Folk Concepts

“Folk concept.” You may have never heard the phrase defined, or even used, but you probably already know what it means. Consider this list:

  • luck
  • Bayes’ rule
  • ghosts
  • vitamin C

Which two are folk concepts?

If you were able to instantly see that luck and ghosts are folk concepts, then you are already in possession of the folk concept of the folk concept. The descriptor “folk” invites the hearer to a conversation about less sophisticated people, behind their back. The slick Latinate precision of “concept” underlines the humor: can you imagine common folk having concepts? While the phrase is not always used as a pejorative, the connotation is slightly negative, and social distance is implied. Connotation – the emotional valence of words – is a crucial element in grasping folk concepts.

Many disciplines use the concept of the folk concept, including anthropology, sociology, botany, and psychology (not to mention folklore and history of science). Each discipline likely has its own special meaning for the term that, if not explicitly defined, is encoded in usage. The term “folk concept” is rarely defined, even by scientists studying folk concepts. This is not necessarily a fault; definitions may not get us any further than example usage and hermeneutics. An anthropology textbook gives this:

A folk concept is a notion that has a general, popularly understood meaning particular to a sociocultural grouping, but which has not been formally defined or standardized.

Bernstein, J. H. (2010). “Folk concepts.” In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook, edited by H. J. Birx, pp. 848-855. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

This definition is consistent with most usages I’ve seen (across disciplines), and seems broadly correct. It’s interesting, however, that there is no word or concept in the sentence that the definition does not itself apply to. Folk concepts are often imprecise and vague (healing energy, true love). If the phrase “folk concept” is also imprecise and vague, if its referents shift over time and context, if it presents a hand-wave-y spectrum rather than a hard category, then it shares the nature of the things it describes.

I implied above, for instance, that vitamin C is not a folk concept. However, consider the belief that vitamin C prevents colds. It is a substance that has been formally defined and standardized to a high degree within the specialized domains of chemistry and medicine. However, “vitamin C” also has an existence as a folk concept: it helps your immune system and prevents colds (though, as far as I know, this is not in accord with current systematized scientific evidence). There are many instances of a formally defined, standardized scientific concept gaining a second life as a folk concept as it filters through society. For instance, the ego, superego, and id were originally scientific concepts, originated by a particular scientist; now they are only popular folk concepts, to all except historians of science.

Widen & Russell give these historical examples of the systematization of folk concepts:

Science often begins with everyday concepts and assumptions (plane geometry was based on the assumption that the earth is flat). As science progresses, however, the original concepts and assumptions can change or even disappear. For example, when ancient people exerted force, they felt muscular strain as they pushed or pulled. This feeling of strain was central to the concept of force in ancient physics. Jammer (1957) described the slow and jagged path that the concept of force traveled from its origin in everyday thought through a series of scientific proposals and then to its role in modern physics. Over that history, the word force covered a variety of phenomena, and some theorists called for abandoning the concept. In modern science, force remains, but is understood in a way qualitatively different from its origin. A different fate is seen in the concept of constellation. When ancient people in different parts of the world looked at the night sky, they saw constellations of stars. Early astronomers studied constellations, and the concept of a constellation remained central to astronomy for centuries. But, constellation is not a scientific concept in modern astronomy.

“Force” is still in use as a scientific concept and as a folk concept (much like “gravity,” which, literally, means heaviness). “Constellation” is still in use as a folk concept, useful for entertainment, navigation, and feeling at home in the universe; however, it is not in use in current efforts to formalize scientific understanding of extraterrestrial objects.

So far, folk concepts seem to vastly outnumber things that aren’t folk concepts. Only a tiny minority of concepts have a claim to formal, scientific status, and that claim is often short-lived. Folk concepts are the ordinary background reality, and formal scientific concepts are the rare exception. Almost everything that is interesting, important, or deeply meaningful to human beings is a folk concept – including interestingness, importance, and meaning itself.

