Limitations of How We Categorize People


  • Cynthia Wallat Florida State University
  • Carolyn Steele Florida State University



Classification, Ethnicity, Groups, Policy Formation, Public Policy, Racial Differences, Social Science Research


Social policy researchers and policy rules and regulation writers have not taken advantage of advances in assessing ways in which social representations of ideas about people can convey alternative explanations of social life. During the past decade a growing number of scholars have considered how representational practices and the representations that are outcomes of such practices have value. Neglecting to consider representational practices has consequences including failure to mobilize and sustain alternative ideologies that reject narrow perspectives on families and communities. As evidenced by recent OMB rulings on census categories, the dominant sense of meaning of population—and hence family and community—is quite similar to the 17th century sense of people as objects of a particular category in a place from which samples can be taken for statistical measurement. However, the contrastive analysis presented in this paper points out how sustained attention to consequences of use of sets of information categories collected to enumerate population to inform social policy can still materialize. In the wake of federal welfare reform, policy makers are particularly interested in questions of benefit relative to social service delivery and community revitalization. The presentation includes lessons learned from several dozen family, youth, school and community research projects.


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Author Biographies

Cynthia Wallat, Florida State University

Cynthia Wallat is Professor of Social Sciences and Education in the Department of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at Florida State University. Her research emphasis and publications address: socialization and language; comparative social policy; and institutional and professional development. Her interest in relating language and policy centers on demonstrating how attention to forms of communication and community can address the known and unknown about diversity in and out of school.

Carolyn Steele, Florida State University

Carolyn Steele is Associate Professor in the clinical track curriculum at the School of Social Work at Florida State University. In addition to her teaching, research and practice interests in how the field of human services can broaden its analytical and educational functions in terms of curriculum development related to clinical social work, and the psychological and social problems related to physical and mental health and illness, she is a licensed psychologist, clinical social worker, and marriage/family therapist.




How to Cite

Wallat, C., & Steele, C. (1999). Limitations of How We Categorize People. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 7, 21.




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