What Is Categorization ?

Before we can apply a schema to a social object we need first to categorize the object. Historically, within the areas of philosophy and linguistics, categorization has long been considered a central and fundamental human cognitive tendency (Lakoff, 1987).

Borrowed from cognitive psychology and the pioneering work of Eleanor Rosch, the process of categorization refers to how we identify stimuli and group them as members of one category, similar to others in that category and different from members of other categories.

In other words, Categorization is a cognitive process in which objects and ideas are recognized, understood, compared to and differentiated from one another. This process identifies the ways in which two or more objects are alike, and how they are different from one another and can be grouped with other similar objects.

For instance, if a person was seeing a whale for the first time, s/he would probably believe it was a fish because it has fins, swims and lives underwater like a fish. However, with further observation and study it would be noted that unlike a fish, it breathes air and nurses its young—characteristics that identify it as a mammal. With the combination of these traits, it would have been categorized as a mammal that lives in water like dolphins and porpoises ( Opens in new window).

Categorization is seen to be fundamental to perception Opens in new window, thought, language Opens in new window and action. Most of the time we employ categories automatically and with little conscious effort. Whenever we identify or label an object as something (a book, tree, animal, etc.) we are categorizing. Categories impose order on the complexity of the stimulus world, and by doing so allow us to communicate about the world effectively and efficiently.

Rosch’s (1975) experimental work found that some members of a category act as cognitive reference points in that people consider them to be more representative of a category than other members. Rosch referred to these as prototypes. For example, people judged robins and sparrows to be better examples of the category ‘bird’ than were emus and penguins.

Thus some instances contained within the category are considered more typical than others. Instances can therefore range from being quite typical to atypical. The most typical or protypical instance would best represent the category. The prototype is the ‘central tendency’ or average of the category members.

Rosch observed that participants identified stimuli which were judged to be more prototypical significantly faster as members of a category compared to stimuli judged as less prototypical. Rosch also found that some categories, like ‘bird’, have very clear boundaries, whereas other categories have ‘fuzzy’ boundaries.

To classify an object as belonging to a particular category does not necessarily require that the object contain all the attributes of that category. However, the object must share common features with other category members so that members of a category are related by ‘family resemblance’. This is especially the case for social objects such as people and events where the boundaries for category inclusion are less clear.

Social categorization is assumed to be a more complex process than object categorization in that social objects are variables, dynamic, interactive and therefore less predictable. As with non-social categories, members of a social category share common features, though some members are more prototypical than others.

On the whole, however, category inclusion in the social world is a more variable process which is shaped and influenced by a multitude of factors. Categorizing people and events allows us to simplify and structure the social world and thus anticipate future behavior and experiences. Some predictability and coherence is thereby given to our everyday social interactions.

The prototype approach to category representation has been a very influential account of how social stimuli are stored and represented in memory. However, more recently it has been suggested that categories may not only be represented by some averaged abstraction, but by a number of specific and concrete instances or ‘exemplars’ of the category which have been encountered (Smith, 1998).

The exemplar approach to category representation has considerable advantages over the prototype view in that it is able to account for the variability and diversity of instances contained within a general category.

For example, arriving at an abstracted average of two very different politicians such as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin may be too cognitively demanding. These extreme instances may be better represented as concrete exemplars within an overall general category of ‘politician’.

Exemplars, therefore, serve as more specific and concrete reference points. People probably rely on a combination of prototype and exemplar-based representations, depending on the social object in question and the conditions under which the information is processed (Hamilton & Sherman, 1994; Smith, 1998).