edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli


Folk classification

Preliminary editorial placeholder article; to be replaced when an author is found for an improved article

Table of contents:
1. Introduction: Definition and synonyms
2. Interdisciplinary research on folk classification
3. Relations between scholarly classification and folk classification
4. Cultural relativist versus cultural universalist views
5. Conclusion: The relevance of folk classification for the KO community

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1. Introduction: Definition and synonyms

Folk classification (or folk taxonomy) is → classification by ordinary people (as opposed to classification by scientists, scholars, and professionals). It may be the classification of plants and animals (as studied in ethnobiology, which is the study of the way living organisms are named, classified, treated, or used by different human cultures). It may also be about lay people’s classification of all other kinds of things (e.g., of celestial bodies, as in astrology, in ceramics, e.g., Kempton 1981; in colors, e.g., Davidoff 2015, in religious beliefs, e.g., Durkheim [1912]/2012; etc. etc.). In some domains, especially popular arts (painting, film literature, music etc.), it seems more difficult to distinguish lay and professional classifications because sociological studies of users have increasingly informed the scholarly communities [1].

Folk classification may also be termed “commonsense classification”, “intuitive classification”, “lay classification”, “indigenous classification”, “naïve classification” [2] (this term related to naïve domain theories (for an overview see Gelman and Noles 2011), such as “naïve biology”/”folk biology” [3], “naïve physics”/”folk physics” (e.g. Proffitt 1999), “naïve psychology”/”folk psychology” [4], “naïve sociology”/”folk sociology” (Hirschfeld 1999) etc. The term “primitive classification” was used by Durkheim and Mauss ([1903]/2010), but bear pejorative connotations and may misrecognize the value of folk classification. Folk classification has also been termed “quasi-scientific classification” and “vernacular classification” (e.g., by Wilkins and Ebach 2014, 81).

Folk classification as used here should not to be confused with the classification of peoples, for example, as “races”, cf. Shanklin (2008), although such a classification can be one kind of folk classification. Neither should folk classification be confused with → folksonomy or with individual variations in classification [5].

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2. Interdisciplinary research on folk classification

Hull (1999, 478) provides information about the disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in this field:

Several of the authors in this volume [Medin and Atran 1999] have produced bodies of work that are genuinely interdisciplinary, combining anthropology, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, history of science, and even philosophy.

The reason evolutionary biology is among the listed disciplines is, of course, that the book is about the domain folk biology. The general contributors to folk classification are the fields: anthropology and cognitive psychology with input from the specific domains, science studies and philosophy. In the introduction to the book, the psychologist and anthropologist Medin and Atran (1999, 2-8) provide a critical discussion and comparison of the role of cognitive psychology and anthropologists (ethnobiologists) in the research on folk biological. The critique of cognitive psychology says (3): “In short, it would not be much of a caricature to suggest that cognitive psychology does not quest for universality, but rather assumes it”. In addition, psychologists show little concern about reference (i.e., the objects that are classified, which demand input of domain knowledge). The criticism raised against anthropology is (5): “Again at the risk of caricature one might argue that ethnobiological observations often fall short of the minimum needed for scientific progress. In many cases ethnobiological facts and observations are presented in summary form without any clear indication of their source”.

The present article draws, as it will be clear, much on philosophy, which is seen as a very important contributor to this field. In the conclusion we shall consider how folk classifications have been considered in library and information science (LIS) with knowledge organization (KO).

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3. Relations between scholarly classification and folk classification

There are different views about the relations between scientific/scholarly classifications [6] on the one hand and folk classifications on the other hand. Wikipedia (2021) wrote: “Folk taxonomies are generated from social knowledge and are used in everyday speech. They are distinguished from scientific taxonomies that claim to be disembedded from social relations and thus objective and universal”. We have already seen in the last endnote that scientific classifications are perhaps only seldom based on consensus. Some researchers further deny that scientific classifications are objective and universal (see, e.g., Barnes, Bloor and Henry 1996). Bloor (1982) defends Durkheim and Mauss’ ([1903]/2010) view that: “the classification of things reproduces the classification of men”, that, for example the concept → “hierarchy” first existed in the social organization in societies, and later developed into an abstract concept used for classification in general. The same for other cognitive categories like space, time, number, and class. This view seems closely related to the claim that broader cultural issues in some way influences both folk classifications and scientific classifications.

