AnEcology of Social Categories

By Elizabeth Pontikes
Sociological Science
2014 Vol. 1 Pages 2014.

This article proposes that meaningful social classification emerges from an ecological dynamic that operates
in two planes: feature space and label space. It takes a dynamic view of classification, allowing objects’ movements in
both spaces to change the meaning of social categories. The first part of the theory argues that agents assign labels
to objects based on perceptions of their similarities to existing members of a category. The second part of the theory
shows that an object’s perceived similarity to members of other categories reduces its typicality in a focal category. This
means that for categories with a high degree of overlap with other categories in label space (lenient categories), the
link between feature-based similarities and labeling weakens. The findings suggest that social classification will likely
evolve to contain both constraining and lenient categories. The theory implies that this process is self-reinforcing, so that
constraining categories become more constraining, whereas lenient categories become more lenient.