Zerubavel, E. (1991). Islands of meaning. The great divide. The fine line: Making distinctions in everyday life (p. 5-32). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
People create islands of meaning utilizing two mental processes – lumping and splitting. We mentally group “similar” items together while separating “different” mental clusters from one another. Separating these mental clusters from one another causes us to mentally construct gaps between them. Gaps are essential for the experience of self-contained events. For instance, we only experience our birthday by mentally separating the date of our birth from other calendar dates. The mentally created gaps are often represented by symbolic barriers. Lines around a newspaper ad divide its content from the general content on the page. Mental gaps are also often represented by blank space such as the blank page at the end of a book. It helps a reader visualize the mental gap separating its framed contents from ordinary reality. Blank spaces also help visualize discreet blocks of time. Other representations of gaps include silence and darkness. Consider the use of silence and darkness to feature discrete segments within theatrical and musical performances. We often, however, need more than blank space or silence to give substance to mental gaps. Among other things, we use various “rites of separation” to mark the importance of the gaps we imagine between these rites. For instance, high school reunions highlight the mental gap separating one year’s graduating class from another. Rites of separation help us dramatize the immensity of the mental gaps we create and highlight the substantial voids we mentally create. Because we experience space in a partially topological manner, our perception of distance is distorted. Our tendency to mentally “stretch” distances across boundaries often takes precedence over the “law of proximity.” Because we tend to perceive the world in a topological manner, our experience of purely mental “distances” is also distorted. Lumping and splitting greatly affect our perception of distance. We play down the mental distance between entities by lumping and splitting causes us to widen perceived gaps between entities. Because of lumping and splitting, we often inflate “distances” across mental gaps, perceiving them as larger than longer distances within the same entity. This is also seen in the ways we mentally cluster people. To accommodate our experience of the difference between “us” and “them,” we exaggerate the mental “distance” separating families, ethnic groups, and other identified groups. Although most gaps are virtually mental, most gaps and their requisite mental quantum leaps are among the seemingly inevitable “facts” the make up our social reality. The social reality of the gaps that separate supposedly discrete blocks of time from one another is evident from the jerky manner in which we move from one phase of our existence to the next. Mental reality is deeply embedded in social reality. The gaps we envision and the islands of meaning they divide are admittedly mental. Nonetheless, once they are institutionalized, they become “social facts” of a social reality we can no longer ignore.
– Ruth Frasur