Defying Stereotypes of Science and Engineering Majors
Defying Stereotypes of Science and Engineering Majors
  • Jinhee Kim Professor, HSS
  • 승인 2013.03.06 19:26
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We tend to form stereotypes targeting certain social groups. For example, some people perceive Black as impoverished, aggressive, or uneducated, whereas Asian as hardworking, career-oriented, or intelligent. Surely, stereotypes reflect part of the truth in actual reality. However, their main problem is that they “generalize” individual members and “prescribe” their expected behaviors solely based on the members’ social groups. Where are these stereotypes from? There may be many different sources in our socialization process (e.g., books, schools, family, peers), but I would like to focus on a media message that may play an important role in creating and maintaining various types of social stereotypes.
Numerous media studies have examined the prevalence and nature of stereotypes of social minorities (e.g., female, the elderly, Black, Asian, or Latino) depicted in news- and entertainment-media messages. Results show that minorities are underr- epresented, and importantly, their portrayals are constrained and distorted. Although most stereotypes reflect negative characteristics (e.g., lazy, silly, hostile, hypersexual), some of them look seemingly positive. For example, Asians are portrayed as “Model Minorities,” who do well in school and careers, conforming to social norms. However, the positive stereotypes can still be negative because they are limited and one-dimensional portrayals (e.g., All Work and No Play).
If the prevalence of stereotypical images in media messages is evident, the next question becomes how these images influence viewers. Social scientific research employing surveys or experiments reveals that heavy viewing of stereotypical images in media message is more strongly related to holding more stereotypical perceptions of social groups (i.e., biased views) than light viewing. Furthermore, stereotypical images in media messages can create contextual cues that provide a filter through which we perceive an individual based on her/his social groups. I believe that stereotypes targeting Postechians (i.e., science and engineering majors) may not be an exception. Assuming the prevalence of distorted images of these majors in media messages and applying the influence logic aforementioned, it can be predicted that heavy TV viewers may be more likely than light TV viewers to believe that people in these majors are nerds and lack social skills. These effects may be further pronounced when the viewers do not have direct contact with people in these majors due to social boundaries. Additionally, upon exposure to negative images on TV, people tend to perceive individual members of those majors through the lenses of the activated stereotypical images (e.g., a computer geek, a math geek).            
Intriguingly, when stereotypical portrayals are combined with humor (e.g., jokes), they may lead to more harmful effects among viewers than portrayals in a somber context. Many people including Postechians may regularly watch The Big Bang Theory, a popular American sitcom that portrays two physicists, one mechanical engineer, and one astrophysicist in Caltech. In the show, humor has a powerful effect that neutralizes serious meanings of stereotypes of science and engineering majors. Namely, viewers enjoy the show and laugh with the characters portrayed because they find the jokes referring to the characteristics of people in these majors (e.g., smart, nerdy, introverted, or socially inept) reflect the reality (i.e., truth). Importantly, the viewers do not take the jokes seriously, but rather perceive them as acceptable and harmless (e.g., “It is just a sitcom!”). In this context, humor may further enhance stereotypical beliefs because viewers do not challenge the jokes but just let them go.   
I hope that Postechians are cognizant and vigilant about stereotypes depicted in media messages, particularly “jokes” targeting certain social groups. At the same time, I also hope that Postechians do not behave only within the boundary of prescriptive beliefs,  which may make them feel science and engineering majors should do things  in a certain way. I believe Yul Kwon, the winner of the American reality TV show Survivor: Cook Islands can be an exemplar who attempts to defy stereotypes targeting Asian. In sum, from a target’s perspective, you do not have to limit yourself into a prescribed box defined by other people. Likewise, from a perceiver’s perspective, you should value each individual’s unique characteristics rather than generalize the individual based on her/his social groups.