Friday, January 6, 2012

Categories: an Overview

Early on in Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, there's a detour into philosophy as he considers the question of how human beings organize their experiences of the world. He starts with two possibilities: one, that we order them according to pre-existing categories, some sort of transcendent framework by which we intuitively arrange the things that we know; two, that we each create our categories ourselves, building them up piece by piece until we have a more complete system. He dismisses both of these choices, though, once he's explained them.

If there were some universal set of categories, he argues, then every culture would organize the world the roughly same way, but since they don't, that can't be the answer. On the other hand, if every person had to sort out their categories themselves, we'd have no shared symbols and no values beyond the ones we worked out on our own. Again, that doesn't match the way the vast majority of us live our lives, so it can't be right, either. He finally comes down somewhere between the two options: we inherit a framework for understanding the world from society, then reinforce it and transmit it from generation to generation. That framework can still be arbitrary, but it's not the creation of any one person.

Now, Durkheim brings all of this up before he gets into talking about the sacred and profane, which he thinks of as one of the most basic divisions of categories that societies create. I bring it up here because I want to talk about how to play with the ways that religions can act as ways of thinking about the world, ways of organizing it and finding one's place in it. If you're creating a fictional society and you really want to start with the basics, you have to think about what kinds of structures it uses.

Before I go any further, by the way, I'll mention that this isn't the only way to deal with these categories of thinking. It just happens to be one that I believe isn't used often enough. If you take Eliade's approach to symbols, on the other hand, they are universal: the Sun, the Moon, water, fire, mountains, and so on, all have the same general meaning across cultures, so an educated stranger dropped into the middle of a religious ceremony could make a fair guess at what's going on based on the imagery. There are some advantages to deciding to create a setting under that assumption, but you should at least be aware that it's a choice you're making, not necessarily the way that things naturally are.

With that in mind, back to categories. Now that I've hit the fifth paragraph of this post, maybe it's time to explain what I mean: I mean the forms of organization that people use to help make sense of the world, or the ways that they group different objects and experiences. They can include simple binaries, like sacred/profane, good/evil, or male/female; or more elaborate groupings, like putting lions, gold, sunflowers, and amber under the heading of "solar things." Whatever form they take, they're arbitrary, but will seem natural to the society that produces them.

I used to test this with students by asking them what colours they associated with the Sun and Moon, then what metals, minerals, animals, personalities, and genders. Their responses were quite consistent, to the extent that they're react strongly to answers that fell too far outside their expectations, and they could manage the same level of consistency when asked about Mars or Venus. (It dropped off with Mercury, then more sharply with Jupiter and Saturn.) Not only that, but their answers matched lists of similar associations from the sixteenth century.

As far as they were concerned, the associations they'd made -- the categories they used to group phenomena -- were obvious ones. They were all part of the symbolic vocabulary that they'd inherited from their society and, like most people, they had no reason to question them. If you're creating a world that doesn't have a same Graeco-Roman-influenced, western European, Christian historical legacy, however, then maybe it's time to throw them out and make something new.

It's not that you're taking the easier route in worldbuilding if you don't -- again, I don't have any problem with anyone who reads this whole post, thinks about their approach, and decides to stick with it anyways. It's that by leaving these categories unquestioned, you may be reinforcing the idea that they are natural, rather than the product of a specific and unique set of historical circumstances. That assumption can be problematic because it ignores the other frameworks that could (and do) exist, and when that happens, you miss the opportunity to give your readers a glimpse of something genuinely creative.

Next time around, I'll go into detail about some of the more common categories that turn up in religions, and ways you can reimagine them.

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