Free Lists



Free listing is used to collect systematic data (data related to categorization or taxonomy) and is accomplished when a researcher asks a subject to list all words and concepts related to a specific domain (area of interest to researcher). For example, the request "please list all the healthy foods you can" will elicit a list of all edibles considered healthy by the subject. Free lists reflect the idea that societies have specific, culturally informed ways of perceiving the world. Individuals, when asked to list or categorize things, reveal culturally salient concepts by reproducing similar lists and categories in high frequency.

Slide1.pngRelevant Characteristics

“Free listing is a deceptively simple but powerful technique. It is generally used to study a cultural domain” (Bernard, 1994:239).

This technique is relevant to other domain analyses and is an important ethnographic tool. Free lists can be used to familiarize one’s self with a research population in the preliminary stages of research, often when research domains are being defined. Using this method, researchers learn the important vocabulary, associations, and definitions that are understood by their research population. In this way, free listing can be used to define problems and design research questions that reflect the population being explored, rather than the researcher. Most times, free list associations and categorizations are easily tested through replication and they are easily quantified.

Free listing is commonly used to study diseases, plants, animals, diet, social relationships, etc. It often precedes other data collection/analysis methods such as “pile sorting” (literally grouping ideas into related piles), rapid assessments in applied research, or cluster analysis (statistical analysis similar to pile sorting). Researchers from a range of anthropological subfields collect data using free lists. However, free listing is a technique that is most often associated with cognitive and linguistic anthropology. Ethnoecologists, psychologists and pathologists also use this method in their research.

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For clear step by step free listing instructions, a good place to start is Weller and Romney's text[1] Systematic Data Collection. The following has been adapted from this text.

Step 1: What do I ask and how?

1a. Decide which domains you would like to define. For example, do you want to know what constitutes an illness, healthy food, color, or relative? Whichever domains you choose, be sure they relate to, and help answer your research question.
1b.Decide how you will ask informants to list items related to these domains. For example, Please list all "X" you can think of. OR How many kinds of "X" can you list?
1c. Test out your question on several people to ensure the wording is coherent and appropriate. You will know you have formulated a good question if your informant: 1) understands the question 2) lists reasonable items 3) lists reasonable items at an appropriate speed. For example, if you ask your informant, "How many healthy foods can you list?" he/she should list things that can be consumed (i.e. "car" is inappropriate) and should not have to think too hard about what belongs in this domain.
1d. People are not always accustomed to answering questions in list form. Therefore, it may be necessary to probe your informant for a more comprehensive list of items. For example, you may ask: "You said that apples and spinach were healthy foods. What other healthy foods can you think of?" You may also need to reframe the question so that you are not literally asking your informant to list things. For example, "Do you think you have a healthy diet? What kinds of food do you eat?", "What would you feed a child to make sure they stay healthy?"
1e. Don't assume you know what a response means; ask informants to clarify items on their list. For example, if someone says fruit juice is healthy, ask what he or she means by juice. One informant may mean organic, no sugar added, apple juice and another may mean a fruit flavored drink like Hawaiian Punch or Kool-aid.

===**Types of Common Probing Questions[2]
1. redundant questioning- asking the same question in different ways
2. nonspecific prompting- asking "what other kinds of X are there?"
3. prompting with alphabetic cues- listing each letter of the alphabet and asking for items that start with the letter and belong in a particular domain. Example: Domain = healthy foods. "What healthy foods can you think of that start with the letter A...B...C...etc?"
4. prompting with semantic cues- the researcher restates an item the informant has already listed and asks if there are similar things to that item that also belong in this cultural domain. Example: Domain = healthy foods; informant says "tomatoes, blueberries, almonds"; researcher asks, "You mentioned that tomatoes are healthy foods. Can you think of any other foods similar to tomatoes that are also healthy?"

Step 2: Variety is the spice of life

When trying to define more abstract domains, like "healthy" for example, you may need to use a modified free list to elicit descriptions or explanations. For example, you may ask, "List five healthy people then describe what makes them healthy." You may also use several questions to define the same domain. For example, "What can people do to stay healthy?" and "What do people do to endanger their health?" These two questions fall under the domain "healthy behaviors". It is also possible to work with larger groups to create lists. If you want to know what a certain population considers nutritious or healthful, you may assemble a group and ask each person to contribute several healthy foods to a larger list. Next, you can ask the group to select the most important items on the list and explain why these are of importance.