There have been a few approaches toward folk concepts in the scientific literature. One approach is dismissive of folk concepts as inherently unscientific, to be eradicated and replaced with formal precision. For example, Cunningham (1961) says:

Over the years the sociologist has learned to be properly skeptical of “folk” definitions of social phenomena. For example, concepts such as “crime” and “insanity” have proven useless in most types of scientific analysis of deviant behavior. “Leisure,” it may be argued, is also just such a folk concept. We have an intuitive feeling of what is subsumed under this rubric but find the concept a virtual Pandora’s box when it comes to formal definition of the phenomenon.

In this view, without scientific formalization, the folk concept is “useless.” Unfortunately, folk concepts often refuse to be eradicated. Attempts at formalization often result in a proliferation of folk concepts, rather than tidy causal models with predictive power. Some researchers take a different approach: they study the folk concept itself. For instance, Malle & Knobe investigate the “folk concept of intentionality” – that is, they study what judgments people make about whether actions are intentional, rather than attempting to study the neurological underpinnings of intentionality (whatever that is). They find, among other things, that people mostly agree that sweating is unintentional and inviting someone to lunch is intentional. Interestingly, their research suggests a logical inconsistency (or cognitive bias) in judgments of intentionality: at least in responses to carefully-constructed vignettes, an action with a bad result is perceived as more intentional than an action with a good result.

This started a small trend, with scientists interrogating the folk concepts of free will, emotion, respect, and causation. This approach presupposes that intuitions and tacit knowledge are appropriate subjects for scientific inquiry.

The botanist Harley Harris Bartlett exemplifies the rarest approach: a comparative and synthetic analysis of folk science and regular science. Writing in 1940, he traces the origin of binomial nomenclature to pre-scientific ways of describing plants, and emphasizes that folk concepts of genera and species of plants remained more accurate than the classifications of early systematizers for hundreds of years:

The tendency to group plants into named genera, so generally characteristic of human thought and language, reflects the fact that there are not enough different words in the living, current vocabulary of any language to supply each closely similar plant with a basically distinctive name. We, for example, apply the name oak to many different trees, but so long as we stay in our own proper north-temperate habitat, our generic feeling for the oaks is true and consistent. As a matter of fact, Greene has shown that the generic idea “oak,” as held today, was really borrowed by scientific systematic botany from the folk science of the English pioneer settlers in temperate America, who extended the English folk concept of “oak” to cover the various widely different American oaks. In the eastern United States we distinguish white oak, burr oak, chestnut oak, live oak, scarlet oak, black oak, shingle oak and others, having a perfect binomial nomenclature for them in English, and, from the literary record, we may be sure that these designations owe nothing to scientific botany. They were in use in folk science before the botanists with their imperfect materials had anywhere nearly as good an idea of the oak species as the English colonists in the American woods.

Bartlett, H. H. (1940). The concept of the genus: I. History of the generic concept in botany. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 349-362.

Bartlett does not claim that folk concepts in botany are perfect or ideal. He merely argues that they are quite good for their purpose, including human linguistic and cognitive limitations, and that they remained more accurate and precise than the scientific state of the art for a long time.

James Russell, writing on emotion, adds another complication: “secondary concepts,” which bridge the gap between folk concepts and technical concepts. However, folk concepts remain problematic. Russell says:

One of the mysteries of psychology is how it has been possible to define and construe emotion in such apparently incompatible ways, from biologically fixed modules similar to reflexes to attitudes to cognitive structures to socially constructed roles. If emotion were well-defined natural kind with different theories of emotion competing head to head over the same territory, then scientific scrutiny should have rejected the false alternatives long ago. If, instead, the word emotion refers to a heterogeneous cluster of loosely related events, patterns, and dispositions, then these diverse theories might each concern a somewhat different subset of events or different aspects of those events. Theories about different things are not in competition, and empirical scrutiny could easily find evidence for each.

Emphasis mine.