One possible relation between scientific classification and folk classification is that folk classification is based on scientific classification (although in delayed and simplified ways). There have, for example, since about 1990 been a revolution in the scientific classification of birds (among many other kinds of things), cf. Fjeldså (2013), caused by, among other things, the use of DNA-analysis. This new classification is also used in new books about birds and field books used by amateur ornithologists. Sooner or later, it will probably be taught in schools, and it is not difficult to imagine that the main structure of this new (but still unfinished) classification will form the basis for folk classification in the future. Medin and Atran (1999, 11) wrote:

Although there has been little systematic study of the input conditions and processes by which scientific concepts are assimilated into lay thinking, there is hardly any doubt that science is pervasively involved in how people in our culture come to think about the biological world […] most of the general population is heavily exposed to scientific concepts in one form [or] another through schooling, nature programs on television, popular books, the press and so forth.

Another view is that folk classifications are rough systems for fields where no scholarly system was initially available, e.g., in oral cultures which do not know Western taxonomies. They tend to be accurate for items of interest to practical life, such as game animals, and much broader for those of less relevance, such as ant species and gradually to be replaced by scientific classifications. Medin and Atran (12) also wrote that although “ethnobiologists might well agree with psychologists about referring to lay biology in our culture as ‘naïve’” this is in relation to the relative sophistication of science as well as folkbiological knowledge in other cultures, on which is said (12):

The elaborate folkbiological inventories that ethnobiologists have shown time and again for many small-scale subsistence societies often match and occasionally even surpass in intricacy and accuracy the knowledge of field biologists working in the same locales as those societies.

Thus, some folk classifications are not primitive versions of scientific classifications but may match or perhaps even be more advanced than scientific classifications in certain respects. This has been reported, for example, about knowledge of potato varieties in the traditional agriculture of Liguria, Italy:

different local names can be referred to the same variety, but also, on the contrary, different varieties are called by the same name. To Giacumin from Vobbia, the same quarantina potatoes that are cultivated in Croce, Pentema, and Montoggio, villages just few kilometers away, are completely different varieties that he calls by different names, and I don't know how but he is able to tell them apart! (Angelini 2005)

This brings us to the third view about the relations between folk and scientific classifications: That folk classifications are not more primitive or temporary classifications to be replaced by scientific ones, but are alternative classifications (Gnoli 2011) fulfilling other tasks than the scientific ones (and sometimes even reveal scientific classifications as based on problematic assumptions [7]). Medin and Atran wrote (12):

If they [folk concepts and scientific concepts] are not really different in kind but only in degree of sophistication, then there may be no reason for holding onto the lay concept at all, except perhaps as an optional psychological convenience for navigating the everyday […].

If scientific classification and folk classification are not different in kind, we may be less interested in folk classification because it cannot teach us important new principles about classification. If, on the other hand, they represent different kinds of classification there are two options: Either folk concepts and classifications ought to be replaced by scientific concepts (Medin and Atran (13) provide an example of folk classification that should be discarded in line with the belief in witches or in race as a biological category) or the two kinds of classifications have different roles why folk classifications may be better fitted to the daily need of people compared to scientific classifications. The view that different cultures (or social groups, fields of knowledge or scientific paradigms) need different classifications is a pluralist and culture relative view, whereas the view that there is one dominant (or best) classification for all purposes is a monist view.

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4. Cultural relativist versus cultural universalist views

Atran (1999, 317) described the two positions in relation to folk classification:

Universalists highlight folk taxonomic principles that are only marginally influenced by people’s needs and uses to which taxonomies are put (Berlin 1992). Relativists emphasize those structures and contents of folk biological categories that are fashioned by cultural interest, experience, and use (Ellen 1993). Universalists grant that even within a culture there may be different special-purpose classifications (beneficial/noxious, domestic/wild, edible/inedible, etc.). However, there is only one cross-culturally universal kind of general-purpose taxonomy, which supports the widest possible range of inductions about living kinds. This distinction between special- and general-purpose folk biological classifications parallels the distinction in philosophy of science between artificial versus natural classification (Gilmour and Walters 1964 [1963]).

