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Definition of Essentialism

(noun) The theory that any entity such as an individual, group, object, or concept has innate and universal qualities.

Examples of Essentialism

Essentialism Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification: es·sen·tial·ism

Audio Pronunciation

– American English
– British English

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /i-sEn-shuh-liz-uhm/
  • British English – /i-sEn-shuh-li-zuhm/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /ɪˈsɛnʃəlɪz(ə)m/
  • British English – /ɪˈsɛnʃəlɪz(ə)m/

Usage Notes

  • The essentialist perspective advocates that individuals in categories such as class, ethnicity, gender, or sex share an intrinsic quality that is verifiable through empirical methods (whether currently known or unknown). Furthermore, essentialism focuses on what individuals are, not who they are and individuals are viewed as inherently a certain way and not developing through dynamic social processes.
  • Essentialist ideas can exist within the framework of social constructionism, but social constructionism cannot fit into the framework of essentialism.
  • Essentialism is contrasted to social constructionism.
  • Essentialism contends agency is limited.
  • A type of reductionism.
  • Also called biological reductionism.
  • An (noun) essentialist studies (adjective) essentialistic aspects of society (adverb) essentially to understand its (noun) essentiality or (noun) essentialness.

Related Quotations

  • “For essentialists, race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and social class identify significant, empirically verifiable differences among people. From the essentialist perspective, each of the these exist apart from any social processes; they are objective categories of real differences among people” (Rosenblum and Travis 2012:3).
  • “In her book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, author C. J. Pascoe explains that practices called “gender maneuvering” challenge our assumptions about masculinity. During a year and a half she spent hanging out in a working-class high school doing research, Pascoe noticed girls who appropriated clothing styles, sexual practices, and interactional dominance usually associated with boys, calling into question our assumptions that masculinity is the sole domain of men. These continuing debates confront essentialist assumptions about gender” (Tarrant 2009:75).

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Additional Information

Related Terms


Rosenblum, Karen Elaine, and Toni-Michelle Travis. 2012. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tarrant, Shira. 2009. Men and Feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Works Consulted

Bilton, Tony, Kevin Bonnett, Pip Jones, David Skinner, Michelle Stanworth, and Andrew Webster. 1996. Introductory Sociology. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan.

Brym, Robert J., and John Lie. 2007. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. 2010. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Jary, David, and Julia Jary. 2000. Collins Dictionary of Sociology. 3rd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.

Macionis, John, and Kenneth Plummer. 2012. Sociology: A Global Introduction. 4th ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Macmillan. (N.d.) Macmillan Dictionary. (https://www.macmillandictionary.com/).

Marsh, Ian, and Mike Keating, eds. 2006. Sociology: Making Sense of Society. 3rd ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

O’Leary, Zina. 2007. The Social Science Jargon Buster: The Key Terms You Need to Know. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Oxford University Press. (N.d.) Oxford Dictionaries. (https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/).

Thorpe, Christopher, Chris Yuill, Mitchell Hobbs, Sarah Tomley, and Marcus Weeks. 2015. The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Wikipedia contributors. (N.d.) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/).

Cite the Definition of Essentialism

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “essentialism.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved July 14, 2024 (https://sociologydictionary.org/essentialism/).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

essentialism. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/essentialism/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “essentialism.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Accessed July 14, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/essentialism/.

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“essentialism.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 14 Jul. 2024. <https://sociologydictionary.org/essentialism/>.