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The Lumper-Splitter Problem

In the free pile sort method, people are told that they can make as many piles as they like, so long as they don’t make a separate pile for each item or lump all the items into one pile. Like the triad test, the free pile sort presents people with a common set of stimuli, but there’s a crucial difference: With free pile sorts, people can group the items together as they see fit. The result is that some people will make many piles, others will make few, and this causes the lumper-splitter problem (Weller and Romney 1988:22).

In a pile sort of animals, for example, some informants will put all the following together: giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, zebra, wildebeest. They’ll explain that these are the ‘‘African animals.’’ Others will put giraffe, elephant, and rhino in one pile, and the zebra and wildebeest in another, explaining that one is the ‘‘large African animal’’ pile and the other is the ‘‘medium-sized African animal pile.’’

Although they can’t put every item in its own pile, lots of people put some items in singleton piles, explaining that each item is unique and doesn’t go with the others. It’s fine to ask informants why they made each pile of items, but wait until they finish the sorting task so you don’t interfere with their concentration. And don’t hover over informants. Find an excuse to walk away for a couple of minutes after they get the hang of it.

Because triad tests present each respondent with exactly the same stimuli, you can compare the data across individuals. Free pile sorts tell you what the structure of the data looks like for a group of people—sort of group cognition—but you can’t compare the data from individuals. On the other hand, with pile sorts, you can have as many as 50 or 60 items. All methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

 
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