Categories; borders or prototypes?

When I look at the poppy seed flower outside the house my thoughts goes to why the poppy seed flower is categorised as a flower to begin with. The meaning behind a flower is there, and it has been infused into the object that we call flower, but to even do that there needs to be something that sets flowers apart from other objects. That’s where the interesting part starts.

Cognitive Anthropologists have studied this using prototypes. That is, they begin by having one particular object that is the flower, the flower of flowers. Let’s say it is a dandelion, which is associated (in our culture) with being able to push through concrete and blossom in the middle of summertime. Then you see objects that resemble this flower, and they are more flower-like the closer they resemble this prototype, and less flower-like the less they resemble the dandelion-prototype.

If I may use a metaphor, cognitive anthropologists look at the center of the redness to see what constitutes the colour red. Alot of phenomenologists do the same. But existential anthropologists look at it from the other end. They look instead at the border-lines between the objects. Not at the center of the redness, but at the border-line between red and yellow. That way you can see whether the people in question have the colour orange at all, or they go directly to yellow.

The metaphor of colours is easy for a person who comes from a culture where colours are usually sorted in a linear fashion, because there are only two border-lines necessary to categorise a colour. But colours to begin with, are a system of categories.

If we go back to the poppy seed flower outside the house, it belongs to different systems of categories. It is in one way a flower, so it creates a border-line to other flowers. But it is also other things. Where is the border-line between flowers at all, and shrubs, trees, grass, and other things in it’s vicinity. And it doesn’t stop there, where is the border-line between the poppy seed flower and any other object, like a cup with a picture of a flower on it. This last comparison might sound absurd, and it is supposed to be. Trees, flowers and grass all belong to the same system of categorisation. Cups belong more to kitchenware and such things. Each thing in it’s correct place, as symbolic anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas might put it.

Looking at the border-lines is in other words quite difficult, when you add dimensions to the object. The redness has a border-line to other colours if you sort the colours differently, and the redness can also be associated with heat and fever, adding more dimensions.

When social anthropologist Torbjorn Friberg did his doctoral dissertation on Burn-Out as a social phenomenon he used a way of looking at it that came metaphorically from how you look at flowers. A flower grows if it has water and sun. If it has less sun it grows less, if it has less water it grows less. But if it doesn’t have a soil to grow in, it doesn’t matter if it has water or sun. So an object can be more dependant on some things than others.

The flower as a category is probably also dependant on some things, but it wouldn’t be so if it was categorised in different way. That is, if the flower was categorised as a bunch of atoms it would still be a bunch of atoms even if you removed the soil.

My solution is quite phenomenological. You have to look at all the different ways that a person from a specific culture can look at flowers, to understand all the dimensions of the flower as an object belonging to different categories for a person from a specific culture. Different cultures, different categories AND different dimensions. Different border-lines gives different prototypes, but the prototype itself doesn’t say anything of the border-lines. Therefore we should look at the border-lines instead of the prototypes, if we want to understand how a culture categorises reality

(I have no idea what kind of flower this is…is it a flower at all…maybe it is the beginning of a tree, or some kind of shrub…)

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About RobinOberg

M.Sc. Social Anthropology M.A. Applied Cultural Analysis
This entry was posted in categories, existential antropology, symbolic anthropology. Bookmark the permalink.

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