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Information Architecture… Category Theory, Part II

Yesterday I wrote a post about how one theme in Lakoff’s book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things”, the way that categories display prototype effects, can be applied to web classification schemes.

The second major takeaway from Lakoff’s theory of categorization, the status of basic-level categories, requires some understanding of what is so unique about Lakoff’s approach to category theory. Lakoff bases his assertions on an understanding that categories as we create them are embodied, that is based in our experience before any conceptual activity takes place. This is fundamentally different than the standard understanding of categories as abstract containers. Our ability to perceive gestalts combines with experientially-based structural ‘schemas’ to create categories. The schemas, specifically “Kinesthetic Image Schemas”, are directly-understood concepts and/or relations like link, part-whole, container, up/down, source/path/goal … Together with gestalt perception they form the complex concepts that are human categories (which Lakoff calls by a similarly heady term, “Idealized Cognitive Models” or ICM’s).

So where does the basic-level category come in? Well, a study done by an anthropologist named Berlin in studying the speakers of Tzeltal living in the Chiapas region of Mexico found that plants and animals was categorized at a level that corresponded to the genus level of scientific classifications. Analysis of other societies has been consistent with genus as the level at which humans are most likely to turn to name an item; sub and superordinate categories are then created around above and below this middle level of the hierarchy. See this article for a little more information, or just read the book!

This phenomena can be attributed to the fact that human capacities for perception are utilized in the same way, with gestalts playing a big role. Lakoff breaks down the basic category into four aspects:

Perception: overall perceived shape; a single mental image; Gestalt.
Function: interaction with the world.
Communication: Shortest, most commonly used terms; first words learned.
Knowledge Organization: Most attributes of category members are stored at this level.

So, back to information architecture. Often methods for designing a classification scheme for a website are divided into top-down and bottom-up methods. What Lakoff’s book suggests is an entirely different approach, centered around the basic level category, or the middle of the hierarchy. From there, a designer could move up and down to create the higher and lower levels.

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2 Responses to "Information Architecture… Category Theory, Part II"

  • PJ
    September 10, 2008 - 9:51 am Reply

    Does this mean it might be better to create navigation schemes that are based less on categorization (products, documentation, support) and more on perceived goal (find, connect, explore)?

  • jhullman
    September 10, 2008 - 1:34 pm Reply

    Good question. Based on Lakoff’s theory alone (which gets a little more complex than these posts let on), my response would be that it is unfortunately not that simple.
    Basis of this assertion is fact that ICMs (see prev post – categories w assymetric internal structure i.e. prototype effects) are not the only cognitive models that exist. They themselves often interact to form categories that to us become more basic than the individual models. ‘Mother’ is an example – combining a birth model, nurturance model, marital model, & genealogical model. They can form by cluster (mother example), by metonymy (the White House passed the bill) or metaphor (‘Explore’ to label a site browse functionality), or both (using ‘Press Room’ as a label for a website’s media relations section) or through an image-schematic transfer, where a central model (category) is extended via a specific principle – Lakoff uses an interesting example of the japanese use of a term ‘hon’ as an example of this last type. The directly understood trajectory schema motivates use of the word (standard definition: a long, thin object)- for balls in baseball and telephone calls, neither of which are objects but both of which, when visualized on a material level resemble one.
    In short ;-), the best website labels are the ones that make sense for users, that they use and understand without much conscious effort, whether involve image schemas like source-path-goal, metaphors, both(as in your example ‘Connect’ to label a site’s forum), or clusters of basic models (‘Parents’, ‘Teachers’ for labels on an elementary school site).

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