Folk taxonomy

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Lycoperdon umbrinum is known as the umber-brown puffball. The folk taxonomic term puffball has no direct scientific equivalent, and does not slot precisely into scientific taxonomy.

A folk taxonomy is a vernacular naming system, as distinct from scientific taxonomy. Folk biological classification is the way people traditionally describe and organize their natural surroundings/the world around them, typically making generous use of form taxa like "shrubs", "bugs", "ducks", "fish" and the like, or of economic criteria such as "game animal" or "pack animal".

Folk taxonomies are generated from social knowledge and are used in everyday speech. They are distinguished from scientific taxonomies that claim to be disembedded from social relations and thus more objective and universal. Folk taxonomies exist to allow popular identification of classes of objects, and apply to all areas of human activity. All parts of the world have their own systems of naming local plants and animals. These naming systems are a vital aid to survival and include information such as the fruiting patterns of trees and the habits of large mammals. These localised naming systems are folk taxonomies. Theophrastus recorded evidence of a Greek folk taxonomy for plants, but later formalized botanical taxonomies were laid out in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus.

Anthropologists have observed that taxonomies are generally embedded in local cultural and social systems, and serve various social functions. One of the best-known and most influential studies of folk taxonomies is Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Scientists generally recognize that folk taxonomies conflict at times with Linnaean taxonomy or current interpretations of evolutionary relationships, and can tend to refer to generalized rather than quantitatively informative traits in an organism. Some anthropologists say race is a folk taxonomy.[1][2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Alan Park, Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach (2003, ISBN 0072549238), pages 346-353
  2. ^ Conrad Phillip Kottak, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity (1982), page 45
  3. ^ The Carlos Hoyt, Arc of a Bad Idea: Understanding and Transcending Race (2016, ISBN 0199386285)


  • Bailenson, J.N., M.S. Shum, S. Atran, D.L. Medin, & J.D. Coley (2002) "A bird's eye view: biological categorization and reasoning within and across cultures". Cognition 84:1–53
  • Berlin, Brent (1972) "Speculations on the growth of ethnobotanical nomenclature", Language in Society, 1, 51–86.
  • Berlin, Brent & Dennis E. Breedlove & Peter H. Raven (1966) "Folk taxonomies and biological classification", Science, 154, 273–275.
  • Berlin, Brent & Dennis E. Breedlove & Peter H. Raven (1973) "General principles of classification and nomenclature in folk biology", American Anthropologist, 75, 214–242.
  • Brown, Cecil H. (1974) "Unique beginners and covert categories in folk biological taxonomies", American Anthropologist, 76, 325–327.
  • Brown, Cecil H. & John Kolar & Barbara J. Torrey & Tipawan Truoong-Quang & Phillip Volkman. (1976) "Some general principles of biological and non-biological folk classification", American Ethnologist, 3, 1, 73–85.
  • Brown, Cecil H. (1986) "The growth of ethnobiological nomenclature", Current Anthropology, 27, 1, 1–19.
  • Hjørland, Birger and Claudio Gnoli. 2021. “Folk classification”. In ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization, eds. B. Hjørland and C. Gnoli,