New Book by Professor Ásta Uses Philosophy to Address Identity Politics

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Photo of Professor Ásta in front of woodsy area

Polarizing debates over identity play out every day throughout America, from the unisex bathrooms at San Francisco State to the U.S. Census to transphobic policies proposed by the White House. Ásta, a professor of Philosophy, addresses identity politics in her new book Categories We Live By: The Metaphysics of Sex, Gender, Race and Other Social Categories (Oxford University Press).

Ásta has developed a theory of social categories that focuses on how a feature of an individual becomes meaningful to others. Categories such as gender and race are assigned to people institutionally, on a birth certificate or through the U.S. Census. Ásta defines these as “institutional” categories. However, people make their own judgments about others, placing them into a wide range of “communal” categories also including refugees, single mothers and sex kittens. All have significant impacts on how people treat each other.

While social categories can be a positive source of identity and belonging, they often can be oppressive as well.

“What is it for a feature of ours to have significance in a social context?” Ásta asks. “People with certain skin colors get conferred upon them a social status. Should that feature have social significance?”

“Recognizing that some categories are not natural, but social — and learning about it — can be liberating,” she adds.

‘Biology is super messy’

Institutional and social statuses come to a head on the issue of transgender rights. President Trump recently proposed establishing a federally defined institutional status of gender determined by one’s sex assigned at birth, instead of the current recognition of gender largely as an individual’s choice. Several U.S. states have passed laws requiring people to use public restrooms based on the sex assigned to them at birth, as opposed to corresponding to their gender identity.

“Biology is super messy,” Ásta says. “People have created social categories to recognize these things. The categories are conferred upon us. The consequences are often deeply unjust.”

Ásta also addresses race in Categories We Live By. She is a social constructivist about race, and thinks that race is a conferred social status. People get conferred onto them a race status if they are perceived to have the “base property” for the status. The base properties for the conferral of a race status in institutional contexts in the U.S. nowadays is usually geographic ancestry, but in the past has involved a “one-drop rule” such that only merely having 1/32th African ancestry was sufficient for getting conferred the status black.

Her book also explores the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, a woman of Polish ancestry who self-identifies as black and was a regional NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington. When people found out about her ancestry, her social status as an African American was revoked, Ásta says.

“Proof that she didn’t have African American ancestry trumped her self-identity, which shows that as regards race, self-identification only counts as evidence for the presence of the base property for the conferral of the status; it is not itself a base property,” she says. “On the other hand, there are many gender contexts, in which people are trying to track self-identification in the conferral of a gender status.”

Ásta’s is a descriptive theory of social categories. It is not a theory of how gender and race and other categories should be. She thinks that many of them are deeply unjust, and her theory provides tools to analyze the locations of that injustice.


Ásta was one of 37 scholars worldwide to receive a 2016 – 17 fellowship from the National Humanities Center to complete Categories We Live By.

She works mainly in metaphysics, social philosophy and feminist theory, and on related topics in philosophy of language and epistemology. She has written on questions related to essence and modality, response-dependence, realism and anti-realism, naturalism, sex and gender and social construction.

Ásta is a native of Iceland, where people do not have surnames. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined San Francisco State in 2005.

When she discusses her research in class, it helps students clarify and think through issues of social categories, she says.

“They don’t always agree with me, but it offers them conceptual tools,” she says.

— Matt Itelson


Photo courtesy of Ásta

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