Although they have a bad image, there is nothing inherently wrong about stereotypes. Without them, we would struggle to find our way in the world. If we did not have a stereotypical view of, say, a bottle in our mind, we would not recognise similar objects and classify them as bottles: we would have to painstakingly interpret each bottle as a different concept.
In our minds we have concepts about the world around us, and these conceptions guide the way we think. Stereotypes provide us with the necessary abstractions. However, stereotypes can become problematic when we are interacting with other people and cultures. This is in part due to how the human mind tends to divide the world into binaries: 'us' and 'the others', those who belong to our group and those who do not, the known and the foreign. Psychology refers to this division as a division into in-groups and out-groups.
We each belong to certain social groups, and in these groups we adopt and share certain stereotypes. This can be perfectly harmless, allowing us to take mental shortcuts: by using bits and pieces of knowledge and impressions, we are able to make fuller pictures of the people and things we know little about. However, these shortcuts can hinder rather than foster communication, especially when it comes to culture and politics.
Generally, stereotypes are analysed in one of two ways: the cognitivist approach or the socio-cultural approach. If we go down the cognitivist road, we look at how a person individually relates him/herself to a social group and we analyse how his/her stereotypes are formed. And if we choose the socio-cultural path, we look at the social group a person belongs to and how stereotypes develop within that social group. However, there is a third approach we can choose: the discourse approach, which involves the analysis of language. When we take the discourse approach, we analyse the argumentative strategies, linguistic realisations, and mechanisms of manipulation involved in the use of stereotypes.
Regardless of the approach we take to the analysis of stereotypes, it is important to take a closer look at where our stereotypes come from. To do this, we need to consider political and economic backgrounds, the character of and current and historical relationship between in-groups and out-groups, the behaviour of the respective groups and other variables, such as personality and language.
Generally, we receive information about the others via two basic routes: direct contact between us and the others and social channels through which information is sent. When we develop our opinions about others, our personal direct contact with the out-group influences our view. We perceive the others in a certain way, based on our experiences and stories we've heard, which we then share with members of our in-group. Various social channels also give us information about the others. We use mass media, we listen to political figures, we have our social networks, we read books and watch movies, and we go to educational institutions. These are the societal, social, cultural, and educational channels through which we receive views about the world. We might regard some of these social channels as authoritative in the validity of the information they provide: we often see books, newspapers, television, and radio as 'right'. In other words, we might simply believe what these channels tell us.
This credulity is important, as the media is often our only source of information about different cultures. Often the less we know about the others, the more we rely on newspapers and television for information. What we do not always see is that the media does not always provide us with the simple 'truth', and can provide false or ideologically-slanted information. Further, we do not always notice that we are prone to adopting the views of media outlets, including stereotypes about other cultures.
Even though the media is only one of the channels that transmits stereotypes, it is worth taking a closer look at how they are perpetuated by newspapers and television. Especially at times of conflict, we might find it of interest to see how mass media present and describe ethnic and cultural minorities or other sides involved in conflict. Often, facts are personified and oversimplified, and we end up with ideological content and negative representations of 'enemy' figures. If we decided to analyse the news coverage of a certain conflict with an out-group – regardless of whether it is a minority or another nation – we might find a sharp division into in-group and out-group, into us and the others, with us usually being the good guys and the others the bad guys. This could make for an oversimplification of a complex situation, and perhaps even a warped representation of reality. We may be presented with stereotypes far removed from a useful, accurate categorisation of the outside world.
'Us' and 'the others' in conflict
To see how an out-group might be negatively portrayed during a conflict, let us take a closer look at the Austrian print media's coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis of 2008/09 (examples are translated from German). At the end of November 2008, Russia and the Ukraine started to experience difficulties with each other concerning gas prices, payments, and contracts with the result that, on 1 January 2009, the Russian gas company Gazprom turned off gas supplies and halted deliveries of gas through the European Union via the pipelines running through the Ukraine. The gas supplies were eventually restarted on 20 January 2009. Even though this conflict did not concern Austria directly, it had an impact in that Austria did not receive gas from Gazprom, leading to fears that Austrian citizens would not be able to heat their homes in the winter.
With this background in mind, we can now turn our attention to the specific (linguistic) methods used by two of Austria's newspapers - the 'quality' die Presse and tabloid Kronen Zeitung – to represent different groups. These publications' coverage of events between mid-November 2008 and the end of February 2009 provides examples of how images are created and how in-groups and out-groups are represented. News stories, feature articles, editorials, and op-eds offer us insights into the use of 'us' and 'the others'.
In the coverage of the gas crisis, we find the mechanisms mentioned above: personification, oversimplification, divisions into in-groups and out-groups, and negative representations of the out-group. Personification is common: we often come across Putin, Timoschenko, and Janukovich standing for Russia and the Ukraine, with Russia, the Kremlin, and Brussels as acting figures in the conflict. The media focus on just a few people and places.
Oversimplification and the division into in-group and out-group can be seen in the way the two newspapers continue to frame things in terms of the Cold War. As in the Cold War, East and the West are presented as opposite sides: the EU is still the West, while Russia is trying to establish itself as a great power or is looking for neocolonial exploitation of former Soviet States and Comecon countries. In this way, the papers present a simplistic view of us and the others.
Generally, the papers make a simple division between 'the good guys' - Austria and the European Union - and 'the bad guys', Russia and the Ukraine. The Austrian press use positive words like delighted, support, and trying to mediate in connection with the EU, but negative words for Russia and the Ukraine: threaten, fear, angry, anger, enemies, evil, bandits, shock.
The gas conflict itself is a negative event which the media makes all the more negative by presenting it as though it were a war. The threat of a war is shown as real for Austrians. We often read words like war, conflict, crisis, and quarrel. We have aggressors and victims: Russia and the Ukraine wage their conflict at the expense of Europe; Russia is turning off the gas, and Austrians are in danger of freezing to death.
The media reinforce the negative image of the out-group by bringing up other stereotypes. In articles and stories not directly related to the gas crisis, media give us all the stereotypes considered to be typically Russian: contract killings, the Mafia, Anna Politkovskaya, Chechnya, war crimes, corruption and human trafficking. The picture we get is certainly not a positive one: Russia seems like a threatening, dark, unknown, dangerous place.
Wherever we are, stereotypes are part of our lives. Media are part of our lives. And in-groups and out-groups are part of our lives. Therefore it is important to consider how much of 'us' and 'the others' is reality and how much of it is a creation, especially at times of conflics.
This article is based on an article written by the author in Russian on the use of stereotypes about Russia by the Austrian mass media during the 2008-09 gas crisis.
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