Resisting Social Categories

Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility (forthcoming)
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The social categories to which we belong—Latino, disabled, American, woman— causally influence our lives in deep and unavoidable ways. One might be pulled over by police because one is Latino, or one might receive a COVID vaccine sooner because one is American. Membership in these social categories most often falls outside of our control. This paper argues that membership in social categories constitutes a restriction on human agency, creating a situation of non-ideal agency for many human individuals. However, there are ways to resist the causal influence of social categories, and certain socially marginalized groups can be understood as attempting to do just this. I discuss two instances of social category resistance: gender pronouns and the rights of trans individuals. I suggest that the intentional declaration of gender pronouns (“she/her” or “they/them”) can be understood as an attempt to resist the causal powers of nonconsensual social categorization. Similarly, one among many reasons to support the rights of trans individuals is that their self-declarations of gender identity can be viewed as a reclamation of agency in the face of causal constraints imposed by socially defined and imposed gender categories. This lesson can be generalized to people belonging to a broad range of marginalized groups.

Author's Profile

Sara Bernstein
University of Notre Dame


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