The Categorization Test – OpEd


When you go to the supermarket, you will notice that some items were placed or “categorized” near the cashier as “ featured items.”Of course, the reason is to bring your attention as you are waiting to pay, there’s usually a goal behind any categorization, and we should not take it for granted. This is precisely the job description of some researchers on increasing profit and influencing customers’ decisions by finding the ideal categorization.”

But categorization is not only in supermarkets. It’s everywhere in life; it’s evident that we humans tend to take things and break them into parts to understand and explain them. In doing so, we shape our cognition. As Stevan Harnad, the well-known professor of psychology who studies categorizations, put it eloquently, to Cognize is to Categorize. For example, we designed categorizations that changed and expanded over time such as the periodic table in chemistry. Categorizations can also be built with hidden or ulterior motives or intentions. One such example is when Hitler categorized humans as Aryan, lower class, and subhuman. Categorizations can also be vague such as fake and trusted news.

We divided knowledge into natural science, humanities, art, etc., then we took one category, i.e., natural science, and divided it up again into more categories: physics, mathematics, engineering, etc. then we decided to fix the problems of this categorization by embracing multidisciplinary approach and even anti-disciplinary. 

We build categories all the time, and we try to fix them when we have concerns about them.

Our journey as humans to understand categorizations started centuries ago when Aristotle, the great greek philosopher, argued in his excellent book The Categories how categories should be defined clearly and mutually exclusive and each object under one of ten main categories. It took us a long time till Wittgenstein proposed his creative family resemblance idea,whichargues that things can be connected by many overlapping similarities instead of having one common one.

Many years later, Eleanor Rosch introduced the prototype theory, where she argued that “ human categorization should not be considered the arbitrary product of historical accident or of whim but rather the result of psychological principles of categorization, which are subject to the investigation” she showed that there’s in each category there’s a prototype that acts as an exemplar to other members of the category. Fuzzy logic gives us a very flexible way to categorize statements as they range between entirely true and false.

Humans in their daily also create categorizations, i.e., folks’ taxonomy, which differs from one cultural, social, and religious system to another. Thus some argue that this categorization is not necessarily objective.

A simple categorization test (a battery of questions we can subject categories to) that anyone can use to deeply understand the already made categories by asking a set of questions that help anyone reveal the underlying assumptions behind these categorizations. Whenever you see a categorization of anything into many parts, consider the following questions:

1. From what perspective are the parts being grouped?

2. Could there be a different perspective that would group the items differently?

3. Do they overlap or not with the categorization you see?

4. Who did the categorization? Is there any hidden agenda or ulterior motive behind the categorization?

5. Does the category’s name (distinction) reflect the parts that comprise it? Does the name of each part reflect all items inside that part?

6. What are the ethical implications of applying and using this categorization? Who or what is excluded when this categorization is used?

7. Do the parts share common properties and can be put under one category? Is the categorization just how a person or group sees things or is it the way things are? What are possible ways to test the validity of the categorization: empirical, logical argument, etc.?

8. Does the overall categorization change over time, or it’s static? Do the parts change over time?

9. If the categorization uses either-or groupings (as most categories do), ask: could it be both of them? Are there items that fit different parts at the same time? Could there be an item that fits into none of the parts?

10. 8. Does the selected method represent the categorization ( boxes, pie charts, numbers, etc.) that impacts the perception of categorization or not?

11. If the categorization is designed in a hierarchical order, does this imply anything about the parts, could think about possible ways to rearrange the order?

12. How objective is the categorization, and what’s its source is it cultural, religious, scientific, etc.?

13. Did the categorization happen randomly, or was it deterministic? Can we influence or change it? When can it be helpful or not?

14- How can you ensure that you understood the categorization precisely as described? Are you you reflecting on your experiences and biases on it or not?

Posing a challenge to existing and proposed categories by asking these questions keeps us honest about what we claim to be true about how the world is organized. The end goal of the categorization test is not to tell the right or wrong categorization. Its purpose, however, is to reverse the process and shift the attention from categorizing the world to thinking about the process so we can reveal our deeply held assumptions and be open to different interpretations,, views and perspectives.

These questions should not be the final answer. They should be thought of as merely the starting point; anyone can try adding more, they should invite us to improve our thinking, not limit it. 

*Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern university Civic AI lab. He also holds a degree in engineering from the University of Khartoum.

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