Pile Sorting

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Pile sorting is a qualitative method that helps identify the items (or themes) that exist within a cultural domain. It utilizes physical media (i.e. Cards, objects or pictures) to generate data from individuals or groups by studying how they organizes or “sorts” this information.

Goals of the method

It can be used to discover the informants’ perceptions about social structures within the group [1] .

Its connection to freelisting

The method can also spot similarities between the items generated in free lists and if there are any intercultural variations among the group[2] .


Pile sorting is effective in the initial stages of research because it allows the researcher an understanding of what the participating community values, beliefs, or views as appropriate in their culture. Pile sorting can produce initial qualitative data which should expand upon through interviews and observation.


Free listing and pile sorting should be used only as a primary data collection strategy. Pile sorting yields very little quantitative data that are not empirically testable. The qualitative data produced may be too general to make interpretations that best represent a community.

Method made easy

Provide your participants with either a set of terms on index cards, pictures, or physical items. Next ask them to divide them into groups based on their similarities or relevance. A freelist typically can provide terms or items needed for a pile sorting exercise [3] . Encourage your participants to places as many cards or items as they want in a group. This considered a free single pile sort. A constrained pile sort requires you to tell your participants how many piles you want them to sort the items into; this normally consists of two piles [4] . You may wish for your participants to divide their items into subgroups from the initial groups, this is at the discretion of your research design. Lastly, ask your participants to explain what prompted them to arrange the items the way they did. Also, ask them to name the groups. Jot all these findings down in your field notes.
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You can learn what a group thinks is important to bring to a desert island through a pile sorting exercise. You would give them each a pile of cards, say 20 cards, and ask them to sort the ten they would take onto the island (e.g. Swiss army knife, rope, matches etc.) with the ten they would leave behind (e.g. a television, magazines, monopoly, etc.). From the choices made one could see what the group deemed necessary and what they deemed not to be important. When certain items show up in piles that you and the other researchers do not understand this would demonstrate a potential cultural domain that could be researched further.

Pile sorting with photos:
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The data collected through pile sorting can be analyzed when entered into a text file and then analyzed with ANTHROPAC software [5] .

Online Resources

Video) SAA in Action: Pile Sorting for Challenge:

Further Reading

Borgatti, S. P. 1990.Using ANTHROPAC to investigate a cultural domain. Cultural Anthropology Methods Newsletter 2 (1): 8

Analytic Technologies- ANTHROPAC Overview

DeMunck, Victor 2009. Pile Sorting. In Research Design and Methods for Studying Cultures Lanham: AltaMira Press. 76-89
  1. ^ Bernard, Russell H.
    2010 Research Methods in Anthropology. 5th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press
  2. ^ DeMunck, Victor
    2010 Research Methods in Anthropology. 5th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press
  3. ^ DeMunck, Victor
    2010 Research Methods in Anthropology. 5th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press
  4. ^ DeMunck, Victor
    2010 Research Methods in Anthropology. 5th ed. Lanham: AltaMira Press
  5. ^ Borgatti, S.P.
    1996 ANTHROPAC 4.0. Analytic Technologies. Natick, MA