The development of essentialist reasoning about religion categories in Northern Ireland

  • Kirsty Smyth

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Social essentialism refers to the overarching assumption that members of certain social categories share a common, objective underlying reality or essence. The belief in a category essence can lead individuals to view members of particular social categories as more similar to each other than they really are, as well as encouraging individuals to view membership of particular categories as naturally occurring, stable and innate. This can lead to stereotypical thinking about social categories, as well as prejudice and even discrimination.

Prior research has found that social/cultural context constrains the development of social essentialist reasoning; the most highly emphasised and socially meaningful dimensions stressed within a particular social or cultural context are usually the most strongly essentialised social dimensions. The present research is based on a case study of ethnic essentialism in Israel and aims to examine the development of social essentialist beliefs in a previously unexplored cultural context: the development of essentialist reasoning about ethno-religion categories (Catholic and Protestant) from 6-11 years of age within different educational contexts (de facto segregated and integrated schools) in Northern Ireland (NI). Based on the Israeli findings, it was expected that ethno-religion essentialism would be early-emerging within NI, it would decline in strength across childhood, and attendance at an integrated school would be associated with an earlier decline in ethno-religious essentialism.

This research consisted of a series of three inductive inference studies (Studies 1-3) measuring essentialist beliefs about the inductive potential of religion-, gender- and control categories in NI, one exploratory inference study examining essentialist reasoning about these categories in the United States (US) (Study 4), a questionnaire study examining children’s endorsement of social essentialist beliefs (Study 5) in NI, and a meta-analysis of the NI studies contained within this thesis.

The main findings suggested that ethno-religious essentialism emerges at 8 years of age in NI, and the emergence of essentialist beliefs about the categories Catholic and Protestant is associated with attendance at a de facto segregated school. Exploratory inference data from the US showed a different pattern of reasoning from NI, with US children showing no increasing preference for religion categories across childhood. Different indices of social essentialism used in this research suggested that different aspects of essentialist thinking underpinned children’s reasoning about religion and gender categories. Children appeared to essentialise ethno-religion categories more strongly along the dimension of entitativity, while they essentialised gender categories more strongly along the dimension of naturalness.

Future studies should expand the age range and demographics of the participants taking part in social essentialism research in NI. Research should examine how essentialist beliefs about religion categories are transmitted to young children in NI. Further research should also investigate essentialist reasoning as one potential cognitive source of stereotyping and ethno-religious prejudice in NI, with a view to exploring how challenging essentialist beliefs about religion categories might be useful in forming the basis of a prejudice-reduction intervention, or in supporting current ongoing contact initiatives within NI.
Date of AwardJul 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorRhiannon Turner (Supervisor) & Aidan Feeney (Supervisor)


  • Cognitive development
  • social categories
  • essentialism
  • religion
  • Northern Ireland
  • inductive reasoning

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