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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Crude Categories

@snowded is wondering when people will give up on crude categories like Gen X/Y? @gbrettmiller adds that it's the ever present problem of "us" and "them"; unfortunately many people think in terms of these categories or, worse, labels.

I suspect Dave already knows the answer. This could be a rhetorical question, expressing frustration and despair with the fact that people find these crude categories so attractive. Surely he cannot be hoping for some collective epiphany, in which people throw all such crude distinctions onto a Bonfire of the Categories?

Implicit in Dave's question is a distinction between "crude" categories and some other kind of categories, perhaps "refined". Perhaps crude categories are those we use without deliberation or reflection. So what would "refining" or "refinement" look like?

Many of the categories Dave is referring to are polythetic ones - dependent on an overlapping set of characteristic features rather than a single defining feature. Therefore one of the characteristic features of the refined use of such categories is to remind ourselves that a simple category label stands for a complex set of overlapping attributes, not all of which may be present in any given situation. Any conclusions we might try and draw from these categories should be regarded as unreliable until they have been verified by unpacking the category into the complex observations of which it provides a simple summary.

Next practice doesn't mean discarding labels and categories, but it should probably mean being a little more self-aware about what Maturana calls "languaging" - including one's use of labels and the conclusions one draws from them.

Further reading:
And see also:

1 comment:

  1. Richard,

    My reference to "us" and "them" as labels comes from my experiences as the parent of an autistic son. "Autistic" is, in many non-autistic people's minds, a label that denotes negatives about the person it describes: disabled, inferior, incapable, loser, "retard", etc. Not knowing anything else about the autistic person, the label of "autistic" instantly brings those preconceptions to mind.

    In much the same way, the labels of Gen X or Gen Y typically bring about preconceived images about how the members of those groups behave, especially as regards their use/understanding of modern technology.

    Instead of Gen X/Y, I would suggest referring to people as "willing to learn" or "not willing to learn", or something similar. If the grouping, the "label", is based on actual attributes/skills of the person, and not some arbitrary date on the calendar, that label will provide a much more relevant understanding of that person.