The debate between relativists and universalists is probably most developed and clear in research about color classification (often called “color categorization”, particularly by psychologists). As this encyclopedia expects soon to publish an article → “Color classification in natural languages” we shall not go deep into this domain here, but some general concepts will be used in order to discuss folk classification in general. Briscoe (2021, 456) mentions that human beings with normal, trichromatic vision have the capacity to discriminate approximately 2 million different shades of colour. Despite the fine-grained specificity with which we perceive colour, we tend to think and speak about colour in terms of a comparatively much small number of coarse-grained categories. English, for example, contains only 11 basic colour terms (BCT) — black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and grey — while the unwritten languages of many non-industrialized societies contain as few as two or three BCTs. A problem, that has for a long time been central in cognitive science, anthropology and philosophy is whether this reduction of the millions of colors to a few used in our language and thinking is constrained by our universal physiological and psychological make-up, or if it is determined by our needs (as suggested by the well-known view that Eskimo has more words for snow compared, for example, to English, because they have a need to better differentiate kinds of snow) [8].

Briscoe (2021, 456-7; numbered listing emphasized) wrote:

The colour categorization debate has been traditionally framed as a conflict between ‘universalist’ and ‘relativist’ conceptions of the relation between language, thought, and perception […]. To simplify greatly,
Strong universalism maintains:
(1) that coarse-grained colour concepts corresponding to BCTs are unlearned, psychological universals that recur across maximally different cultures;
(2) that the psychological universality of these colour concepts is due to the perceptual salience of their best examples or ‘foci’; and, finally,
(3) that the representation of colour categories in language has no influence on the way colours are represented at the level of either thought or perception.
Strong linguistic relativism, in contrast, denies claim (1):
(1) basic colour concepts aren’t psychological universals, but vary instead with cultural and communicative needs.
(2) Hence, there are no cross-cultural patterns in colour categorization and colour-naming practices that demand scientific explanation, as assumed by claim (2).
(3) Strong linguistic relativists also deny claim (3), maintaining instead that colour terms are the primary vehicles of colour category representation and, strikingly, that an object’s apparent colour can vary as a function of the colour terms present in the perceiver’s language. In denying claim (3), strong linguistic relativism has an affinity with the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). [9]

This debate is closely related to the problem of realism vs. idealism/constructivism. The universalist view is that groupings may stand out given only (a) the world’s objective attributes and (b) the human perceptual system, where (a) is the realist position, whereas (b) is a cognitivist, constructivist position. Both may be universalist in that they imply that either the world’s objective attributes or universal characteristics in our cognitive system dictates one correct classification. The culture relativist view, on the other hand, is related to social constructivism by claiming that in addition to the world and the human perceptual system, issues such as particular goals, needs, and interests may play a role in classifying (this view is therefore often called “the utilitarian view”). This is therefore about the role of the classifier as a social and cultural being and his or her knowledge, views, and needs. Malt (1995) suggested that both views may be partly correct (141):

objective facts of nature appear to dominate in cases when the world as filtered through the human perceptual system presents itself in discrete chunks. Such cases include biological categories at a middle level of abstraction. The […] human intellect in its role as classifier, becomes more important when nature and perception do not by themselves deliver the world prepackaged into obvious chunks. Such cases include biological categories at higher, and to some extent lower, levels of abstraction, and potentially many common categories in other domains.

Cognitivism is a position according to which folk-taxonomic structures are universal in a nontrivial sense due to universal, biological characteristics of our cognitive system. This view is called “convergence metaphysics” by Ludwig (2018) [10], who wrote (416-7):

[T]he prominence of convergence metaphysics cannot be understood independently of debates about universal cognitive structures that dominated the early days of the cognitive revolution. Universalism constituted a core theme in founding documents of volution, from Miller’s (1956) hypothesis of a general capacity of the human short-term memory to Chomsky’s (1965) universal grammar. Anthropologists who joined this young movement in the context of an “ethnoscientific” program often aimed for analogous insights about general rules and structures below the “surface” of cultural diversity. For example, Casagrande (1963:280) argued that anthropologists and linguists share “the task of uncovering the common pattern, or the universal design, that underlies the exuberant variety of the particular configurations that we call cultures and languages”. Convergence metaphysics would have been hardly possible without these universalistic ambitions that ethnobiologists shared with their peers in linguistics and psychology: instead of emphasizing the diversity of perspectives on the biological world, cognitive ethnobiology aimed at identifying underlying structures of convergence in classificatory systems.

Ludwig describes the rise and fall of cognitivism in folk classification and writes (423): “A pluralist metaphysics of ethnobiological classification provides resources to build bridges between methodological traditions by integrating concerns about locality and classification”. He also regrets that “debates about the metaphysics of ethnobiological classification have been largely in the doldrums since the 1990s”.

