Anthropology, Taxonomies, and Publishing

By Levinson, David | Online, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Anthropology, Taxonomies, and Publishing

Levinson, David, Online

Anthropologists are exceptional taxonomists: They classify not butterflies or minerals, but human cultures. To do this, they need to identify and understand the concepts people use to order their world, observe how those concepts are used in daily life, and make logical lists of the words that symbolize those concepts. The task requires both description and comparison.

Description is important in order to identify the concepts that are meaningful to the people in question and not substitute for those the concepts that are meaningful to you. For example, the average American calls most forms of rice simply "rice," and when making distinctions among different types of rice, it is usually done on the basis of length (longor short-grained) and color (brown or white). But in a ricegrowing village in Indonesia, people may have no single word that is the equivalent of our "rice." Instead, they may have 15 or more words, each symbolizing a different type of rice. These types may be based on a long list of criteria that includes size, season of the year it is grown, taste, use, and market value. So the taxonomy of rice that people in an Indonesian village have will be far more detailed than the average American taxonomy and based on taxonomic principles that may hold no meaning or practical import in the U.S.

This is where comparison comes in. By finding equivalent categories in various taxonomies, people can develop more general taxonomies that will let them more clearly understand human similarities and differences. Anthropologists, who have been collecting field data from thousands of different cultures over a period of 150 years, try to make this data comparable by developing universal taxonomies. These universal taxonomies are meant to be culturally neutral, so that any culture-specific taxonomy can fit in or be encompassed by any culture. For example, in a universal taxonomy, the label "rice" would be applied to the several thousand different types of rice found around the world or might be part of an even broader taxonomy category called "cereals and grains."

In anthropology, the two best-known taxonomies are the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM) and Notes and Queries in Anthropology. The former, which is more germane for the discussion to follow, is a two-level hierarchal taxonomy with 78 general categories and over 500 subcategories.


In writing this discussion of taxonomies, I began with an example from anthropology because I am an anthropologist and have used the OCM in my own research. Moving from academia to publishing, I have found taxonomies to be every bit as necessary: as editor-in-chief of the 10-volume Encyclopedia of World Cultures, I had to develop a taxonomy of the world's cultures, and for the past 10 years I have been charged with developing taxonomies for the Berkshire Publishing Group.

The issues I face as an anthropologist and a publisher are similar to those other companies face when struggling to create meaningful taxonomies that effectively describe their products, services, and internal processes. What works well as a taxonomy in one company might not transfer to another company, even if both are in the same industry.

The taxonomies I have worked on recently are meant to organize the content of multivolume, interdisciplinary encyclopedias such as those Berkshire has published on modern Asia, leadership, and community. Content here means articles, photos, maps, graphs and charts, appendices, and sidebars of primary-source extracts: Content is what Berkshire sells, either wrapped in book covers or online without covers.

Our taxonomies have multiple purposes: We need them to list all the topics to be covered in a product, to link different content on the same topic, to direct readers to related content, and to enable us to go back later and find content in one product that is related to content in another.

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