Game: Minivans and ICMs

A mini van, an ICM?
a game to explore category structure and what motivates it.
In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff suggests that the categories we enact in
language and use to efficiently make sense of everyday life are structured through Idealized
Cognitive Models, or ICMs. In everyday life, the full complexity of the logic that structures a
category may be hidden from us as we take advantage of the default processing provided through
the ICM. Lakoff uses the example of a bachelor: our basic definition of bachelor is an unmarried
man. And yet it is strange to think of a monk as a bachelor, or to think of someone in a long-term
relationship as a bachelor, even if that person is not married. Lakoff clarifies that the ICM of
bachelor seems to arise from a conception of marriage (to a woman) as being a standard stage in a
young man’s life. A bachelor is not yet married, but he soon will be.
ICMs are not necessarily bad; it is, indeed, quite useful for our brains to offload as much
cognitive processing as possible on fairly standard, reliable, category structures. However,
particularly when aspects of social life are in flux, the operational ICM can make it difficult to
recognize situations that don’t fit its simplified template of the world. Reddy, for example, argues
that the conduit metaphor, in which the language we use to describe language makes it seem as if
communication should be effortless, the mere decoding of a signal, causes harm by making it
seem as if miscommunication should be a rare event, rather than a common one.
Your mission
In this activity, you will investigate, in a small group of about 4 people, the ICM that structures
the category of family in current American culture. (If you have not long been in the United
States, please contribute your perspective as an observer of this culture, from the viewpoint of
your own.) Then you will consider how one might analyze and, potentially, revise a Web site’s
structure in terms of this ICM.
Step 1 (ten to fifteen minutes): Describe the ICM of family.
One way of doing this is to first describe what seem to be prototypical members of the family
category. Then describe some border cases. Is there a logic that distances the border cases from
the central ones? That logic constitutes the ICM.
Remember that your discussion should attempt to identify the operational ICM, not the definition
of family that you, personally, would like to see the culture embrace. We are talking about
instinctive defaults at this point, not about changes we might like to make to these defaults.
Step 2 (ten to fifteen minutes): Describe how the Family Life section of the Web site
reflects or challenges the ICM that you identified.
The Web site will be projected onto the screen in class, or access it here:
How do the categories chosen by this Web site either reflect or challenge the ICM of family as
you have identified it? Does the site seem to be defining the family in a particular way? Is there a
logic that is motivating that definition?
Step 3 (ten to fifteen minutes): Describe a definition of family that your group can agree on, and
explain how your definition does or does not differ from the operational ICM. Describe how you
INF 384C
Fall 2010
might revise the Family Life section of the Web site to reflect the category that you
envision, and explain how this revision reflects or challenges the operational ICM.
Option 1: Now is your chance to explore any difficulties you might have with how families are
defined in current American culture. Can you describe an alternate logic that explains the
structure of your altered family category? (For example, if you wanted to challenge the bachelor
category, would your idea of bachelor expand the ICM by substituting any committed
relationship for the idea of marriage?)
Option 2: Alternately, many of your essays postulated that objectivity and neutrality of position
are desired characteristics for both information professionals and the systems that they might
create. Instead of describing a new category that advocates a particular logic, consider the idea of
an objective, neutral account of family. Is this possible? What would it mean to try to be as
objective as possible in describing this category? Where would this category structure come
from? How would you know when you had found the most objective account?
Finally, use your new category definition to see how you might revise the Family Life section of
the Web site. (If, for example, your new category definition was motivated by an
ICM of showing respect and gratitude toward elders, with the family as a social unit organized to
pursue that goal, how would you change the Web site to reflect this new orientation?)
INF 384C
Fall 2010