The Blackness of Black: Color Categories as Situated Practice

  • Charles Goodwin
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (volume 160)


In what remains one of the central accomplishments of cognitive anthropology, Berlin and Kay (1969) demonstrated that the diversity of human color systems was built on a universal infrastructure, with black and white being the most basic colors in all systems. The analytical focus of their work is a structural system divorced from the messy tasks of actually using color terms to make relevant distinctions within specific courses of action situated within the concrete settings that constitute the lifeworld of a particular society. By way of contrast, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy argues that it is precisely such endogenous activities that provide the necessary framework for the analysis of human language. Using as data videotape of chemists attempting to determine when to stop a reaction by deciding when the material they are working with is jet black, this chapter explores (1) the diverse practices they deploy to establish what can count as black; (2) how such a distinction is embedded within a local activity system lodged in turn within a relevant community of practice; and (3) the embodied apprenticeship required for new members to become competent in the use of such a category. For the chemists, jet black (e.g., the most prototypical example of black) is not a preformulated, context-free universal color category, but instead a problematic judgment to be artfully accomplished through the deployment of a collection of systematic work practices. This analysis contributes to the development of a practice-based theory of knowledge and action.


Color Category Color Term Professional Vision Situate Practice Competent Practitioner 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles Goodwin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

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