Ad hoc categorizations

People create taxonomies, for various purposes, all the time, in addition to folk taxonomies widely shared by large numbers of people and technical taxonomies (especially those of science). Some of them are the folk taxonomies of subcultures: the “types” of gay men, for instance (twinks, bears, leathermen, queens, etc.). Some of them are (relatively) conventionalized in certain contexts and might be thought of as “semi-technical taxonomies”: for example, the systems of categorizations (and labels) used in commercial contexts (for instance, by the manufacturers and sellers of artifacts like housewares, clothing, shoes, and tools). Almost all of these taxonomies are imperfect in various ways; in particular, most fail either on completeness (not everything in the domain falls into a taxon) or exclusiveness (the taxa are not mutually exclusive). (Discussion in my “ideal types” handout, here.)

In still other cases, taxonomies are created more or less on the spot, for temporary use. These are especially likely to be imperfect.

Which brings me to the Know About series of sticker books (from Autumn Children’s Books in the UK;). Each book supplies a set of stickers, with matching pictures and the instructions:

Place the stickers on the matching pictures, read the descriptions, then test your knowledge with the Know About quiz.

It’s a teaching tool, designed to teach children (6 and up) about animals. Not just about animals, but about the (culturally) *most salient* things about animals. The child is directed to view certain properties as especially significant; see my discussion of the question (addressed to small children) “Which one of these things is not like the others?” here, where I note that it “is especially bound to cultural conventions, according to which certain properties of things are more salient than others”.


The top level of the taxonomy, with a sticker book for each taxon:

Things with Wings, Things with Fur, Things with Fins, Things with Teeth, Things with Scales, Things that Climb

(I got Things with Scales as a present some years ago.) Imperfect in completeness, obviously very imperfect in exclusiveness. But still a guide to salience.

The taxonomy goes down one level further, where it begins to align, but only roughly, with biological taxonomy:

Under the Sea (fish), Patterns and Colors (butterflies and moths), Plates and Armor (reptiles), Slither and Slide (snakes), Ancient Armor (dinosaurs and other ancient creatures)

(The Lepidoptera are something of a surprise. They do, however, have scales on their wings.) Note that the property prehistoric trumps some of the other taxonomic distinctions; ancient crocodilians, ancient turtles, etc. are in there with the dinosaurs rather than with the reptiles: being prehistoric counts as their most important property.




One Response to “Ad hoc categorizations”

  1. the ridger Says:

    There seems to a be a lot overlap – some Things with Wings have fur, lots of Things with Scales have teeth, many Things with Fur climb trees, and so on.

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