminding us that we live in a far from homogeneous world.

Others are less convinced, although perhaps not right there with Adorno in agreeing that “…the desire to construct types was itself indicative of the potentially fascist character”.

Perhaps the answer is something like – categories are useful, adjectives are useful, let’s not turn every adjective into a category.


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