Concepts, Categories and Perception


Continuing on the idea of perception I felt it necessary to distinguish between concept (our own interpretation of an object) and categories (to place in a particular group or class which share attributes or features in common). We are raised to believe that there are two sorts of people: male and female, but how do we decide this when looking at someone?

In terms of categorization it’s the information we retrieve through stimuli, the information existing before our eyes, the physical attributes and properties of an object or individual. A concept is a mental representation of a category. We each have our own experience, memories, ideas and pre-existing knowledge, which help us categorize something. Concepts serve important mental functions: they group related entities together into classes. Generally, we think our mental concepts as being derived from the actual categorical structure of the real world, but it’s not always the case. What we see as male or female, may not actually be that, such as when looking upon the beautiful lady boys in Thailand! Although, their exterior is feminine and beautiful, their genitalia and I.D belong to the opposite sex.

The question is then whether the mind is solely influenced by the categorical structure of the world, or whether the mind imposes such structures. In other words, do these categories already exist in the world, or do they only exist in the mind.  We are raised believing there is male and female but in reality there is so much more than that. In realizing this we still try and categorize ourselves and others as male or female. To what extent does the categorical structure of the social world exist in the real world outside the mind and to what extent is this structure imposed on the world by the social perceiver?

Even those who are transgender, transsexual and intersex identify themselves as either male or female and represent themselves in such ways. And so I realise how difficult people find it to deviate from the categories of male and female. I feel this is the result of both society and social persons. As outlined and suggested earlier being recognized as either male or female within society makes for a more successful and comfortable life, as these are the norms everyone is expected to live by. The fact that those who feel a conflict between their gender and sex still want to be perceived as either male or female adds fuel to the fire. Even these individual feel they must comply and fit within on side or the other side of the gender binary.

Catherine MacKinnon suggests that a person’s gender is separate to a person’s sex. Gender meaning man and woman is socially constructed and sex meaning male or female is biologically defined.  Sex is the physical body and function whilst gender is a key part of identity and role within society. As soon as we accept and realise that gender and sex are separate, I feel the way transsexuals, transgender and intersex people are perceived and represented would alter. The way people are categorized and perceived should not be governed by their sex, instead by their gender. The suggestion that gender is socially constructed is a strong point and links to the way in which social persons perceive themselves and others. If someone acts feminine they will be perceived as feminine. But these feminine acts are derived from concepts of what is feminine from society and experience. As a result, the perception of gender is the result of the vicious cycle of our own concepts as well as the norms set by society, making it difficult to decide which impacts the other more.


MacKinnon, C A.. (Jan 1989). Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy. Chicago Journal. Vol. 99, No. 2 (2), 314-346.

Smith, E. E and Medin,  D.L. (1981), Categories and Concepts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, G. L, (2002) The Big Book of Concepts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT Press.

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