The Categorical Impulse

The Categorical Impulse: Essays on the Anthropology of Classifying Behavior

Roy Ellen
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Categorical Impulse
    Book Description:

    Classification, as an object of recent anthropological scrutiny came to prominence during the 1960s, exemplified in the British (constructionist) tradition by the writings of Mary Douglas, and in the American ethno-semantics (cognitive) tradition by the likes of Harold Conklin and Brent Berlin. At the time, these approaches seemed by turns to contradict each other, or even to exist in parallel universes. However, over the last 30 years we have witnessed both a renewed interest in classification studies as well as a cross-fertilization of these once antagonistic approaches.

    These essays by one of leading scholars in this field bring together a body of influential and inter-linked work which attempts to bridge the divide between cultural and cognitive studies of classification, and which develops a more embedded and processual approach. In particular, the essays focus on people's categorization of natural kinds as a means through which to obtain an understanding of how classifying behavior in general works, engaging with the ideas of both anthropologists and psychologists. The theoretical background is set out in an entirely new and substantial introduction, which also provides a comprehensive and systematic review of developments in cognitive and social anthropology since 1960 as these have impacted on classification studies. In short, it constitutes a useful and approachable introduction to its subject.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-570-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Roy Ellen
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: Categories, Classification and Cognitive Anthropology
    (pp. 1-30)

    Categories are those entities which the human mind creates in order to make sense of the diversity of experience, by grouping things, attributes and phenomena on the basis of similarity and difference. Categorisation, therefore, is the means by which ‘the uniqueness of each experience is transformed into the more limited set of learned, meaningful categories to which humans and other organisms respond’ (Varela et al. 1993: 176). By comparison, classification is here understood as the way in which categories are related to each other, and the means by which particular cultural patterns are produced. Neither categorisation nor classification are cognitively...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Anthropological Studies of Classification (1996)
    (pp. 31-37)

    Classification is that activity in which objects, concepts and relations are assigned to categories; classifying is the cognitive and cultural mechanism by which this is achieved; and classifications are the linguistic, mental, and other cultural representations which result. Problems arise when the adjectival and nominal status of the root ‘class’ are conflated. This reifies schemes as permanent cultural artifacts or mentally stored old knowledge, when they are more properly understood as the spontaneous and often transient end-product of underlying processes in an individual ‘classifying act’. We might call such a misinterpretation ‘the classificatory fallacy’, and there is every reason to...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Classifying in its Social Context (1979)
    (pp. 38-62)

    The above quotation, drawn from theZoolological Philosophyof Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck, indicates succinctly a perennial problem in anthropology: the confusion of the order of nature with that imposed upon it by humans. It is a problem which it shares with other sciences, but (as with sociology) is posed in a uniquely complex way. Historically, the problem of classifications in anthropology arose from the desire to assign physical and social humanity to groups arranged both spatially and through time. Underlying this has generally been some kind of evolutionary paradigm. The objections to such an enterprise are...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Variable Constructs in Nuaulu Zoological Classification (1975)
    (pp. 63-89)

    Most published ethnographic studies of particular folk classifications have been concerned with the analysis of the structure (or microstructure) of linguistically defined domains, or fragments of domains, and the enumeration of the constituent taxa at different levels within such structures. Aglance at reviews of the literature is sufficient to confirm this fact (see e.g. Sturtevant 1964; Tyler 1969). In this respect the approach has been comparable with any formal analysis of a corpus of linguistic data, and to this extent also the techniques of analysis have had the appearance of being extremely refined, sometimes excruciatingly so. And yet, apart from...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Anatomical Classification and the Semiotics of the Body (1977)
    (pp. 90-116)

    It is now generally accepted that in order to understand symbolic and more general semiotic systems it is necessary to go beyond them and investigate the classificatory structures in which they are set. In some cases the relationship between symbol and category has been worked out in detail, as exemplified in the now considerable literature on classificatory anomalies (Douglas 1966; 1973: 113–67). In others the relationship is less well understood and systematic analysis is still in its infancy. In this chapter I discuss the classificatory basis and some aspects of the semiotic use of that common source of potent...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Grass, Grerb or Weed? The Ethnography of a Plant Life-form (1991)
    (pp. 117-127)

    The contribution of Ralph Bulmer to the study of folk biology has been marked by at least four characteristics: a scrupulous attention to ethnographic detail, a respect for the knowledge of individual informants, an insistence on the necessity to embed classificatory abstractions in overall social and cultural contexts, and a scepticism (often witty, though never disrespectful) of the universalist-evolutionist generalisations of others (e.g. Bulmer 1974; 1985).

    In my own work on the ethnobiology of the Nuaulu of south central Seram, eastern Indonesia, I have tried to emulate, though not always successfully, Bulmerian standards. As a tribute to those standards, I...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Palms and the Prototypicality of Trees (1998)
    (pp. 128-145)

    I wish to open up for discussion the question as to just how universal and prototypical the image and category of tree might be in human psychology and culture, and to explore as a special test case the position of palms in ethnobotanical classifications and symbolic arrays.¹ Palms, as a group of plants (by which I mean here standing palms, not rattans), are of comparative ethnosemantic interest as they are sometimes formally classified as trees in folk and scientific classifications and sometimes not; sometimes labelled as a separate group of plants and sometimes not. Nevertheless, in anthropological studies, in which...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Inedible and the Uneatable (1998)
    (pp. 146-165)

    I want to begin by elaborating what to me seems a basic analytic dichotomy in the study of prohibitions, but which to my knowledge has been the subject of little previous discussion. This is the distinction between those prohibitions which characteristically relate to a limited time-span (such as occur during life-crisis rituals or at menstruation), and those of unlimited duration (such as are typical of what is still conventionally described as ‘totemic’ classification). The first category I call ‘phased’, being those prohibitions that apply to all persons in a particular social category, but only at certain moments in their life-cycle...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Fetishism: A Cognitive Approach (1988)
    (pp. 166-189)

    During the last decade analyses of the various connection between cognition and collective representations, mind and culture, and between ‘mundane’ and ‘symbolic’ classifications, have all received a certain degree of prominence in the professional anthropological literature. In contrast to some writers (e.g. Bloch 1977, 1985), my own view is that the interrelationships between these apparent opposites as evident in particular substantive cases are often far from clear (Chapter 3 in this volume; Ellen 1986b; cf. Harris and Heelas 1979). Here I wish to make the point a little more forcefully in relation to the concept of fetishism, and hope to...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Cognitive Geometry of Nature: A Contextual Approach (1996)
    (pp. 190-206)

    That conceptions of nature vary historically and ethnographically, and are, therefore, themselves intrinsically cultural, is so widely asserted nowadays that it is often assumed to have become a self-evident anthropological truth.¹ Perhaps the best example of this in popular environmentalist discourse, as in some anthropology, is the opposition drawn between the holistic systemic vision of ‘traditional’, ‘tribal’ or ‘archaic’ societies and the dualism of the modern scientific and dominant Judaeo-Christian tradition. How conceptions of nature vary beyond such abstractions is well demonstrated in individual studies, both historical (e.g. Collingwood 1945; Thomas 1983; Horigan 1988; Torrance 1992) and ethnographic. In particular,...

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-224)
  17. Index
    (pp. 225-233)