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5. Conclusion: The relevance of folk classification for the KO-community

There is a growing interest in the LIS and KO communities for developing services better suited for indigenous people. For example, Brian Deer (1945–2019) developed the Brian Deer Classification System (BDCS) (see Cherry and Mukunda 2015 and Doyle, Lawson and Dupont 2015). Littletree and Metoyer (2015) is about developing a thesaurus, while Duarte and Belarde-Lewis (2015) is about ontologies for indigenous people. There are also attempts to adjust existing knowledge existing systems to the needs of indigenous peoples, such as the Dewey Decimal Classification (Green 2015), the Library of Congress Subject Headings (Bone and Lougheed 2018) and → metadata standards (Montenegro 2019). There are also theoretical articles pointing out the problems of the traditional approaches to LIS and pointing towards the need for epistemological and critical studies (e.g., Littletree, Belarde-Lewis and Duarte 2020). Finally, an encyclopedia article about “Indigenous Librarianship” in LIS can be mentioned (Burns et al. 2009). It seems odd, however, that although the → user-based and cognitive approach have been influential in LIS and KO (see Hjørland 2013), this seems not to have been related to the field of folk classification as here presented. It is, for example, not visible in citations in the literature (it should be said, though, that the user-based and cognitive approach does not seem to have been much used regarding classification).

Considering the relation between folk classifications and scientific classifications, the main trend in LIS has been to follow Henry Bliss (1933), who argued (p. 37): “To make the [bibliographic] classification conform to the scientific and educational organization of knowledge is to make it the more practical”: Most bibliographic classification systems and → knowledge organization systems have followed scientific and scholarly classifications rather than folk classifications. Systems such as the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) were in their heydays maintained by many international groups of subject specialists, and today’s front-end technology, the → ontologies, are clearly based on scientific and scholarly concepts. In relation to classification systems for public libraries the same applies, and the public libraries may be seen, like schooling, nature programs on television, popular books, and the press to contribute to disseminate the scientific world views (although library classifications often reflect outdated science, cf. Blake 2011, 469-70).

It is important to realize that research on folk classification addresses and illuminates fundamental problems in classification research which is important for LIS and KO, and which is in line with the increasing influence of pluralist philosophy. Andersen and Skouvig (2017) edited a book with the subtitle: “Caught between global structures and local meaning”, which seems closely related to what is discussed in this article.

If we assume that objects in the world can be described realistically, and that such descriptions are used for classifying the objects, it is possible, as the pluralists say, to be realist (objects do have the properties used for the classification) and at the same time to deny that there is only one correct way to classify things, as the monist view will have it. Dupré (1993) introduced the term “promiscuous realism” for this view. This is strongly associated with a utilitarian or pragmatic view, that different classifications are needed for different purposes and that a given classification cannot be evaluated without considering the goals it is meant to serve. Research on folk classification may also contribute clarifying such fundamental issues.

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1. About classification in popular music Venrooij and Schmutz (2015, 799) wrote: "On the one hand, classification systems arise out of processes of social distinction, whereby consumers use cultural objects to mark social boundaries. These 'ritual classifications' can thus be influenced by social structural factors at the societal level — such as stratification systems, elite cohesion, social and geographic mobility, etc. — that generate demand for cultural boundaries. On the other hand, classification systems are also influenced and mediated by 'classification processes' at the production side. DiMaggio (1987) identifies commercial classifications (the classifications used by commercial producers to market their products), administrative classifications (created and enforced by the state), and professional classifications (classifications driven by the incentives of artists to differentiate and mark boundaries). The study of classification systems thus needs to be attentive to the extent to which the categorical demands of consumers and the categories used by producers overlap, diverge, or mutually reinforce each other".
In his article about film genres, Bondebjerg (2001, 162) wrote: "In literary genre theory Todorov (Todorov [1970], 1975) made a distinction between theoretical and historical genres. Theoretical genres are defined in more general terms by criticism and theory and historical genres are defined as genres actively used and recognized by critics and readers". These two kinds of genres are by subsequent researchers used as a starting point for further developments in relation to film.

2. The term "naïve classification" has been used in another, very unfortunate, way by Beghtol (2003; 2004a), who claimed that classifications made by library and information professionals for information retrieval are "professional" classifications, whereas those made by other fields are "naïve". She wrote (Beghtol 2004a, 19): "Classifications for information retrieval can be called "professional" classifications and classifications in other fields can be called "naïve" classifications because they are developed by people who have no particular interest in classificatory issues". Hjørland and Nicolaisen (2004) wrote that it is wrong to consider LIS classification as more professional than domain classifications, on the contrary, LIS classifications depend very much on domain classifications. This provoked a reaction from Beghtol (2004b) and a rejoinder from Nicolaisen and Hjørland (2004). It can be added that also the association between LIS classification and information retrieval is problematic, as scientific and scholarly classifications also serve information retrieval.

