Sample Sentences Using Spradley’s Nine Semantic Relations from The Ethnographic Interview

Cover of "The Ethnographic Interview"

Cover of The Ethnographic Interview

I love James Spradley’s work on ethnographic interviews, componential analysis, taxonomic analysis, and participant observation, but Spradley’s work on semantic analysis has been the most thought-provoking for me theoretically.  Here I list out his nine semantic relationships and give some sample descriptive sentences to show you how the semantic relation describes the two elements in the relationship.  I have to say, however, that none of these sentences are very natural in a natural language kind of way.  In fact, the one concern that I have with Spradley’s view of semantics (from my usage-based cognitive view of language) is that it does not adequately lend itself to a straightforward modeling of the semantics of a natural language sentence.  Instead, if you want to use this for natural language, it has to be on a propositional level.

These semantics are best for modeling culture and the dynamics of a culture.  After all, they were drawn up in a methodology for ethnography.  In the sentences I present below you will find that they have a rigid and non-human sound to them; in fact, I think (and this is my opinion), that if you want to use Spradley’s semantics for anything other than modeling culture, that they are best used in formal system modeling, such as an expert system.

1. Strict Inclusion [X is a kind of Y]

  • Tom is a kind of person.
  • Love is a kind of emotion.

2. Spatial [X is a place in Y] & [X is a part of Y]

  • MoMA is a place in New York.
  • ?Despair is a place in depression.
  • Pittsburgh is a place in Pennsylvania.
  • Failure is  a part of success.
  • This steering wheel is a part of this steering column.

3. Cause-Effect [X is a result of Y] & [X is a cause of Y]

  • A bruise is a result of a punch.
  • A baby is a result of having sex.
  • Sorrow is a result of loss.
  • Success is a result of luck.
  • You are a cause of concern.
  • Fear is a cause of failure.
  • Static electricity is a cause of gas station fires.
  • Greed is a cause of overspending.

4. Rationale [X is a reason for doing Y]

  • Preventing your failure is a reason for doing homework.
  • Debt is a reason for curbing spending.
  • Fire is a reason for exiting a building.

5. Location for Action [X is a place for doing Y]

  • This is a place for doing that.
  • This is no place for that.
  • The jungle is a place for exploring.

6. Function [X is used for Y]

  • This tool is used for pounding.
  • A tool is used for pounding.
  • This red fiberglass handled hammer is used for pounding carpet tacks.
  • Tools are used for working.
  • This key is used for locking this door only.
  • That is used for this. [deictic]

7. Means-Ends [X is a way to do Y]

  • Killing someone with kindness is a way to get revenge.
  • This road is a way to get to town faster.

8. Sequence [X is a step or stage in Y]

  • Tightening this screw is a step to assembling the chair.
  • Dying is a step or stage in living.

9. Attribution [X is an attribute, or characteristic of Y]

  • These scratches are characteristic of age.
  • Silver is an attribute of this ring.
  • Dead is an attribute of this skunk.
  • Sans Serif is an attribute of Helvetica.
  • Title is a kind of attribute: “Peter Pan” is the title for this book.
  • Self-deception is a characteristic of the middle class.

Computational modelers and ontologists might recognize two of these semantics: the “is a” & “has a” relations.  My sample sentences make heavy use of the “is a” relation, and this is why I think that Spradley’s list is best used for culture rather than language, because “is a” and “Strict Inclusion” have the same goal, and that means that the other relationships Spradley posits rely on a peer relation.  For instance, Spatial: “MoMA is a place in New York” is not just a spatial statement, but also utilizes the Strict Inclusion/Categorizing “is a” relation.  That would seem to entail Spatial being a subcategory of Strict Inclusion, from a hierarchical point of view.

I think that if you take Spradley’s relations to an endpoint that they require a hierarchy to model language, and that opens up the problem of compositionality that Cognitive Linguists and Generative Linguists have been battling about for years.

In cognitive linguistics we have different ways of capturing these kinds of relationships than needing to depend upon the “is a” relation.  Radial categories, for instance, provide ways to map category structure of lexical items; figure-ground distinctions provide ways to model relations of salience; constructions provide ways of modeling elements of speech without the need for recursion; and the general cognitive model overall answers a different set of problems than the generative model.

With that said, however, I still find these models of quasi-formal semantics (specifically Spradley’s cultural semantics) to be enormously valuable in the modeling of culture, and I think that they can be tied into discourse analysis to capture the situated context of the discourse and to provide a sense-making heuristic for understanding how a usage-based model of language maps constructions and construals to identities in space and time through these kind of cultural modeling techniques.

I posted these semantics as a reference for some future posts that explore how to do this kind of situating in discourse.  Hopefully they will be useful to you in the meantime.  Also, don’t take my comments to mean that I don’t find these semantics useful in modeling culture; to the contrary – these are enormously useful in describing culture; I frequently use them myself in my analysis of culture, and have used them for the last 12 years.  By all means incorporate them into your approach to anthropology if you think they might help you.

Also, I would like to extend the opportunity to you to help me clean up the language of these sample sentences.  If you can think of a cleaner way to make the statement that sounds more like natural language that also retains the clarity of the semantic relationship, please post them in the comment section.  Thanks!


Spradley, J.P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Harcourt, Brace, Janovich

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2 thoughts on “Sample Sentences Using Spradley’s Nine Semantic Relations from The Ethnographic Interview

  1. ryandewey says:

    To my repeat visitor from the rust belt: Do you have any comments about this post? I would be interested to hear how this is useful to you or whether or not you take issue with any of my claims.

  2. Jo Luree says:

    I am an undergraduate sociology student and am just trying to make sense of Spradley’s componential analysis. Your article helped me understand the basics of it all. Thank you for posting this. Godspeed.

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