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A folk taxonomy is a vernacular naming system, and can be contrasted with scientific taxonomy. Folk biological classification is the way peoples make sense of and organize their natural surroundings/the world around them, typically making generous use of form taxa like "shrubs", "bugs", "ducks", "ungulates" and the likes. Astrology is a folk taxonomy, while astronomy uses a scientific classification system, although both involve observations of the stars and celestial bodies and both terms seem equally scientific, with the former meaning "the teachings about the stars" and the latter "the rules about the stars". 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 objective and universal.

Anthropologists have observed that taxonomies are generally embedded in local cultural and social systems, and serve various social functions. Perhaps the most well-known and influential study of folk taxonomies is Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

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 Carolus Linnaeus.

Critics of the concept of "race" in humans argue that race is a folk taxonomy rather than a scientific classification.[1]

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.

Notable folk taxa include Saber-toothed cat.


  1. ^ Montagu, Ashley (2008 [1962]). "The Concept of Race". American Ethnography Quasimonthly. Retrieved 26 January 2009.  

See also


  • Bailenson, JN, MS Shum, S Atran, DL Medin, JD 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.


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