Taxonomies are useful tools for visualizing culture.  Cultural categories are divided into “domains,” each of which have their own “folk terms.”  For the ethnographer or student of culture, the job is to uncover, clarify and reveal underlying taxonomic structures by mapping out the domains and folk terms of the people being studied.


In this mapping process, the ethnographer learns a lot by asking “what are the kinds of…,” “what are the steps in…” “what are the parts of…” or “what are the ways to do…” X according to what is being studied.


When complete, a taxonomy will have a set of strictly contrasting or binary categories.  This phase of the process comes down to testing many variations of this question: “how do you know that this is this, and not that?”


Here’s what a binary taxonomy looks like describing simple objects:

Taxonomy sample

I have the privilege today of facilitating a community retrospective of a four-year public arts project.  We will use this worksheet to uncover the first phase of taxonomic structures:


blank taxonomy

The purpose of this exercise is to find out how the community categorizes itself, which may not be the same as how it has been categorized in the past by funders, city agencies and other outside entities.  Cultural studies like this one rest on a foundation of respect for the insider’s viewpoint.  The results will inform future programming and fundraising efforts so as to contribute maximum value to the community on its own terms instead of just “good PR.”


A great resource for further information is The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society by McCurdy, Spradley and Shandy.