Classification and Meaning

Classification and Meaning
Readings from Zerubavel and Brekhus

Outline of Topics

  1. Lumping and Splitting
    1. Social Division of World – classification
    2. Meaning – symbolization
    3. Identity – one drop vs. whole ocean
    4. Unmarked – redirecting focus of sociology as a whole – noticing bias toward marked categories

A. The Social Division of the World

What are we doing here?

Identifying ideal typical modes, or ways of being. Any real case is an amalgam, but we can better appreciate dynamics by seeing characteristics of extreme cases. Linguistic technique of minimal opposition pairs.
Spatiality of social life. Structure of the Lifeworld.
General problem: social classification
Remember that Mead had us keeping "society" in our heads? Now let’s think about how we arrange things in there.
Catalog of boundaries. Imagine if we had a Rand McNally of the Lifeworld. Let's brainstorm about some ways we divide the world into two zones.
High culture / Pop Culture
Normal Sex / Kinky Sex
Official / Unofficial
Work week / weekend (when does the weekend start – at Yale on Thursday night)
Work clothes/play clothes (test: if I went to your closet would I find things I've never seen you wear?)
Come on / Flirtation (or relationships vs. just friends)
Family, Friends, Strangers
Paper Idea: Fuzzy mindedness and the Internet
Paper Idea: On page 63 Zerubavel writes about open school of architecture, "the happening," and open marriage happening at the same time that they are, perhaps, more closely related that may first appear. What else might go in the set? Why then? See footnotes for leads.


Note the logic:

Classifying as universal act
Classifying as a personal act
Classifying as a social act
Often the existence of a distinction is pretty much universal (edible/inedible) but where the line is drawn varies from one thought community to another.
Common tendency to look on logic of another culture as confused, wrong headed, less advanced than our own.
Note similarity to other point made by Purcell. The systems tend to be ordered into a status hierarchy. A vertical classification of classification systems.

Can you imagine, for example, that there are some people who think that all lesbians are alike?

On Ideal Types – explain what they are. We construct them to be able to study the "pure form" – they can be "applied" to all different levels: culture, profession, industry, organization, person, relationship, stage of life, thought community

Three types

The Rigid Mind
  • Obsession with purity, separation, distinctions. Issues of pollution.
  • Bureaucracy – Official and Unofficial
  • Sociological Methods (in some contexts)
  • Kosher food and separatism. Dietary laws. Rigid meter and rhyme rules.
  • Humor : I'm sorry ma'am.
  • Note solidarity produced by rigidness.
  • NO men at Mills, not just few men at Mills!!

How many men does it take to "ruin things"? At a faculty meeting someone says "It just takes one…" Why are some things one way and some things the other? Where are our cognitive tipping points? How many mean that we've gone over to the other end?

The Fuzzy Mind
  • Promiscuity – John or Paul and big bird
  • Consider the charge we get out of Bowie, Dietrich, Crying Game.
  • Bring an e e cummings poem along. Read one from Watermelon Pickle for comparison.
  • Aversion to sharp boundaries and distinctions
  • Total unison. Magic of overcoming separation. It is recognition of the fact that we overcame something that makes it magical. In other words, the gap has to still be there.
  • Anthropological Methods (in some contexts)
The Flexible Mind
  • The Law of the excluded middle
  • And/Or, Either/Or, Exclusive Or
  • Paper topics: The mere and the just
  • Border Disputes

Where to draw the line
Whether a line should exist at all

B. Meaning

Symbols – Signifier and Signified


Exercise. Flirting. Signs and signals. What are some examples of how we give signals. I want to leave. I like you. Would you like to go to a movie? I had a good time. I’m really interested in this topic.


Signs that we’ve changed realms. How to show that it’s "after work"?

Zerubavel’s continuum


A point here is to move in the direction of a structural analysis of meaning. We understand the color black being associated with widows not as a concomitant of sadness but as a contrast with the white of brides.

Contrast is a key element. Symbols derive their meanings from the things that distinguish them. That is, we understand what the thing it symbolizes is by focusing on what it is not.

Point: An essentialist view of symbolism is inadequate. Meaning is largely conventional. And social.

What makes a symbol a symbol? Can you just declare it?


Reifying the meaning of symbols – blurring the distinction between signifier and signified. Another meaning for reification.

Reification of symbols turns them into mere indicators. It is an abandonment of the flexible mind for the rigid mind.

Introduction to Brekhus

  • Reading in class: Langston Hughes: "That Powerful Drop"
  • "Social Marking and the Mental Coloring of Identity in the United States"
  • Social Marking
  • Mental Coloring