On classifications and typologies (1)

Humans classify things, people and behaviours. Into types. Typologies have found use in a diverse range of disciplines from psychology to anthropology and linguistics.

Classifications enable pattern recognition – or generalisations – within homogeneous groups; they also help make extrapolations. So they can be quite useful.

For businesses, typologies and classifications have great value. Market segmentation is all about recognising potentially profitable segments froma large, non-homogeneous population and then targetting one’s marketing campaigns to gain the attention, interest and spend of the specific, profitable subset.

But typologies have shortcomings hence potential for abuse. For instance, racial or gender classifications can deteriorate into unhelpful shorthand that enables easy discrimination. Not everyone is a fan of Carleton S Coon‘s work on races and evolution. Look up ‘women childbearing age discrimination‘ and you will find much evidence to see how easy it is. A sobering experiment conducted by Bertrand and Mullainathan asked that vital question: “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” about whether racial discrimination on the basis of black versus white names is real in hiring situations.

There are disagreements on the validity of some generalisations. For instance, Penelope Trunk, a business blogger, is a fan of generational generalisations, while Ben Casnocha, entrepreneur, student and blogger, believes collective consciousness is over-rated, particularly in context of generations. Both of them are right in their own way and both lines of arguments have limitations.

Generalisations – and stereotypes – work mainly because they are statistically significant when vast swathes of data are considered. Which means they talk about the vast bulge of the Bell Curve, not the leading and trailing edges. As that great sage of all things wise, Homer Simpson said: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers”. My wry view is that generalisations are mainly meant as warnings.

So what of the internet? Do we know various types of web users, or social media users, or bloggers? The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ because many typologies have been proposed. ‘No’ because there is no universal consensus.

A post later this week will delve into web user typologies, so do come back.

Types of writing instruments (copyrights reserved)
Types of writing instruments (copyright reserved)

6 thoughts on “On classifications and typologies (1)

  1. You say “typologies have shortcomings”. What do you consider they are? It would seem important to highlight them, as you say they provide the “potential for abuse”.


  2. @ Gary: Thanks for your note and your question. I mention a few examples of the ‘potential for abuse’ in the post.

    Typologies may not always be internally valid or consistent. An example would be ‘generational generalisations’. A typology may also not always be exhaustively descriptive of the population in consideration. One could argue if such exhaustiveness is even required. Perhaps not, if the aims of creating the typology are clear. e.g. A luxury goods company can probably afford to ignore the C1C2D1 socio-economic classification and their brand preferences, because they are not the target segment for the company.

    @ Vivek: Yes, it is. I have edited it out. Thanks.


  3. Thank you for your answer Shefaly. Can I paraphrase it as ‘the shortcomings of typologies are: poor construction and/or poor interpretation’. If so, could I infer that if the idea of a typology has a fault, it is that it is too weakly defined and that more formalised ideas like categorisation or taxonomy should be employed more often?


  4. @ Gary:

    Thanks. Taxonomy implies a hierarchy or natural order of some kind; whereas classifications, categorisations and typologies are simply groups based on shared characteristics or traits. I would also expect a taxonomy, say, of the animal kingdom, to be exhaustive and less interpretative than a typology, classification or categorisation.

    That interpretation is required in categorisations/ classifications/ typologies may be seen as a shortcoming but whether interpretation is ‘poor’ or not would depend on the context. Additionally, In business contexts, many of these and other terms are often used quite loosely which I think is not helpful. What do you think?


  5. Thanks for your answer. I agree about the lax use of the terms you cited. I think that each would be more useful if people adhered to more rigorous definitions, but people are as they are. The terms I cited are less used by the layperson and so tend to be used in a more rigorous way.
    Categorisation is a fundamental tool of human cognition and I think the concern I have here is that it is not a faulty idea. Rather, that considered use by those that need such tools to express themselves accurately, are not groundless in their belief of the value of those tools. I find it interesting to speculate on the origins of such semantic tools. Are they innate, or developmental inevitabilities, or the consequences of unavoidable social exhortations? Whichever, these ‘type’ tools are systemic in our thoughts and one must take seriously any credible claim they are faulty. Can I assume that where we have standardisation of definitions and accordingly stringent use, that you are not claiming a deeper problem?


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