Interviewing III: Cultural Domains

Cultural domain analysis is the late-model version of ethnoscience, a movement in anthropology of the 1950s and 1960s (Sturtevant 1964). The goal of ethnoscience was to understand cultural systems of classification—that is, how people in a group think about lists of things that somehow go together. These can be lists of physical, observable things—plants, colors, animals, symptoms of illness—or conceptual things—occupations, roles, emotions. (For seminal work on modern cultural domain analysis, see Borgatti 1993/1994, 1999 and Weller and Romney 1988).

The spectrum of colors, for example, has a single physical reality that you can see on a machine. Some peoples across the world, however—Xhosa, Navajo, Nahnu—identify the colors across the physical spectrum of green and blue with a single gloss. In Nahnu, for example, the word is nk’ami and in Navajo it’s dootl’izh. Linguists and cognitive scientists who study this phenomenon call this color ‘‘grue’’ (see, e.g., Davies et al. 1994; Gammack and Denby 2006; and Kim 1985).

This does not mean that people who have a word for grue fail to see the difference between things that are the color of grass and things that are the color of a clear sky. They just label chunks of the physical spectrum of colors differently than we do and use adjectival modifiers of grue to express color differences within the blue-green spectrum. In Navajo, turquoise is yaago dootl’izh, or ‘‘sky grue,’’ and green is tadlidgo dootl’izh, or ‘‘water skum grue’’ (Oswald Werner, personal communication). If this seems exotic to you, get a chart of, say, 100 lipstick colors or house paint colors and ask people at your university to name the colors. On average, women will probably recognize (and name) more colors than men will; and art majors of both sexes will name more colors than, say, engineering majors will.

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