In times of rapid technological development and social shifts, individuals and communities often experience social dislocation. They struggle to redefine–and reinforce–social categories as a means of locating themselves and others within society, regaining structure and stability. An underlying function of this schematization is social compartmentalization – in which the delimitation of boundaries allows individuals not only to locate the self relationally in society but to isolate and distance perceived social threats from the self to establish a sense of security.
In 19th century England, Victorians invented categories to define and identify themselves in relation to others amidst social and technological flux. Individuals and communities faced changing notions of class and social mobility, industrialization, political developments such as the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, and, notably, the popularization of evolution theory and other scientific advancements. To support this need to impose hierarchy and categories and justify them, Victorians often employed what are now considered pseudo-sciences. Physiognomy, for example, was a prevalent means of ordering individuals socially by their physical traits, often related to race — for example, facial features or skin, eye, and hair color — and class — malnutrition or illness causing deformity. Meanwhile, phrenology, a discipline using skull measurements as a basis for inferences about intelligence and character, maintained its popularity for the first half of the 1800s and shaped medical thought. These practices were perhaps most frequently used to attempt to quantify undesirable traits, such as criminality, associated with threat.
In an epoch of globalization, the sense of dislocation is heightened because conflict and change take place on an international scale, but the methods by which individuals attempt to define and locate the self socially remain eerily reminiscent of those of Victorian England. Today, there is a new culture of hyper-quantification that attempts to schematize people and society using numbers. Academics, pollsters, and corporations use data and polling fields attempt to identify and quantify characteristics, traits, and actions in order to define an individual, predict behavior, and categorize him or her. In criminology, this practice is called profiling; in politics and the private sector, we may call it targeting or market research. These practices are sometimes abused for purposes not unlike those of the Victorians, to create false but reassuring categories.
The understanding of why and how individuals appropriate science to create and attempt to uphold social categories and classifications may explain why this month a Sri Lankan intellectual living in Canada tried to create a list of ostensible LTTE sympathizers–“A Who’s Who of Some LTTE Activists, Opponents, Etc.”–and posted it online. Claiming these individuals were supporters of the LTTE, a terrorist organization, made these men and women targets for suspicion, investigation, and even violence. Yet faced with a point-by-point dissection of one entry erroneously labelling an individual an LTTE supporter, the responsible party, Dr. Chandre Dharma-Wardana, conceded that the list was “below our academic standards”–but stood by his “point system” for the categorization of individuals that was the basis for his web site. The Royal Mounted Police of Canada (RMPC) accepted this list uncritically and acted on its claims.
Dharma-Wardana created this data-based process and authored this list in an attempt to define social threat–in this case, support of the LTTE–on the basis of his ideology, misappropriating scientific practices to do so. Although Dharma-Wardana now advertises his willingness to remove the names of any who protest their inclusion on the site, he continues to claim the concept behind his pseudo-scientific results is valid. What his update to the Victorian mania for schematization reveals is the potential for the misuse of a new type of pseudo-science to categorize individuals and classify social threats–and the tremendous consequences such actions may have.
About the author: Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza is an American Luce Scholar, presently an intern with Asian Human Rights Commission