Step 3: Sampling

Because free lists are used to understand culturally salient concepts, frequency is important. Generally, the more often item X appears on a list, the more you can trust that the general population associates item X with a specific domain. Thus, the more people, the better. However, 20 to 30 people is considered adequate.[3]


Step 4: Crunching the numbers while dealing with variation

Remember, frequency and order are at the heart of the freelist. Once you have gathered the freelist data, they are ready for analysis. Many analysts enter the items found on the freelists into a matrix with the informant's name or code on one axis and the item listed in the other axis. Items are then tallied to calculate the response frequency. In addition, researchers record the order in which each item was listed. Combining these two dimensions--frequency and list order--creates a more reliable indicator of cultural salience. The name for this operation is Smith's S. Smith's S is highly correlated with frequency. Today, there are software packages like Anthropac[4] [5] and SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) that easily calculate these statistics.

In some circumstances, researchers are forced to deal with redundancy in free list responses. This result occurs when respondents give different names for the same item. For instance, if a researcher asks, "What can people do to stay healthy," informants might list synonymous answers like "run" or "jog". It is up to the analyst to determine what to do in this situation, but most eliminate the redundant responses to clean up the data set.

Sometimes, particularly if the researcher has used a modified free list technique, informants will talk about the same things but call them by different names, or express the same concept differently. For example "What can people do to stay healthy" may elicit answers like "exercise" or "stay active" or "go jogging". These people are essentially expressing the idea that exercise is healthy. The researcher will have to use their judgment when deciding which responses refer to the same thing. However, he/she can also conduct a follow-up interview in which he asks several informants to group the items in question into domains.

Step 5: Our powers united!

Combine the data collected through free listing with other methods such as pile sorting, or concept mapping to enrich your understanding of how a population defines a domain. These definitions should be used to inform subsequent research design.


Free lists are a good way to collect baseline data or become better acquainted with your research site or population because it elicits emic perceptions. By using your research population to define domains, the research design is more likely to reflect informants' perceptions rather than those of the researcher. Using a structured interview technique like free listing requires very little training and is easily replicated making the technique versatile and the data verifiable. Depending on the time and cost restraints of a given research project, free lists provide a lot of data without needing expensive technology, labs, or costly software. Similarly, because free listing works with groups and individuals, it can take as little or as much time as necessary. Finally, free lists are easily quantifiable. This factor allows the researcher to illustrate their findings qualitatively with informant's quotes and with percentages or graphs.


Free lists can only measure frequencies. Thus, other methods are needed to validate and enrich the information that has been listed. Methods like pile sorting, cultural consensus, and cluster analysis are natural follow-ups to free lists. Without complimentary methods or thoughtful probes, the researcher risks making false inferences about the relationships between terms or concepts, or organizing responses into domains that are not truly representative of the research population. Take for example the previous example in which informants used different words or phrases to express the same concept. As the researcher, we had to infer that "exercise", "stay active," and "go jogging" all belong in the "exercise is healthy" domain. However, researcher inferences may not always be correct. For example, within some populations, "staying active" may mean "remain social" and belong in a different domain. Additionally, without an appropriate sample size, the data may not be very representative of the population as a whole.

Pocket Guide to Free Lists


Method in Context

Free listing has been an anthropological/ ethnographic tool for much of the discipline's history. The legendarily massive list of "Eskimo" words for snow can be traced back to Franz "father of modern anthropology" Boas. Along with Boas, Henry Lewis Morgan and Alfred Kroeber were among the first anthropologists to use free lists to understand kinship systems.

Examples from Medical Anthropology

Remedios Caseros

Robert Trotter 1981
During a study, 378 Mexican-Americans were asked to name the home remedies they knew and the illnesses that each remedy treated. Participants named 510 remedies that were used to treat 198 illnesses. Trotter found that the 25 most frequently mentioned remedies made up 41% of all responses to this question and the 70 most frequently listed illnesses were mentioned by 84% of his sample. From this information, Trotter was able to count which illnesses were largely reported by women vs. men, older vs. younger people and Mexican born vs. US born.[6]

Food Aid Program

Monarres-Espino et al. 2004
Researchers used free listing to determine which foods were culturally acceptable for infants and mothers to consume in Tarahumara, Mexico. This was valuable information for a government sponsored food aid program that assembled and distributed baskets of nutritional foods to Tarahumara families.[7]

