How to Make a Taxonomy: Pile Sorts

Pile sorting is an efficient method for generating taxonomic trees (Werner and Fenton 1973). Simply hand informants the familiar pack of cards, each of which contains some term in a cultural domain. Informants sort the cards into piles, according to whatever criterion makes sense to them. After the first sorting, informants are handed each pile and asked to go through the exercise again. They keep doing this until they say that they cannot subdivide piles any further. At each sorting level, informants are asked if there is a word or phrase that describes each pile.

Perchonock and Werner (1969) used this technique in their study of Navajo animal categories. After an informant finished doing a pile sort of animal terms, Perchonock and Werner built a branching tree diagram, like the one in figure 17.8. They would ask the informant to make up sentences or phrases that expressed some relation between the nodes. They found that informants intuitively grasped the idea of tree representations for taxonomies.

FIGURE 17.8.

Part of the Navajo animal kingdom, derived from a pile sort.

SOURCE: N. Perchonock and O. Werner, ''Navaho Systems of Classification: Some Implications for Ethno- science.'' Ethnology, Vol. 8, pp. 229-42. Copyright © 1969. Reprinted by permission.

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