Institutional categories and their implications for human concepts

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dunham, Yarrow


How do people represent social institutions and their parts? How do these representations emerge in childhood? And, what can they reveal to us about human concepts? Chapter 1, presents a novel argument about people’s concepts of institutional categories. I argue that people represent categories like group member, money, and lawyer as positions in unobservable social structures. People represent their properties as socially constituted and produced. For example, people represent money as the position currency objects occupy in economic practices, and infer that the value of money is constituted by these economic practices. I argue that this representation emerges by the 7th year but not earlier. Prior, children reduce institutional categories to their concrete substrates and regulatory rules. For example, children reduce ‘scoring a point’ to a concrete behavior (carrying a ball beyond a line) regulated by the rules of a game, whereas older children and adults represent ‘scoring a point’ as a social fact only possible because of, and within, a system of rules. I argue that institutional categories demand an important revision of current theories of concepts. Psychological essentialism argues that diverse category-rated phenomena reflect a belief in essences: appeals to nonobvious structure, generic claims, and robust inductive potential. But I show that these effects occur at the same frequency with institutional categories, and that people do not represent the members of institutional categories as sharing essences. We need a multiplicity of frameworks to understand human concepts. In Chapters 2 through 5, I describe in detail empirical studies supporting this proposal: Chapter 2 describes studies concerning children’s (ages 4 through 9) concepts of social groups. My collaborators and I show that children appeal to mutual intentions in their categoryjudgments: An individual becomes a group member when she and other group members consent to her membership. This developmental continuity masks an important change though. Young children represent groups as patterns of interpersonal relationships between individuals. Only later in development do children represent group membership as embedded in systems of rules, such that the group is a social structure abstracted from specific individuals, and group membership is a position in that structure. Chapter 3 examines whether children understand social constitution. A placekicker scores a point when they kick a ball through a field goal. This action does not cause a point to occur the way a carpenter swinging a hammer causes a nail to drive into wood. Instead, this outcome is constituted by, and only possible within, the rules of football. But young children believe a point will still be scored if people stop recognizing the object as a field goal and stop recognizing an individual as a placekicker. Children reduce institutional properties to their concrete substrates: “Scoring a point” is a concrete behavior regulated by rules rather than constituted by them. Chapter 4 examines generic claims. Generic claims include “tigers are striped” and “boys don’t cry.” Previous theorizing links generic claims to essences: A belief in essences causes a high volume of generic utterances, and hearing a high volume of generic utterances leads people to conclude essences. In a series of studies, my collaborator and I found that a group represented as institutional promoted just as many generic claims as a group represented as essential. Further, when hearing a high volume of generic claims about a novel group, neither children nor adults were biased to interpret the group as essential rather than institutional. Instead, children and adults made reasonable guesses as to whether the group’s structure was institutional or essential using the pattern of properties in generic claims: Physiological properties (“they are lactose intolerant”) suggest an essential group, and cultural properties (“they value punctuality”) suggest an institutional group. Chapter 5 examines inductive potential. Inductive potential is the degree to which learning a property of a specific instance (e.g., my dog) it taken to generalize to new instances (e.g., my neighbor’s dog). Previous theorizing links inductive potential to a belief in essences. In a series of studies, my collaborators and I find that people take occupational roles as having robust inductive potential. Participants used occupational roles to generalize novel properties at comparable rates as animal categories and even more then gender and race. People attributed the source of their inductive potential to social institutions: Members of occupations share rights, obligations, and privileges, and engage in similar functional behaviors, in virtue of their position in social institutions. Social institutions can also shape people’s personality traits and skills by systematical altering their experiences.

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