Punched Drunk: Alcohol, Surveillance and the LCBO, 1927-1975

LCBO Surveillance Technologies

Punch Cards, IBM & Statistical Analysis


Prototypical Classification

The LCBO reliance upon “prototypical,” or stereotype-based, classification played an important role in the development of alcohol abuse-related prejudices towards First Nations populations in Ontario. Within Western culture many people’s understandings of categories come from a generalized assumption of classical Aristotelian theory concerning categorization and category development. Aristotelian theory suggests that the process of classification “works according to a set of binary characteristics that the object being classified either presents or does not present” (Bowker and Star 2000: 62). Under this model individuals decide which category an object belongs to through a series of “yes” or “no” questions concerning the features of the object. When enough of these questions are answered the object is categorized within one and only one category. Although this conceptualization of categories and categorization remains influential and has informed a broad range of scientific fields, perhaps most notably biology, geology, and physics, the research of Eleanor Rosch (1975: 62) in the 1970s suggests that categories exist in much more fuzzy or less delineated ways.

In her work Rosch questioned the assumption that the properties defining a category were equally shared by all its members — under classical Aristotelian classification no one book, for example, would be a better example of the category “book” than any other (Lakoff 1987: 40). However, Rosch’s (1975: 40) review of investigations into colour recognition showed not only “that focal colors had a special status within color categories,” existing as a “best example of the category,” but also that individuals were better able to remember focal colours than non-focal colours (ibid.: 40). Importantly, Rosch’s work pointed to the existence of more of these types of asymmetries within categories. Specifically, she found:

Subjects judged certain members of the categories as being more representative of the category than other members. For example, robins are judged to be more representative of the category BIRD than are chickens, penguins, and ostriches… desk chairs are judged to be more representative of the category CHAIR than are rocking chairs, barber chairs, beanbag chairs, or electric chairs. (ibid.: 41)

These “best examples” were referred to as “cognitive reference points” or “prototypes,” and have since been linked to a number of factors: direct rating — the ability to rate how representative a particular object is within the category; reaction times — the ability to more quickly categorize certain objects within the category than others; production of examples — specific objects are more commonly given as examples of categories than others; asymmetry in similarity ratings — non-prototypical objects are considered to be more like other categories than are prototypical objects; asymmetry in generalization — when new information about a prototypical category member is more likely to be generalized to non-representative members than the reverse; family resemblances — that there exists a perceived similarity between prototypical objects and those within the same category (Rosch 1975; Tversky and Gati 1978; Rips 1975; Rosch and Mervis 1975; Rosch, Simpson, and Miller 1976).

Prototype theory explains that classification is accomplished through a process whereby one learns a stereotype or “prototype” and then “extends this picture by metaphor and analogy when trying to decide if any given thing” fits within a classification: “We call up a best example, and then see if there is a reasonable direct or metaphorical thread that takes us from the example to the object under consideration” (Bowker and Star 2000: 62; see also Lakoff 1987; Taylor 1995). Rosch’s work went on to show that prototypes and prototypical classification were central to “techniques involved in learning, matching, memory and judgments of similarity” (Lakoff 1987: 41).

<< Canadian Legal Classifications and First Nations       
Interdiction and the “Indian List”
Prototypical Classification
The LCBO and the Classification of Indians
First Nations and Alcohol 1939–75
The Impact of Prototypical Classification
The Impact of the Indian/Interdiction Classification >>