Do We Need Categories to Understand the World?

In my Political Theory class at the University of Michigan, we have been discussing issues of identity. What is or is not an identity? Does one identify oneself as something or do other people impart identities on others? Do identities need to be recognized by others as legitimate?

I ask these questions with the hope of getting you to reflect your own identities and how they have been constructed and shaped by those around you. Under the assumption you identify as a person (I sure hope you do), think about what is expected of you. In your society, are you expected to get a job? Get married? Have children? What have you learned differentiates you from animals?

The word itself, “person,” immediately makes you think of certain qualities and expectations, right? You are probably thinking about how humans are capable of higher-level thinking, have a conscience, are able to walk on two legs, and/or are hairless relative to many other land mammals. Just that word triggers our brain to consider attributes we consider relevant.

Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) was an American linguist and anthropologist famous for developing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (about linguistic relativity).

In my Anthropology of Thought class at the University of Michigan, we learned that language shapes the way we see the world. It helps us understand each other and relate to one another in society. We actually have little choice but to use language to describe the things around us. According to Benjamin Whorf in Language, Thought, and Reality,

 “We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way–an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language…The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees… [N]o individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself mostly free.”

Whorf here suggests something revolutionary in the 1950s: we are slaves to our language. Language forces us to shape the world in a systematic, cookie-cutter fashion so that we can communicate with and understand each other. If words had arbitrary meanings and could be thrown around frivolously, society would be much less cohesive and much more confusing. People would have a hard time agreeing on things.

People feel compelled to accept socially-constructed definitions indirectly through language and more directly through social pressure. Think about what it means to be a woman. Women are supposed to be feminine; this means liking pink, wearing heels, and being nurturing. This is how western society has understood women. But what if we didn’t ascribe these traits to women? Why are women supposed to like pink and who decided that pink is feminine?

These are some characteristics associated with women. Many westerners believe these characteristics to be naturally feminine and don’t believe these traits and women are linked through social causes.

Think about your roles as a person and the expectations set for you that I have mentioned before. Maybe it’s okay if you don’t want to get married or have children.

This blog is not intended to make you succumb to an existential crisis; rather, it is more productive to realize that the consciousness of social constructions can be liberating. And remember, make sure to always dress professionally for an interview… OR NOT.*

*Note: I shall not be held responsible for your failure of getting a job or meeting other social expectations as a result of this blog post.


5 thoughts on “Do We Need Categories to Understand the World?

  1. I totally agree with this blog post because language attempts to fix meaning. Who we are and what we do is socially constructed by reality. We can’t control it. I also agree with your statement about how language attempts to classify the world. How else would we all be able to agree on something if we didn’t have a way to put it into words? I wonder what people did in ancient times if they didn’t have a platform like language. It is also interesting to note that there is no restriction on the type of language that is used. Sign language is even included. And no I will not blame you for not getting a job!


  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. The quote you included from “Language, Thought, and Reality” was interesting – that sounds like a good class. The idea of us as people always putting things into categories is sorta fascinating. I think it relates to the amount of stereotypes we see in today’s world, too. Stereotypes can be bad in a lot of situations, but really I think they’re just the result of people categorizing others in any way that they can to try and help them understand things better. I definitely agree that it is something we naturally tend to do because it helps us understand the world around us. I never really thought about it from the point of view of language, though; that was an interesting perspective to look at it from. Great post


  3. Great post! I love the psychological/anthropological spin on this subject! I agree with the idea that language is a main cause of categorizing things. It lets us draw similarities, generalize, and relate ideas and better communicate them to others. I also see how this is the cause of stereotypes, which is the obvious negative to this use of language.


  4. Great connection drawn here between your two classes, really enjoyed the thought-provoking concept! This makes me wonder however, about the manner we classify things beyond language, or if there is an inherent nature to things that words simply allow us to express. Whether or not there is a word for it, the color brown is universally the same, whether or not we actually call it “brown”. People have legs and whether or not we call them “legs” has no impact on whether or not they allow people to move. This also calls to mind the Shakespearian quote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Could language then, in a way, not necessarily be the categorizing force of mankind, but instead a manifestation of an internal organization that all people do? Maybe language allows each individual’s categories to become universally understood and unified, making these categories at least more all-encompassing than if each person in the world simply had their own that were indecipherable to others.


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