“Stereotypes” have a bad name, and everybody hates stereotypes. But what exactly is a stereotype?
What people call “stereotypes” are what scientists call “empirical generalizations,” and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. The only problem with stereotypes and empirical generalizations is that they are not always true for all individual cases. They are generalizations, not invariant laws. There are always individual exceptions to stereotypes and empirical generalizations. The danger lies in applying the empirical generalizations to individual cases, which may or may not be exceptions. But these individual exceptions do not invalidate the generalizations.
An observation, if true, becomes an empirical generalization until someone objects to it, and then it becomes a stereotype. For example, the statement “Men are taller than women” is an empirical generalization. It is in general true, but there are individual exceptions. There are many men who are shorter than the average woman, and there are many women who are taller than the average man, but these exceptions do not make the generalization untrue. Men on average are taller than women in every human society (and, by the way, there are evolutionary psychological explanations for this phenomenon, known as the sexual dimorphism in size, but that’s perhaps for a future post). Everybody knows this, but nobody calls it a stereotype because it is not unkind to anybody. Men in general like being taller than women, and women in general like being shorter than men.