Prototype theory: An alternative concept theory for categorizing sex and gender?

Melodie J. Fox


Classical theories of classification and concepts, originating in ancient Greek logic, have been criticized by classificationists, feminists, and scholars of marginalized groups because of the rigidity of conceptual boundaries and hierarchical structure. Despite this criticism, the principles of classical theory still underlie major library classification schemes. Rosch’s prototype theory, originating from cognitive psychology, uses Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” as a basis for conceptual definition. Rather than requiring all necessary and sufficient conditions, prototype theory requires possession of some but not all common qualities for membership in a category. This paper explores prototype theory to determine whether it captures the fluidity of gender to avoid essentialism and accommodate transgender and queer identities. Ultimately, prototype theory constitutes a desirable conceptual framework for gender because it permits commonality without essentialism, difference without eliminating similarity. However, the instability of prototypical definitions would be difficult to implement in a practical environment and could still be manipulated to subordinate. Therefore, at best, prototype theory could complement more stable concept theories by incorporating contextual difference.

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