Journal of Classification

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 187–210 | Cite as

Statistical properties of large published classifications

  • Eric W. Holman


Large published classifications typically consist of sets (called taxa) hierarchically arranged according to taxonomic rank. A statistical survey of 23 such classification reveals the following distinctive properties. The pattern of mandatory and optional taxonomic ranks is similar to a Guttman scale. Mean taxon size (defined as the number of next-lower-rank taxa per higher-rank taxon) is a U-shaped function of mandatory rank, and averages about seven across ranks with no significant differences between classifications. The variability of taxon size is a decreasing function of mandatory rank. The generality of these properties across classifications suggests that they are determined by the psychology of the classification process. In contrast, there are significant differences between classifications in the variability of taxon size and in the prevalence of optional ranks, both of which are greater in biological than in nonbiological classifications. These differences may reflect the nature of the materials classified.


Hierarchical classification Taxonomic rank Guttman scale Cluster analysis Folk taxonomy Natural categories Hollow curve 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eric W. Holman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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