A lot of science is about how to get ideas to fight each other. Vague ideas can’t really fight; they must be rendered sufficiently precise (systematized) in order to be pitted against each other in empirical trials (in psychology, mostly by having undergraduates fill out questionnaires). Folk concepts, useful as they are in everyday life, are often not precise enough to do battle in scientific terms.

Scientific Success: Technological and Narrative

“Getting ideas to fight each other” is a gloss on the concept of falsifiability: that a theory is scientific only if it is capable of being falsified by observations, and that scientific experiment aims to falsify theories.

I don’t want to retrace the entire history of the concept of falsifiability in history of science, but merely to point out that falsifiability is a popular and useful (if imprecise) concept for non-specialist understanding of science. In other words, even though it may have precise meanings and implications within the specialized domains of science and history of science, it lives as a folk concept outside of those domains.

But scientific theories don’t only fight themselves or each other. They also fight against the material world, and against social reality. A theory is successful against the material world when it cashes out technologically – in navigation, DNA testing, electronics, agriculture. Technological success of a theory is when it works to solve some problem that is important to humans, or otherwise increase human capabilities. This success is memetic, in a sense, because technology reproduces (though not in words) the knowledge that led to the technological proliferation.

The technological success story is common in hard science domains that are more in contact with the material world than the human social world. They are rare, however, in psychology and other social sciences. It’s rare that a psychological theory has cashed out technologically (and no, advertising is not a particularly strong example. Rather, ideas in psychology and the social sciences have achieved success in social reality: narrative success. Some psychological ideas, often paired with a memorable study or experiment, have become popular “folk concepts.” They successfully reproduce themselves, not in technological application, but in conversation: non-specialists use them to describe, explain, and predict the behavior and emotions of other people (and ourselves).

The “classic” experiments in psychology are mostly so because they make a good story, and they have clear morals or judgments that can be abstracted away from them. The Stanford prison experiment, the Asch conformity experiments, Rat Park, and Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority pair memorable stories with clear morals. Terms such as “learned helplessness,” “implicit bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” and “Dunning-Kruger” have entered the lexicon as folk concepts, separate from their existence as technical concepts.

The amount of evidentiary support for or against a psychological theory does not seem to be predictive of a theory’s popularity. In terms of the effect it has on the world, the social sciences may be studied as domains of folklore as much as domains of science. This is not at all to say that they are necessarily unscientific, or that their findings are wholly unrelated to truth and completely the product of narrative selection. It is that theories that are not material-world-facing enough to reify themselves in technology can still affect human affairs through their use and spread in language.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. argle-bargle says:

    none of the hyperlinks are working for me

  2. Have you read about _metis_, as used by Lou Keep?

  3. I loved this, and it begs the question of what it means for a concept to be “formally defined or standardized.” After being introduced to Wittgenstein’s private language argument in David Foster Wallace’s essay Authority and American Usage (overview, I wondered if maintaining standardization in a system requires central dominance resisting mutation and pluralism. For something to be formally defined would mean simply that the intersubjective usage of the word has stabilized to the point where transgressions can be adjudicated.

    Another question is whether intersubjective equilibria can be reached when concepts are defined only by other concepts without any objective/physical/extensional referrents.

    For more refactored linguistics:

  4. >Terms such as “learned helplessness,” “implicit bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” and “Dunning-Kruger” have entered the lexicon as folk concepts, separate from their existence as technical concepts.

    Maybe among the folk you and I know. But normies don’t talk like that.

    This folk thing also applies to art. For example:
    Ugly modern architecture
    Pepe and Wojak
    Sistine chapel
    Some painting that sells for $1000000 to a bigwig
    Medieval knights fighting snails in 14th century manuscripts

    Some of these are clearly “folk art”.

  5. Aptenodytes says:

    With refactoring in mind, I suggest that there should be a field of study about the interaction between technical concepts and folk concepts, including how folk concepts can converge and diverge, and what factors ensure this.

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