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PROBLEMS WITH COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS

There are two problems with componential analysis. First of all, it seems a bit shallow to say that a Corvette is an expensive, impractical, American car and nothing more, or

Table 17.6 A Componential Analysis of 17 Barnyard Animals

Female

Neuter

Adult

Florses

Cattle

Sheep

Swine

Cow

+

-

+

-

+

-

-

Bull

-

-

+

-

+

-

-

Steer

-

+

+

-

+

-

-

Calf

-

+

-

-

+

-

-

Heifer

+

-

-

-

+

-

-

Mare

+

-

+

+

-

-

-

Stallion

-

-

+

+

-

-

-

Gelding

-

+

+

+

-

-

-

Foal

-

+

-

+

-

-

-

Filly

+

-

-

+

-

-

-

Colt

-

-

-

+

-

-

-

Sow

+

-

+

-

-

-

+

Boar

-

-

+

-

-

-

+

Barrow

-

+

+

-

-

-

+

Piglet

-

+

-

-

-

-

+

Gilt

+

-

-

-

-

-

+

Shoat

-

-

-

-

-

-

+

Sheep

-

-

+

-

-

+

-

Ram

-

-

+

-

-

+

-

Ewe

+

-

+

-

-

+

-

Wether

-

+

+

-

-

+

-

Lamb

-

-

-

-

-

+

-

that a Mercedes is an expensive, practical, foreign car and nothing more. You can get so caught up in finding the minimal analytic combination of features in this type of analysis that you forget you’re interested in the meaning that people assign to different objects in a domain. On the other hand, if you know the most parsimonious set of distinctive features for an item in a domain, you can predict how someone will label new things in the domain that they haven’t encountered before.

The second problem with componential analysis is the same one we run into with all cognitive research methods: We have no idea if it reflects how people actually think. This problem was raised early in the development of cognitive studies by Robbins Burling (1964), who noted that, in a folk taxonomy of trees, he could not tell the essential cognitive difference between hemlock and spruce. ‘‘Is it gross size, type of needle, form of bark, or what?’’ If an ethnographer could not answer this question, Burling observed, then no componential analysis could claim to be ‘‘more than an exercise of the analyst’s imagination” (p. 27).

Of course, this same critique could apply to any social research that ‘‘imputes the

Table 17.7 Minimal Componential Analysis for Seven Cars, According to Jack

Expensive

Practical

Foreign

Corvette

+

-

-

Firebird

-

-

-

MG

-

-

+

Maserati

+

-

+

Mercedes

+

+

+

Jeep

-

+

-

Dodge Van

+

+

-

BOX 17.2

COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS FROM ETHNOGRAPHY

James Faris (1968) studied the lexicon of social events in Cat Harbour, a small fishing community on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. During his research, Faris asked about the different kinds of social events and learned that some were classified as ''occasions'' and others were not. The occasions included weddings, funerals, birthdays, scoffs, and events at which mummers could be present. The nonoccasions included meetings of fishermen (called ''union meetings''), church services, christenings, teas, banquets, socials, concerts, suppers, and evening gatherings of men (p. 120). To understand what separated occasions from nonoccasions, Faris looked at the features of the events. Some were fun, others not. Some were public, others limited to a few families. All occasions involve serving food, but so do some of the nonoccasions.

By systematically examining the features of each social event and the meaning of each event to the people of Cat Harbour, Faris solved the puzzle. All of the so-called occasions involved approved deviation from the rules of everyday behavior. Scoffs, for example, involve a few couples who get together to dance, play cards, and eat a meal to which they all contribute. The men (and occasionally, the women) drink, and there is a lot of sexual banter—something that would not be tolerated in other situations. All the ingredients for the scoff, or dinner, are stolen. Under any other circumstance, this would not be tolerated, but one is allowed to ''buck'' (a euphemism for stealing) the makings of a scoff from neighbors and friends. A scoff, Faris tells us, is ''an occasion of sanctioned license, a legitimization of behavior and action normally considered 'sin''' (p. 228).

Likewise, weddings involved dancing ''jigs and reels with heavy sexual overtone'' and men drinking to excess. ''After having heard from several persons of the evils of sexual license and excessive drink,'' Faris says, ''I observed these same people participating with gusto in these activities at a 'wedding'—only to be told again by them the following day of the evils of sexual license and excessive drinking'' (p. 228). At funerals, the mourners are removed from everyday roles, and birthdays are excuses for scoffs. At Christmas, people dress in costumes and masks and go around to houses where they are fed food and alcohol. Men may dress as women and women as men. All in all, Faris concluded, the feature that distinguished the so-called occasions from other social events was the sanctioned deviance.

presence of something inside people’’ (like values and attitudes) and must be balanced with a positive perspective on what can be done (Hymes 1964:119).

In fact, what can be done is impressive, intuitively compelling analysis of the meanings that people attach to terms in their languages: Decision analysis allows us to predict which of several behavioral options people will take, under specific circumstances; taxonomic analysis lets us predict which class of things some new thing will be assigned to; compo- nential analysis lets us predict what classification label will be assigned to some object.

These methods produce effective knowledge that finds application in practical fields like health care delivery and advertising (Further Reading: componential analysis).

FURTHER READING

Ethnographic decision models: K. A. Beck (2005); Gladwin (1976, 1980, 1983); Hurwicz (1995);

Morera and Gladwin (2006); Quinn (1978); Ruiz-Caseres and Heymann (2009).

Folk taxonomies: Atran (1998); Begossi et al. (2008); Berlin et al. (1968, 1973); Brown et al. (1975);

Frake (1961); Tyler (1969); Werner and Schoepfle (1987).

Componential analysis: Hedican (1986); Kendall (1983); Rushforth (1982).

 
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