Classifications of people

Cultural arbitrariness' is a more encompassing matter than the controversies about vocabularies and perception suggest. It also refers to the organization of human beings, the identification of their properties and the associations that is made between these identifications and what can be legitimately done. Cultural arbitrariness also refers to the processual aspects of tasks and their peopling (the acquisition of people into various positions. We deal with these next.

Building on his Totemism (1963 [1962]), Lévi-Strauss argued that one should also examine the processes through which human beings classify themselves and identify each other as a fundamentally cultural matter--thus implicated in the classical discussions of 'arbitrariness'. Classifications of objects and people (or, more precisely the elaboration of phenomenal experience for communication and further social construction) are "good to think" rather than "good to eat" (1963 [1962]: 89). In other words, he form that these classifications take is not grounded in the functional requirements for survival but in the possibilities inherent in humanity (what Lévi-Strauss refers to as "l'esprit humain ").

In his Savage Mind (1966 [1962]), Lévi-Strauss develops further the implications of this property of humanity to make its world by showing how classifications that make objects such as plant or animal "species," senses, emotions, etc., also develop by making connections between the sets. This process is what makes metaphors powerful means for human beings to communicate. But metaphors have serious consequences as human beings themselves become classified objects with properties. Thus, to play with Lévi-Strauss on totemic associations, if a people is divided into eagles and bears, it would not be surprising that the 'eagles' would be known as soaring personalities, while the 'bears' would be plodding and down to earth (think America and its air force, vs. the Soviet Union and its tanks during the Cold War).

Foucault points in a similar direction in his comments on individualization as the core aspect of modern disciplining of the bodies it organizes: in this historical era

[Discipline] 'trains' the moving, confused, useless multitudes of bodies and forces into a multiplicity of individual elements--small, separate cells, organic autonomies, genetic identities and continuities, combinatory segments (1978 [1975]: 170)

This could be made compatible with various forms of social-structuralism building on Durkheim's and others' discussions of the "division of labor" in complex societies. I prefer to place it within the context of all discussions of cultural arbitrariness: even if there is a functional "need" to differentiate, the exact placement of the boundaries between categories (and of the processes to place bodies into the categories) will remain open.

But focusing only on bureaucratic processes is not enough: there are even more pervasive classifications that may continue to work around, within, or between, the administrative categories (though they may use these for further bricolage--e.g. the category of "nerd" proposed by examinations and then baroquely developed in popular culture).

Holland and Skinner used a complex methodology to distribute the terms they are collected (e.g., for males: boyfriend, gentleman, dude, hippie, nerd) on three dimensions (1987). What is useful here is that there is no cross-cultural evidence that human males would be identified in these terms or on these scales among all groups or at any historical time. There is no clear evidence either that there may be 'objective correlative' to a "Dumb blonde" or a "Belle" (by contrast to the argument that there may be a correlative to "red" as a color). Conversely, there is every evidence that such terms are extremely evocative among the groups where they have currency. Indeed there is much evidence of the feedback from the category to its embodiment in hairstyle, dress, language, and demeanor. Thus the category moves from the cognitive to the experiential. A “southern belle” is a social performance as well as category. It is a subject as well as an object.

This has fundamental consequences on such serious matters as the experience of race in the United States as something that is jointly performed by all involved–including the many who may not be fully aware of what is involved in the factualization of racial distinctions.

Generally, we have been moving from establishing how to talk about cultural arbitrariness from a demonstration of shiftiness in boundaries within a field (color vocabularies), to demonstrating that whole vocabulary constitute a field by itself. Thus, by these definitions, "people vocabularies" are properly talked about as "arbitrary." We are also moving from a strictly cognitive understanding of arbitrariness to a social one as the constitution of fields and their relationship begin to require collective work but to preserve the field, and to react against it in specific matters

This, in fact, is the kind of evidence that has leads most social scientists to distinguish "sex" (the uninterpreted, and thus inhuman, biological facts) from "gender" (the interpreted, man-made, and thus changing, associations that are made at any time between sexual biology and other realms).

'Naturalistic' critics might then point at some cross-cultural evidence as to the limitations to interpretation. Criticizing the arbitrariness of identifications sets for people is more difficult though, in the case of the vocabulary analyzed by Holland and Skinner, it may be possible to argue that the main axes (physical attractiveness, social prestige, disgust) have sociobiological roots.

'Interpretive' critics, in recent years, have emphasized above all the shiftiness of categories like those collected by Holland and Skinner. In actual conversational use it appears that the categories are used above all to make rhetorical points about a person. Thus the same person can be identified with several labels. It may not be surprising that different speakers may identify the same person differently. But it is also extremely common for the same speaker to identify the same person differently depending on the audience, or the setting.

This is the process that fascinated me when analyzing speech about cliques in American high schools (Varenne 1978, 1982, 1983, 1984). Given a vocabulary of ‘freaks’ and ‘jocks’, and a set of ritualized practices that allowed all in the high school to recognize each other as either, what did individuals do when directly asked about their practices? Many would say that they dissembled by refusing the label (“other see us as an exclusive clique but we are really a loose group of friends”). I argued that they struggled with the arbitrary facts that they had little choice but to reconstitute in the very practices that led some to play sport, to wear certain clothes, or to sit at particular tables.

In other words, arbitrary categories for people, including the complex associations between each categories and their practical properties, or not easily open for local negotiation. They are fully factual for the participants. They are not however determining of what participants may do. This is a major distinction that must not be lost.

Given the practical consequences of the classification of human beings and what they can do with and to each other, we must now move on to consider that the very processes that organize human beings are themselves best approached as


March 15, 2002