In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Classification and Codes

  • Introduction
  • Overview of Classics
  • Structuralist Foundations
  • General Overviews
  • Contested Classifications and Codes

Sociology Cultural Classification and Codes
Vincent Yung, Wendy Espeland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0211


Classification is fundamental to social life. It is the prerequisite to all other social activity. Before language, family, power, or organization, there must be rules for expressing sameness and difference, for defining what is or is not an instance of something, and there must be rules for how these distinctions are connected. Understanding space, time, or causal relationships, that something is an “independent” or “dependent variable” and that they are connected to each other, are social relationships that depend on classification; so, too, is the discovery of chance and the understanding of life in stochastic, probabilistic terms. Classification can be a simple distinction of kinds (this is an animal, that is not), but it is usually organized into systems of division and hierarchy, of more and less, better and worse. Kinship is about who and how we are connected to family or clan or tribe. Nationalism is about how someone is a citizen and the kinds of relationships that citizens and noncitizens have. Power is about who and when someone has the right to impose their will on others. And status is about social worth that is distributed based on race, caste, ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, what people buy, who is beautiful, who is good at sports, and so on. Sociologists may take categories for granted, but some branches—those who study culture, politics, or race—are especially concerned with how classifications emerge, spread, or change over time. Changes in economic or political relationships often require a reclassification of worth or merit. And the terms that define categories are most often controlled by those who most benefit from them; however, efforts to resist power often involve challenging categories favoring the powerful.

Overview of Classics

Because classification is fundamental to and produced by society, understanding how it works was a crucial preoccupation of the founding figures in social science. For Karl Marx, class is determined by one’s relationship to the economy, which for him was mostly a binary position. Marx and Engels 1970 argues that the fetishization of commodities, treating people as things and things as people, is an inversion of classification that is one of capitalism’s defining features. Émile Durkheim analyzes religion as the distinction of the sacred from the profane. Durkheim 2008 also describes how social relations based on kinship and context shape conceptions of space, time, and causality. Durkheim and Mauss 1963 emphasizes how classification makes social life possible, arguing that all classificatory schemes help unify knowledge, whether or not such knowledge is considered “primitive” or scientific. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure revolutionized the study of language by insisting that all languages are arbitrary. Saussure 1983 outlines an approach to structural linguistics where the relationship between signifier (e.g., the word “dog”) and signified (“the dog”) is not based on any objective features—the object or the sign. Meaning, instead, it is derived from the relationships among signs. In this sense, meaning is self-referential. Max Weber poses classifications as relative and related to cultural values. As Weber 1978 argues, a sociology of classification would necessarily rely on the methodological use of ideal types, a one-sided construct that simplifies social phenomena for scientific analysis. Georg Simmel highlights the role that consumption plays in signalizing identity. Emphasizing the study of social forms and social types, Simmel 1971 shows how these stylized categories both shape social life and are a means for investigating it. Bourdieu 1991 contends that classification is a relational act, and that language is not just a means of communication but a way to express symbolic power. Foucault 1994 provides an archaeological approach to the human sciences, demonstrating that classification is historically contingent upon episteme, the unconscious foundations for what can be regarded as knowledge.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and symbolic power. Edited by John Thompson. Translated by Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    In contrast to the semiotic approach of Saussure, but also the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Barthes, Bourdieu argues that language is a sociohistorical phenomenon. Exploring the development of French alongside the emergence of the French nation-state, Bourdieu demonstrates that language can serve as an instrument of symbolic power.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 2008. The elementary forms of religious life. Edited by Mark S. Cladis. Translated by Carol Cosman. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Religion is based on distinctions between the sacred, that which is set apart and forbidden, and the profane, the everyday and mundane, created by boundaries that are enacted through rituals. The most fundamental categories of human thought originate in social experience.

  • Durkheim, Émile, and Marcel Mauss. 1963. Primitive classification. Translated by Rodney Needham. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Durkheim and Mauss argue that all classificatory schemes have certain shared characteristics. All schemes are systems of hierarchized notions, systems for understanding things in terms of fixed relationships with other things. Classificatory schemes unify knowledge into a single, comprehensive whole and make the generation of social life possible.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1994. The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. 2d ed. New York: Vintage.

    Foucault’s archaeology of scientific thought introduces the concept of episteme to demonstrate that different periods of history have operated on different ordered, tacit, and unconscious ideas of what can be regarded as knowledge.

  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1970. The German ideology. Edited by Christopher J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers.

    Marx and Engels offer a historical materialist conception of human history, arguing that ideas cannot be divorced from the material conditions that gave rise to and coevolved with these ideas. Human history is defined not by the development of different states, but by different forms of ownership.

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1983. Course in general linguistics. Translated by Albert Riedlinger. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

    Saussure’s structuralism inspired the linguistic turn of the 20th century. Saussure offers a dyadic model of semiotics, arguing that signs acquire meaning only in relation to a system of signs.

  • Simmel, Georg. 1971. Georg Simmel on individuality and social forms. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Excerpts from Simmel’s Soziologie (1912) and other work demonstrate his approach to studying society as a dialectical interaction between individuals, revealed in patterns, forms of actions, and types of persons.

  • Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Witch. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Weber defines sociology as a science of the interpretive understanding of social action, its causes, and consequences. He describes the economic, political, administrative, and cultural institutions that characterize the modern West as the increasing scope of instrumental (means-ends) rationality at the expense of substantive (value suffused) rationality.

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