Folk Classification

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Folk Classification

Scientists believe that folk classifications of human groups, or “races,”are distinct from, and must have preceded, those the scientific community began devising in the eighteenth century. Such classifications (usually ethnocentric) were part of the written record centuries before the birth of Christ. Early travelers distinguished foreign groups according to their obvious physical traits, such as skin color or hair form, but more subtle distinctions were made at home, between “Ourselves”and those “Others”who lived nearby. Folk taxonomies categorized “Us,”with flattering and exaggerated claims of superior intelligence, greater sexual prowess, or cleanliness (e.g., “‘We’ understand at a much deeper level than other societies the way God meant the world to operate”), “Them,”with their inferior understandings of human civility, failure to observe incest prohibitions or food taboos (e.g., “‘They’ are cannibals, fond of rude practices and marrying their sisters”).

A fifth-century BCE example comes from the writings of Aristotle, who characterized his northern (European) neighbors as hotheaded and difficult, while his southern (Eastern Mediterranean) neighbors were lazy and careless. In between, his own people (those now called Greeks) were blessed with what Aristotle believed was just the right mixture of intelligence and industry. A more recent example from anthropological investigations: often the tribal name given to one’s own group meant “human beings,”while the name for a neighboring group, e.g., Navajo, meant something like “those sub-human thieves over there.”The Navajo call themselves Dinee, which in their language means “humans.”

The ethnocentric biases that accompanied Us-Them distinctions were carried over into what were considered “scientific”studies of human differences. In 1735 Carl Linnaeus published the first edition of his Systema Natura, in which he included humans as one species, undivided into races (a designation contemporary biologists would agree with). In subsequent editions, however, Linnaeus included four human “varieties,”mainly based on geography: Asian, African, European, and North American. These included physical characteristics such as skin color as well as “temperamental”or psychological characteristics. Europeans were characterized as “light and lively,”while Africans were “choleric”and lazy, Asians were “crafty,”and North Americans were “impotent.”These fanciful imputations were to increase greatly in later classificatory schemes, such as that of the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840). Scientific racism, or the linking of learned or cultural traits to real or imagined physical characteristics, may have been born in Linnaeus’s writings, but its subsequent growth and development owed more to Blumenbach and his colleagues, who never hesitated to include traits from highly biased folk classifications in their scientific categories.

Definitional debates about what constituted a human “race”continued over the next centuries, and by the 1940s as many as two hundred “races”had been defined. In the minds of many social scientists, the question of whether human races even existed was moot by the time most of these discussions ceased, soon after the extent of Hitler’s atrocities in the name of “racial purity”became known. In the 1930s, Hitler had declared that although he did not believe in it, the idea of race was one that served his purposes: “I know perfectly well that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race … but I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis… . And for this purpose the conception of races serves me well”(quoted in Shanklin 1994, p. 10).

Since the 1940s, there has been a debate in anthropology about the wisdom or necessity of discarding the term “race,”and an increasing number of pro-race debaters have come to concede the point (Lieberman and Jackson 1995). Thus, as a scientific concept, race has lost its salience, despite occasional misplaced attempts at rekindling stereotypes, as in the insouciant use of the term by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve (1994), or misguided usages, such as those retained in forensic anthropology and displayed at length in the unfortunate debate over Kennewick Man’s “status”as Caucasian (Brace 1995a and 1995b). Once race was discarded as a biological concept in the late twentieth century, scientists adopted and continue to use evolutionary systematics to distinguish species, especially cladistics, which distinguishes features of common descent from those that are derived.

There is hope in this change in the discourse of both social and biological sciences, though it should not be taken as evidence that “racial”categories arising from folk classifications of hereditary and learned characteristics have lost their venomous power. The scientific rejection of the idea of human “races”has not resolved the problems of the persistence of racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and ethnocentrism. To the extent that this kind of discriminatory thinking has its origins in the human socialization process and in folk classifications biased in favor of membership in a particular in-group, it remains for social scientists to find ways of countering the biases against “others”that may have been part of the socialization process since time immemorial.

SEE ALSO Human and Primate Evolution; Kennewick Man.


Brace, C. Loring. 1995a. “Biocultural Interaction and The Mechanism of Mosaic Evolution in the Emergence of ‘Modern’ Morphology.”American Anthropologist 97 (4): 711–721.

———. 1995b. “Region Does Not Mean Race: Reality vs. Convention in Forensic Identification.”Journal of Forensic Sciences 40 (2): 171–175.

Lieberman, Leonard, and Fatimah Linda C. Jackson. 1995. “Race and Three Models of Human Origin.”American Anthropologist 97 (2): 231–242.

Shanklin, Eugenia. 1994. Anthropology and Race. Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

Eugenia Shanklin