The Study of Categories and Its Relevance for Policymaking

Categories are central organizing structures in all human societies (Hancock 2007, 64). They are key in attributing sameness and difference (Stone 2002, 308), based on a combination of 'achieved and ascribed traits' (Massey 2007, 1). Achieved characteristics are acquired in the course of living (e.g., being a member of a particular income class or a university graduate), while ascribed characteristics are set at birth (e.g., age and sex) (ibid.).

The study of categories is well developed in sociology and public policy. Gender studies and migration and ethnic studies focus on categories in their critical assessments of processes of exclusion and discrimination of women, migrants, and ethnic minorities. In doing so, scholars in these fields examine social stratification, referring to 'the unequal distribution of people across social categories that are characterized by differential access to scarce resources' (ibid.). These resources may be material (e.g., wealth), symbolic (e.g., social standing), or emotional (e.g., love). Stratification systems, Massey (2007) argues, order people vertically from a top to a bottom. A society's degree of stratification is typically measured in terms of inequality, 'which assesses the degree of variability in the dispersion of people among ranked social categories' (ibid., 2).

Stratification can be traced in two powerful mechanisms: 'the allocation of people into social categories, and the institutionalization practices that allocate resources unequally across these categories' (ibid.:, 5–6). These mechanisms produce categorical inequality, which is 'a pattern of social stratification that is remarkably “durable” in the sense that it is reproduced across time and generations' (Tilly 1998 cited by Massey 2007, 6). Stereotypes evolving from categorization are usually produced by those located at the top of the stratification system, namely, the people who control the most resources. For instance, whites in the USA have perpetuated negative stereotypes of African-Americans as unintelligent, hypersexual, and violent (Massey 2007, 15). Individual members of the stereotyped out-group tend to experience discrimination and exclusion over centuries (ibid.). Categorical mechanisms are thus deeply embedded within both the infrastructure of social institutions and cultural practices (ibid., xvi). As a result, categorical distinctions affect not only formal public settings, but also private life (ibid., 7).

States and policymakers use categories to describe social phenomena and turn them into policy problems on which they can intervene (Yanow 2003). Categories in this sense can be considered framing devices, with a frame defined as an 'organizing principle that transforms fragmentary or incidental information into a structured and meaningful problem, in which a solution is implicitly or explicitly included' (Verloo 2005, 20). Categories reflect social realities, but at the same time construct reality (Yanow 2003). State-defined categories used in policymaking may construct, implicitly or explicitly, ethnicized, gendered, or classed target groups. For instance, as a result of labour and postcolonial migration, the Netherlands government identified among others Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese, and Antilleans as a categorical target group and developed specific integration policies for them. Despite the internal ethnic, racial, and religious diversity within this group, these policies reflected reality at a certain point in time as immigrants started to organize themselves along the categorical units of Dutch integration policy. However, the naming of these groups also resulted in the monitoring of them in official statistics. As a result, their children—the so-called “second generation”—are also categorized on the basis of the country of birth of their parents. In this way their identity is attributed.

Categories are crucial for the formulation of policies, and they are a central point of departure in studies of inequality. Categorical inequality may result when those in power enact policies that give certain groups more access to resources than others and systematically channel social and cultural capital to particular categories of people (Massey 2007, 23). In the context of migration and integration, categories are used to define target groups for policies. In some countries such categories are ascribed, while in others they are based on “self-identification”. We described above the Netherlands' use of categories based on the birth country of immigrants or their parents. In the UK people are asked to themselves choose between a number of broad race-based categories and subcategories based on ethnicity. Censuses are a powerful tool for states to collect information about the “origin” and mobility of their residents. The European Union (EU) 2008 census regulation requires member states to collect information about residents' country of birth (distinguishing between EU and non-EU member states) and country of citizenship (EC 2011). This has enabled the EU to produce statistics about resident foreigners and foreign-born EU citizens. Although this may appear to be a neutral activity, state institutions may reorganize these data and allocate identities to residents that are not at all neutral. For instance, the Netherlands and Flemish (Belgium) governments have used the term “non-Western allochthon” to demarcate the target group for integration policies (Jacobs and Rea 2012; Yanow and Van der Haar 2013). In the Netherlands, the term is officially reserved for persons who themselves or at least one of their parents were born in Turkey, Africa, Latin America, or Asia. In practice, this means that especially migrants from Muslim countries are considered the problem category (Groenendijk 2011, 22; see also Yanow and Van der Haar 2013). The concept of allochthon first appeared in a 1971 report on post-Second World War migration (Verwey-Jonker 1971). The term gained ground in 1984 when the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics started to monitor the lives of migrants and their children. The term appears in policy discussions from 1989 onwards (WRR 1989). The taxonomy it implies, and especially the distinction between Western and non-Western allochthones, creates a hierarchy between individuals based on their country of birth (Yanow and Van der Haar 2013). Much analysis of categories has been inspired by the interpretive study of what is considered to be the problem (diagnosis) and the proposed solution (Verloo 2005). Studying the diagnostic part of policy texts is a useful way to uncover why particular groups are problematized and singled out as target groups, while others are not. The target group is usually formulated in reference to existing social categories, such as race/ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. The proposed solution then is captured in policymaking. To understand who are targeted explicitly and implicitly by immigration and integration policies the following section examines what we term the “policy chain”, which determines which policies immigrants are subjected to from the moment of their arrival.

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