On generalisation

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today we look at generalisation. Is there any value to generalising? What is its relationship to the particular? When is generalisation helpful and when is it a hinderance? And what happens when that relationship is not well understood?

On generalisation

By: Gareth van Onselen

30 January 2012

On close inspection any generalisation is a fiction. But, they do help us make sense of the world. Were we forced to describe definitively the true and infinitely complex nature of things, our ability to analyse those broader forces at play would be untenable; to communicate, impractical. And yet generalisations are more than just a coping mechanism, often they contain within them great wisdom.

The ability to make sense of some more general influence is often the key to understanding individual behaviour – in reaction or submission to its effect. In turn, identifying some commonality can be a great art, for often the general hides away in the particular and it takes much lateral thought to unmask it.

So, it is unwise to dismiss a generalisation out of hand. Likewise, it is equally unwise to assume automatically any generalisation precedes an individual’s response to it. But therein lies its great allure, and danger: The more powerful a generalisation – that is, the more accurately it seems to define the behaviour of individuals – the more tempting it is to reverse that understanding and, rather than look to its individual effect, to assume it is primary; indeed, deliberately to try and extend it to those to whom it does not readily apply.

This is a mistake, for every individual is unique and, whatever their more common traits, they are theirs alone.

For many people there is great comfort to be found in a generalisation – common meaning and an assurance that we are not alone. To the lazy intellectual too, it offers easy analysis. But, most dangerously, demagogues feed off generalisation, it is their very purpose and, in their hands, the potential for much evil.

Those who understand the constraints to generalisation can extract from it great value; those who do not, will only ever shore up ignorance and encourage tyranny.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. This column first appeared in the Business Day.