Representing Anthropological Knowledge: Calculating Kinship
Michael D. Fischer
Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes


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Calculating Kin: Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes

Models and Systems: Culture and Classification

One of the goals of social anthropology is to gain an understanding of how and why people interact with each other and with their environment. One important idea that contributes to this understanding is what anthropologists call culture. One of the many ways that anthropologists use culture is to refer to systems of shared ideas among a group of people.

By system we mean that there is some regularity to the way that ideas, information and concepts are shared. There are several possible ways this sharing could happen. We could imagine a very large corpus of ideas, which everyone carefully memorises. No doubt there is a lot of simple memorisation going on, but it is unlikely to account for all culture/knowledge sharing.

While we can just about accept memorisation for simple lists of vocabulary in language, one of the marked properties of human culture (and human language as a part of that culture) is that as large as the number of memorised ideas is, the number of things and situations these can apply to is much larger.

Take for example the idea of animal. This is one term, and can apply to a large number of varieties of animal. Even given that most languages have a large number of terms for specific kinds of animal, there are always more than one possible referent for a given term, e.g. more than one dog, cat or rat. Only if each individual organism in the experience of a group were given a unique term would the number ideas equal to the number of referents of those ideas. Given that different people have different specific experiences, this would make sharing the list very difficult indeed.

What is needed is a mental tool that is capable of both reducing the amount of information needed to understand the world, and at the same time expand the range of possible forms that can be understood. This idea is classification, a powerful aspect of human thought that permits us to assign some common knowledge to a large number of things rather than have to learn it over and over for each new individual context, thing or organism we might encounter. Besides classifying different things to a common term or idea, an order (a system) can be imposed which supplies yet another term that generalises a larger set of more specific terms, and links different categories together, e.g.:

animals = dog, cat, rat, ...
(a category animals whose members are other categories, dog, cat, rat,...)

animals = mammals, reptiles, amphibians, ...
mammals = dog, cat, rat, ...

dog = Fido, Meegan, Chippy,...
(linking categories to categories to individuals).

We are not simply reducing information by assigning individuals to categories. We derive information about individuals from the categories to which they are assigned. This information is partial - it does not define the individual - but until more unique information is available category membership provides a kind of default knowledge for interpretation. Categories also provide targets for placing contexts and things, e.g. we recognise an individual has certain characteristics associated with one or more categories, and we direct our reasoning to settling on appropriate classification of the individual. Without this ability we would be able to share only limited experience and knowledge with other people. Because of assumptions of uniformity underlying classification, we sometimes make inappropriate assignment of properties to individuals, and some forms of classification, such as race, can underlay great social inequality and misunderstanding by the assignment of properties to individuals by social convention. Classificatory knowledge is not a replacement for individualised knowledge. But much individualised knowledge would not exist without the common context of shared meanings that categorization and classification makes possible.

Culture is capable of even more powerful reduction of information required to deal with the world, at the expense of greater complexity. One of the responsibilities of the anthropologist is to identify these systems of reduction and organisation, these indigenous models of the world and their experience in the world, to attempt to understand the basis by which these models are constructed, and to identify both common and unique approaches across different cultures.

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