Cultural Meaning, Explanations of Illness, and the Development of Comparative Frameworks

Linda C. Garro 2000
Linda Garro investigates the cultural domain of illness, using structured interview methods like free listing along with a collection of illness case histories for cross-cultural comparison. She provides a good example of the strengths and limitations associated with cultural domain analysis. She also writes candidly about the free listing process, and her initial failure to elicit information using this technique.[8]

Exploring Explanatory Models of Women's Reproductive Health in Rural Bangladesh

James L. Ross et al. 2002
Ross et al. use freelisting in conjunction with pile sorting and severity ratings to identify reproductive illnesses and perceptions of illness among Bangladeshi women. They begin their research by asking, "name all the general illnesses and ailments you can think of." They had to reframe their questions to elicit responses but eventually identified 118 illnesses. Reproductive illnesses were listed among the 25 most frequently identified illnesses. This gave the researchers some important basic information needed to ask about reproductive illnesses.[9]

Online Resources

Cognitive Anthropology, University of Alabama
Free-List Technique from Steven Borgatti's Elicitation Techniques for Cultural Domain Analysis
Matrices, Steven Borgatti
Perform Qualitative Data Analysis
The Uses and Limitations of Free List Technique in Ethnographic Research

Print Resources

Borgatti, Stephen
1989 Using ANTHROPAC to investigate a cultural domain. Cultural Anthropology Methods Newsletter 1(2):11.

Brewer, Devon D.
2002 Supplementary Interviewing Techniques to Maximize Output in Free Listing Tasks. Field Methods, 14:108.

Gatewood, J.B.
1983 Loose Talk: Linguistic Competence and Recognition Ability. American Anthropologist. 85:378-86.

Handwerker, W.P. and S.P. Borgatti
1998 Reasoning with Numbers. In Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, ed. H.R. Bernard, 549-94. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Henley, N.M.
1969 A Psychological Study of the Semantic of Animal Terms. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 8:176-184.

Hutchinson, J.W.
1983 Expertise and structure of free recall. In Advances in Consumer Research, ed. R.P. Bagozzi and A.M. Tybout, 385-89. Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research.

Ryan, Gery W., Justin M. Nolan and P. Stanley Yoder
2002 Successive Free Listing: Using Multiple Free Lists to Generate Explanatory Models. Field Methods 12:83.

Sinha, R.
2003 Beyond Cardsorting: Free-listing Methods to Explore User Categorizations. Boxes and Arrows.

Smith, J.J.
1998 Salience counts and so does accuracy: correcting and updating a measure for free-list item salience. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 7(2):208-209.

Thompson, Eric C. and Zhand, Juan
2006 Comparative Cultural Salience: Measures Using Free-List Data. Field Methods, 18(4):398-412.

Quinlan, Marsha
2005 Considerations for Collecting Freelists in the Field: Examples from Ethnobotany. Field Methods, 17:219-234.


  1. ^ Weller, S.C. & Romney, A.K. (1988) Systematic Data Collection. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications.
  2. ^ **===
    Bernard, H. R. (1994) Research methods in anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  3. ^ Weller, S.C. & Romney, A.K. (1988) Systematic Data Collection. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications.
  4. ^ Borgatti, Stephen. (1989) Using ANTHROPAC to investigate a cultural domain. Cultural Anthropology Methods Newsletter 1(2):11.
  5. ^ Smith, J.J. & Borgatti, S.P. (1993) Using ANTHROPAC 3.5 and a spreadsheet to compute free-list salience index. Cultural Anthropology Methods Journal 5(3):1-3.
  6. ^ Trotter, R.T. (1981) Remedios Caseros: Mexican-American home remedies and community health problems. Social Science and Medicine, 15:107-114.
  7. ^ Monaarrez-Espino, J., Greiner, T., & Martínez, H. (2004) Rapid qualitative assessment to design a food basket for young Tarahumara children in Mexico. Food & Nutrition Research, 48(1), 4-12.
  8. ^ Garro, Linda C. (2000) Cultural meaning, explanations of illness, and the development of comparative frameworks. Ethnology, 305-334.
  9. ^ Ross, James L., Laston, S. L., Pelto, P. J., & Muna, L. (2002) Exploring explanatory models of women's reproductive health in rural Bangladesh. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 4(2), 173-190.