Making Up People: The Creation of Categories and People Within Them

By Dalal Badawi

Ian Hacking’s Making Up People challenges the reader to consider the pre-1820 world when certain concepts did not exist, and outlines that an “avalanche of numbers” began in the mid-19th century – a time when statistics became extremely prevalent (Hacking, 161). Hacking’s description: “new slots were created in which to fit and enumerate people,” exemplified the case of Multiple Personality Disorder in 1875 (Hacking, 161). MPD had few reported cases prior to its description, but many more after, and dictates that there are two ways to consider the ‘making up’ of people or things: the nominalist and the realist perspective (Hacking, 164). The nominalist believes that things (such as “stars or algae” [Hacking, 164]) have nothing in common except for the names they are given (Hacking, 164), while the realist finds it remarkable that the world would organize itself into categories for people to name, and addresses that even people come sorted as fat or thin, dead or alive. As human beings we notice these differences and create categories for them. Essentially, categorical differences would exist regardless of whether humans noticed them or not (Hacking, 164). Hacking defines ‘dynamic nominalism’ as an instance where “a kind of person [comes] into being at the same time as the kind itself.” With dynamic nominalism, the categories constantly change and adapt over time (Hacking, 165). Hacking notes “making up people [is] intimately linked to control (Hacking, 164).” By this, he is referring to the fact that methods of measurement such as statistics, are used to define the categories and the people within them. Within control, Hacking outlines the vectors of labeling ‘from above’, which he describes as “a community of experts who create a ‘reality’ that some people make their own (Hacking, 168)”; and labeling ‘from below’, described as “the autonomous behaviour of the person labeled which the expert must face (Hacking, 168).” These methods are further explained in the descriptions provided through Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “Black criminal (5)”, and in Harris Solomon’s “metabolic body (72).”

To build upon Hacking’s theory of ‘making up people’, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of the Modern Urban America, discusses the criminalization of black people, an example of vector labeling ‘from above.’ In Muhammad’s book, the community is doing the labelling of black people through the use of statistics, specifically the 1890 census, by criminalizing the population according to the actions of isolated individuals. Fundamentally, the dominant race is justifying the categorization of the minority as the “other,” through the use of ‘facts’. Muhammad addresses the fact that the fruition of black crime statistics created the category of the “black criminal” (5), and notes that while white people who committed crimes were not seen as a reflection of their entire population, black people were. “In setting the hallmark of his colour upon him, his individuality is in a sense submerged…he becomes a representative of his race (2).” Dynamic nominalism is also exemplified in the creation of the “black criminal (5).” As the criminal emerged, so did the category, and “[B]lackness was refashioned through crime statistics,” which were used to control the population (5). Most importantly, while the categorization of black people is very controlled, that of white people is sloppy.

Harris Solomon’s Short Cuts: Metabolic Surgery and Gut Attachments in India discusses the creation of an entirely different category. The metabolic person through the vector of labeling ‘from below’ describes the creation of this category, by which the behaviour of the person labeled emerges, and the expert must face it (Hacking, 168). Solomon presents the reader with an alternative way of thinking by stating that instead of obesity being a failure of the will, it should instead be perceived as a misalignment of the body that is easily corrected by the surgery (71). Solomon outlines “metabolic surgery turned a person into the instrument of [their] own healing (72).” “If a pathological body’s metabolism grows too strong and lies out of step with a person’s will to change, the only way forward is to reconcile the two through a surgical intervention on a set of attachments to life (71).” This is another example of dynamic nominalism – the metabolic person and the metabolic body emerge hand in hand, just as the consumer of the surgery emerges at the same time that the consumption of the surgery. The population is then controlled through numbers, such as the Body Mass Index or clothing sizes. These same numbers are used to control the categories of body types and those who fit within the categories. Essentially, through the notion of metabolism, the metabolic person emerges.

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Dalal BadawiDalal Badawi is a third year undergraduate student double majoring in Political Science, Diaspora & Transnational Studies, with a minor in philosophy. She was born in Iraq, but was subsequently smuggled out under the seat of a bus when she was four by her parents in an effort to flee the war. She now settles for a more simple life of reading, drinking tea, and advocating against injustice.

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