Some aspects of the debate over the primary contention that the world is organised by people into sets of categories are introduced. The material world is produced as a series of ordered relationships using principles such as hierarchy and contrast. There has been considerable work in philosophy, psychology, linguistics and social anthropology on meaning and categorisation and the limitations and value to archaeology of studies in these different disciplines are assessed. For example, the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, generative or transformational grammars and componential analysis are considered. The problem associated with these approaches concerns the relationship between form or structure and the social context in which it is generated. Studies which link categorisation to pragmatics are described, and there is a suggestion that we deal with the ‘fuzziness’ of categories directly, rather than treating categories as discrete groups.
This paper is a discussion of the proposition that ‘material culture sets reflect the organisational principles of human categorisation processes, and that it is through the understanding of such processes that we may best be able to interpret changes in material culture sets over time’. ‘Material culture sets’ refers to pottery, field systems, temple architecture or indeed anything in the archaeological record that we can interpret as being the result of human productive processes. The term ‘sets’ means that we are not concerned with individual forms but always with series of forms that share attributes common to the series as a whole, while a further group of attributes discriminate between the members of the series and give them definition or ‘meaning’.