The IA Files 003 – Definitions, defined

In my previous post in the IA Files, I introduced the role of concepts in human cognition and language. I wrote about how concepts are formed in a process that involves both differentiation and integration. Being conscious of that process can help you become a better Information Architect (IA).

Today we continue building on this foundation with a look at definitions. A definition states the meaning of a concept and distinguishes it from all others. It preserves the logical order of a concept’s hierarchical interdependence in the great big tree of knowledge.

As an IA, you can use definitions as an important tool in your craft. So, you should understand very precisely what a definition is, the purpose it serves, and the rules of a correct definition. And then, of course, you have to know how to put this knowledge into practice, which we’re leading up to, but… first things first…

What is a definition?

At the time of this writing, Wikipedia describes a definition as “a statement that explains the meaning of a term (a word, phrase, or other set of symbols)”. Other trustworthy sources pretty much agree that it is:

A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.

This statement of meaning should identify the nature of the units subsumed under the concept as concisely as possibly – describing only what is essential. So, how do we arrive upon the nature of the concept and identify what is essential? We use a process that includes both differentiation and integration.

Differentiation and integration – the rules of a correct definition

Remember the picture of the camel caravan in the previous post from the The IA Files? We identified various units in the picture by differentiating them based on their distinguishing characteristics. We then used a process of integration by blending the similar units into a single new mental entity – a concept, a classification, or in Java-speak, a class. The rules of a correct definition are derived from this same general process of forming concepts, so a good definition:

  • Specifies the distinguishing characteristic(s) of the units. (differentia)
  • Indicates the category of existents from which they were differentiated (genus)

The differentia isolates the units of a concept from all others and the genus indicates its connection to a wider group.

Why are definitions important to information architecture?

As an IA, you will use definitions as a tool to aid in the proper classification and organization of information. You won’t really be using written definitions, although you can when that is helpful for your own clarification. What I am trying to point out is what’s behind a definition so you can understand how to properly define a concept in your own mind or properly hold the definition in your mind. Knowing what’s behind a definition helps you think about concepts in a simple way. As you do the work of classification and organization, for example, you can ask questions that relate to the two rules, such as:

  • What makes this unit different than the others? Anything significant?
  • Are there units with differences significant enough to set them apart? And do we have enough of them to justify a new category?
  • Is the term we’re using to describe this set of units the best term? Is it too narrow? Too broad?
  • Forgetting any formal definition, how does this user community actually think of this concept in this context and in this particular culture?

Putting it to practice

We now have a framework for answering the kinds of questions that are useful to classification and organization.

In short, we can use the rules of a correct definition, differentia and genus.

Of course, we might also leverage this knowledge in order to break the rules effectively. I know you, don’t I? You rebel, you.

Next: The IA Files 004 – Taxonomies