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Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences

Rodney Needham
Man
New Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 349-369
DOI: 10.2307/2799807
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2799807
Page Count: 21
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Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences
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Abstract

The conventional definition of a conceptual class is that its members must possess certain properties in common. Vygotsky and Wittgenstein have shown that this definition is unrealistic and logically unneccessary. The resultant recognition of classificatory concepts formed by family resemblances has recently led to a revision of anthropological analyses of kinship and of belief statements. The present article reports the discovery that, by a remarkable convergence of ideas in the past decade, family resemblance predicates had already been adduced in certain natural sciences under the term 'polythetic classification'. The methodological and experimental results of this approach are set out, and a variety of consequences for social anthropology are drawn from them. A main conclusion is that comparative studies carried out in the stock classificatory terms of anthropology are subverted by the realisation that they refer not to common features but to polythetic classes of social facts. It is suggested that effective comparison may nevertheles be practicable by reliance on a purely formal terminology of analytical concepts, and it is envisaged that these may permit the determination of basic predicates in the study of human affairs.

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