I shall start with a simple definition: a stereotype is an axiomatic assumption about people or things (note: landfills) that is usually false. False stereotypes are especially common when applied to a member of members of a group or place that the viewer has not met/seen/been to. Stereotypes are usually taken to be true due to jumped gaps in the facts, or (often illogical) things that the viewer assumes, such as that people they view as fat and ugly people must therefore also be stupid.

Stereotypes are also sometimes things that were once true (landfills are smelly and unsanitary) but are not true anymore. Other times, they may have an easily identifiable cause that makes many, although almost never all, cases fit the stereotype. Take the Dumb Blond stereotype. This stereotype applies to blond girls, and predicts that they will be rather dumb. Many blondes are usually considered to be cute in their early years of school. They learn that they can rely on their looks more than their brains, that they have the "luck" to be considered popular. They come to grips with the fact that they can even influence the teachers to get good grades, and so become regurgitators of information, spitting back what the teacher wants to hear and then forgetting it in a few (weeks|days|hours|minutes|seconds).

For one moment, let me indulge in my discursive nature:

 In regards to both the "dumb blonde" stereotype, the current school system does not help much either. Almost no real knowledge is required to get good grades; just commit the material to short-term memory, look in the book to get the answers and write 'em down. Any moron can pass school, and in fact,many do.

Back to the topic at hand... A common stereotype I mentioned above is that "Landfills are dirty, smelly places that have rats crawling around in them and, should one appear next to my house in a spooky, occult fashion, would instantly make the property value of my house drop a hundred grand." This may have been true in the 1950's, but today, landfills are fairly high-tech and are very sanitary. The accumulated waste is packed down with steamrollers and then covered with dirt. The "bowl" that the waste is contained in is both gastight and watertight. Pipes carry away liquid waste and poisonous gases like methane.

Stereotypes are also used to simplify life. If you tried to keep a "database" of every single person that you met, recording such facts as the exact geography of their face, the various characteristics of their voice, their height, eye color, skin color, hair texture, body proportions, etc, etc, you would simply not be able to do it. However, a stereotype such as what a German's voice sounds like is much more useful compared to remembering the voice of every German that you meet. By making a rough estimate on such details, one is able to both learn and therefore utilize more information.

How did we get the word "stereotype" for a false conception, particularly of another culture or race? The Stereotype was originally, literally, a device that allowed citizens of the nineteenth-century to see in 3-D.

To quote http://www.ajmorris.com/roots/photo/types.php "Also called stereo cards when mounted on cardboard (as the vast majority are) these images are easily recognized by having two nearly identical images mounted side by side. When looked at through a stereo viewer they give a three-dimensional image. Most popular from 1854 to 1938, they were produced in vast quantities, and many are of historical interest."

In other words they present the image the left eye would see to the left eye, and the image the right eye would see to the right eye. (If you can cross your eyes far enough to overlap the two side-by-side images and still focus, you can do without the machine - experienced intelligence agency photo interpreters can do this, and it's not all that difficult to learn.)

Almost as soon as there were photos, there were stereo photos. In fact, "prior to the perfection and announcement of the photographic process, the British scientist, Sir Charles Wheatstone developed some simple stereographic sketches and a rather complicated 3D viewer" according to a good summary of the history of stereo photography at http://www.oz3d.info/sscc/library/history/history.htm

Sir David Brewster created the first commercial stereoscopes but the cheaper design you'll probably find in an antique store was invented by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, of medical fame, in 1864.

Scenes of other parts of the world were very popular, and scenes of exotic natives in their most exotic ceremonial costumes were extremely popular.

But supply and demand are the life-blood of Capitalism, and the populace just didn't want to see how the rest of the world really was, nearly as much as they wanted to see something very exotic. So the manufacturers, the mass image media of their day, supplied that demand. Natives were seen only in the most strange costumes and poses because that's what sold. Inhabitants of other parts of the world doing ordinary things or anything that didn't fit European misconceptions didn't sell and so, soon weren't seen at all. Fakery eventually came into the equation too, in order to feed the public demand, their love of novelty, capacity for projection, and their prejudices. Quite literally, the developed world saw what it wanted to see.

The resultant process of image creation became extreme enough, and silly enough, to become a byword meaning "false image" or misconception.

It's worth revisiting this history, now that the internet is as popular as stereoscopes once were - since internet sites can easily become rigid little bubble worlds themselves. Who knows, if the thesis of little bubble worlds is true, maybe one day a couple of centuries from now, they'll say "that's an internet" to mean "that's a stereotype". (Although with luck, diverse sites such as Everything2.com will prevent that from happening.)

One further curious historical note. Stereo photography went in and out of fashion. Presumably, it wasn't popular in mid-century Germany. While the Allies used sequential reconnaissance photos (usually from two cameras shooting at slightly different angles) to produce a stereo effect to great profit in photo interpretation (V-2 rockets stuck out like a sore thumb), the Germans never used this technique in WWII, and they seem never to have thought of it. Of course, there are a number of these rather suspicious lacunae in German WW II technology and strategy, enough to make one suspicious that many apparently loyal German subjects didn't put forward all the helpful ideas they could have.

For example, during WW II the great physicist Heisenberg accepted some suspiciously bad logic of others that appeared to show that atomic weapons would be extremely difficult to build, requiring immense quantities of uranium and plutonium, and low-balled funding requests for the German Atomic Bomb project. I grant that it's impossible to know whether such a silence is why the German armed forces never used stereo photography (stupidity is also commonplace), and that it's awfully hard to discern Heisenberg's conscious and unconscious motivations at this historical remove, and given just how dangerous keeping diaries was in Hitler's Germany.

Many scientific minds voted with their feet or were expelled from Germany before the war, of course, accounting for many of these lapses; but it's impossible to entirely dismiss the suspicion that a great many others quite silently sabotaged the German war effort simply by keeping their mouths shut, or by not being as enthusiastically dedicated to Nazi success as they might have been.

So if it's true that Nazi stereotypes helped defeat Germany by chasing away talent, perhaps the lack of Stereotypes (of the photographic kind) in their parlors just may have helped doom them as well. It's at least amusing to think so.

First posted June 25, 2004

Ste"re*o*type (?), n. [Stereo- + -type: cf. F. st'er'eotype.]


A plate forming an exact faximile of a page of type or of an engraving, used in printing books, etc.; specifically, a plate with type-metal face, used for printing.

⇒ A stereotype, or stereotypr plate, is made by setting movable type as for ordinary printing; from these a cast is taken in plaster of Paris, paper pulp, or the like, and upon this cast melted type metal is poured, which, when hardened, makes a solid page or column, from which the impression is taken as from type.


The art or process of making such plates, or of executing work by means of them.

Stereotype block, a block, usually of wood, to which a stereotype plate is attached while being used in printing.


© Webster 1913.

Ste"re*o*type, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Stereotyped (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Stereotyping (?).] [Cf. F. st'er'eotyper.]


To prepare for printing in stereotype; to make the stereotype plates of; as, to stereotype the Bible.


Fig.: To make firm or permanent; to fix.

Powerful causes tending to stereotype and aggravate the poverty of old conditions. Duke of Argyll (1887).


© Webster 1913.

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