3. Atran (1999, 317) defined "Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world". See also Medin and Atran (1999).

4. About folk psychology Baker (1999, 319) wrote: "[T]here are two different things that 'folk psychology' has come to mean and they are not always distinguished: (1) commonsense psychology that explains human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions, expectations, preferences, hopes, fears, and so on; (2) as an interpretation of such everyday explanations as part of folk theory, comprising a network of generalizations employing concepts like belief, desire, and so on. The second definition—suggested by Sellars (1963) and dubbed 'theory-theory' by Morton (1980)—is a philosophical account of the first".

5. Individual variations in classification have been studied in studies of "consistency of indexing" (see Lancaster 2003, 68-82). In astronomy, experimental psychology, and other fields of science, the term personal equation, in 19th- and early 20th-Century science, referred to the idea that every individual observer had a stable and inherent bias when it came to measurements and observations. This individual bias was measured and used to calculate more precise measures (see Hoffmann 2007).

6. It is important to realize that scientific/scholarly classifications not always are based on consensus. Broadfield (1946, p. 69-70) wrote: "Consensus is most likely to appear among the unenlightened, of whom it is characteristic to be unanimous on the truth of what is false. In intellectual matters agreement is rare, especially in live issue". Thus, it is perhaps truer to say that scientific classifications are never based on full consensus. (See, however, Cole 1992, Chapter 5: "Consensus in the Natural and Social Sciences", 102-36 in which it is shown that in relation to what is considered "core knowledge", as displayed by textbooks, the degree of consensus is much higher in the sciences compared to the social sciences.) The periodical system of chemistry and physics may be an exception from the claim that consensus never exists, but even here are disagreements about some specific elements, see, for example, Vernon (2020). Pluralism (which recognizes many equally correct views) is a growing position in the philosophy of science and in classification research. Concerning pluralism in classification research, Richards (2016) and Mai (2010) can be mentioned. Richards finished his book about biological classification in the chapter "The Essential Tension" and wrote (285) that the practice of biological classification will continue to be fraught with problems that arise from a fundamental psychological tendency in humans. May (2010, 627) wrote: "The purpose of this paper is to establish pluralism as the basis for bibliographic classification theory and practice". It should also be mentioned that in the history of, for example, biological classification, there have been much debate whether a given classification is "natural" of "artificial" (and about what these terms mean). Therefore, folk classification may not have one "correct" scientific classification to be compared to.

7. A good example of how "folk", in the form of gay activist groups, has changed a scientific classification is the case about removing homosexuality in the second edition of the → Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 (see Drescher 2015).

8. Martin (1986) is a critical review of the evidence for the view that Eskimo has more words for snow. The view lacks empirical support. Nonetheless, the cultural-relativist idea that utilitarian / pragmatic issues play a major role for how human classify is an important view.

9. The so-called Whorf hypothesis, also known as "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" and "the linguistic relativity hypothesis" will be discussed in relation to color classification in the forthcoming IEKO article "Color classification in natural languages", in which it is also called the "Vico-Herder-Humboldt-Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" to show its deeper historical origin. As the quote by Briscoe reveals, this hypothesis claims that different languages influence the way in which individuals perceive and thinks about objects, but the hypothesis is not closed, as Briscoe's article seems to indicate. Lucy (2015, 903) wrote: "Linguistic relativity stands in close relation to semiotic-level concerns with the general relation of language and thought, and to discourse-level concerns with how patterns of language use in cultural context can affect thought. Linguistic relativity is distinguished both from simple linguistic diversity and from strict linguistic determinism".

10. This article contains valuable comments from Eugene Anderson (423-4), Roy Ellen (424-6), Natalia Hanazaki (426-7), Eugene S. Hunn (427-8), L. M. Rival (428-9), Aung Si (429-30), Matthew H. Slater (430-1) and Daniel A. Weiskopf (431-2), as well as the author's reply to these comments (432-5).

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Hjørland, Birger and Claudio Gnoli. 2021. “Folk classification”. Preliminary editorial placeholder article. In ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization, eds. B. Hjørland and C. Gnoli, .

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