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FREE PILE SORTS

In 1966, John Brim put the names of 58 American English role terms (mother, gangster, stockbroker, etc.) on slips of paper. He asked 108 high school students in San Mateo, California, to spread the slips out on their desks and to ‘‘put the terms together which you feel belong together’’ (Burton and Romney 1975:400). This simple, compelling method for collecting data about what-goes-with-what was introduced to anthropology by Michael Burton, who analyzed Brim’s data using multidimensional scaling and hierarchical clustering. These powerful tools were brand new at the time and are used today across the social sciences (Burton 1968, 1972). (We’ll get back to MDS and clustering in chapter 16 on how to analyze data in cultural domains.)

I’ve used free pile sorts to study the social structure of institutions such as prisons, ships at sea, and bureaucracies, and also to map the cognitively defined social organization of small communities. I simply hand people a deck of cards, each of which contains the name of one of the people in the institution, and ask informants to sort the cards into piles, according to their own criteria. The results tell me how people in the various components of an organization (managers, production workers, advertising people; or guards, counselors, prisoners; or seamen, deck officers, engine room personnel; or men and women in a small Greek village) think about the social structure of the group. Instead of what goes with what, I learn who goes with whom. Then I ask informants to explain why people appear in the same pile. This produces a wealth of information about the cognitively defined social structure of a group.

 
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