How to Make a Taxonomy: Lists and Frames

In building a folk taxonomy, many researchers combine the free-list and frame elicitation techniques I described in chapter 10. Start with the frame:

What kinds of_are there?

where the blank is ‘‘cars,’’ ‘‘trees,’’ ‘‘saddles,’’ ‘‘snow,’’ ‘‘soldiers’’—whatever you’re interested in understanding. This frame is used again and again, until an informant says that the question is silly.

For example, suppose you asked a native speaker of American English ‘‘What kinds of foods are there?’’ You might get a list like: pasta, meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, snacks... .’’

(You’ll probably get a slightly different set of labels if you ask a native speaker of British English this same question.)

Next, you ask: ‘‘What kinds of pasta [meats] [fish] [etc.] are there?’’ The answer for meats might be: beef, lamb, chicken, pork, venison. . . .

So you extend the search: ‘‘What kinds of beef [lamb] [chicken] [etc.] are there?’’ For some people, at least, you’ll find that beef is divided into steak, chops, hamburger, and so on, and that chicken is divided into dark meat and white meat. But if you ask ‘‘What kinds of steaks are there?’’ you might be told: ‘‘There are no kinds; they just are what they are.’’ If you’re dealing with a real steak lover, you might be told about Porterhouse, T- bone, rib eye, Delmonico, filet mignon, and so on.

Once you have a list of lexical items in a domain, and once you’ve got the basic divisions down, the next step is to find out about overlaps. Some foods, like peanuts, get classified as snacks and as protein sources by different people—or even by the same person at different times.

The point is, although the Food and Drug Administration may have codified foods in the United States, there is no codified set of folk rules for a taxonomy of foods in U.S. culture. The only way to map this is to construct folk taxonomies from information provided by a number of people and to get an idea of the range of variation and areas of consistency in how people think about this domain. You can learn about the possible overlaps in folk categories by using the substitution frames:

Is_a kind of_?

Is_a part of_?

Once you have a list of terms in a domain, and a list of categories, you can use this substitution frame for all possible combinations. Are marshmallows a kind of meat? A kind of fish? A kind of snack? This can get really tedious, but discovering levels of contrast—that magenta is a kind of red, that cashews are a kind of nut, that alto is a kind of sax, or that ice cream is a kind of dessert—just takes plain hard work. Unless you’re a child, in which case all this discovery is just plain fun.

A common way to display folk taxonomies is with a branching tree diagram. Figure 17.9 shows a tree diagram for part of a folk taxonomy of passenger cars. I elicited this taxonomy in Morgantown, West Virginia, from Jack in 1976.

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