Ștefania Matei & Cosima Rughiniș

Link to the conference website

Both lay and scientific theories have attempted to explain social, economic, political and cultural phenomena by starting with the belief that people share a set of inherent or intrinsic properties that group them into distinctive “social categories”. In this sense, “social categories” are understood as discrete and natural structures that possess an underlying essence shared by members in a category. From an essentialist point of view, “social categories” are understood as realities that comprise an idiosyncratic nature that is historically invariant and culturally universal. However, essentialism has long been a matter of debate and contestation in social sciences and cultural studies. The critique of essentialist positions came especially from feminist scholars who challenged and questioned the status system that traditionally governed the relationship between women and men. Social constructivism, posthumanism, critical theory, new materialism and other philosophies have added up to this discussion by showing that “social categories” are powerful constructions that create ontological distinctions in a continuous process of boundary making. Therefore, essentialism as an implied postulate of social organisation has been subsequently replaced by entitativity as a matter of signification. The discussion was redirected towards processes through which independent individuals with particular experiences and subjective worldviews are aggregated into a meaningful and unified category whose distinctiveness is recognizable to others. Based on this perspective, “social categories” are understood as by-products of cultural concepts, thus encapsulating historically situated conventions that reproduce what is taken for granted in a social context. Moreover, “social categories” have been discussed as basic conditions for creating and organizing knowledge about the world. In this regard, “social categories” are considered representational phenomena that emerged from a social necessity to construct the world as an intelligible and coherent assemblage of relations and practices. “Social categories” are thought of as realities that appeared in people’s attempt to make sense of their proximate environment by integrating some explanatory assumptions in the interpretation of the world. However, the focus on entitativity has given rise to an essentialisation of anti-essentialist assumptions by actually essentializing the main construct of “social categories”.

In this context, we invite authors to re-examine how they engage with “social categories” as conspicuous constructs in their research. Discussions could be focused especially, but not exclusively on the apparatuses that maintain categories based on gender, age, race, religion, occupation, sexual orientation, disability, etc. as relevant classifications in the constitution of reality. The papers could consider the following lines of inquiry: How are beliefs about “social categories” displayed, institutionalized, objectified and materialized? How “social categories” are discursively employed to support and enable particular interventions in the social world? How are “social categories” stabilized and destabilized through discursive practices and material instantiations? How are “social categories” essentialized within the dominant culture to perpetuate a legitimate system of power relations? How are ontological distinctions between “social categories” being reworked through resistance and political action?