Types of Concepts: Superordinate, Subordinate, and Basic

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  • 0:02 Concept
  • 1:45 Superordinate
  • 2:54 Basic
  • 4:05 Subordinate
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

When I say 'home,' what do you picture? Mansion, apartment, or shack? Home, like many other things, is a concept. In this lesson, we'll explore what a concept is and the three general levels of concepts: superordinate, basic, and subordinate.


Imagine that you're walking down the street. You're heading towards your home and eating a piece of fruit. As you walk, a dog comes trotting up to you.

When I said words like 'street,' 'home,' 'fruit,' and 'dog,' what did you imagine? Did you picture a quiet, suburban street with neatly manicured lawns or a busy city street packed with tourists? Were you eating an apple or an olive? Did you picture your home as a mansion, an apartment, a boat? What kind of dog came up to you?

A concept is a way to classify the world in your mind. Terms like 'dog,' 'home,' or 'fruit' can mean many things. But classifying them allows us to save space in our memory and to quickly make assumptions, predictions, and generalizations about the world around us.

Take the word 'dog,' for example. Instead of telling you to imagine a dog coming up to you, I could have said, 'There's a 4-legged thing with a wagging tail and fur that comes up and barks at you.' But that's a lot of words. It's much simpler to fall back on the concept of dog, knowing that when I say 'dog,' you'll imagine all of those things: four legs, a tail, fur, and barking. This is because all of those characteristics are associated with the concept of dog.

Every concept is part of a hierarchical model of concept classification, which basically just means that there are more and less specific ways of classifying things. Let's look at the different levels of classification that are common in a hierarchical model of concepts.


A hierarchical model of concept classification, as we've just said, means that you can be very general or very specific when you are classifying something. Think of the hierarchy as a pyramid. The more general classifications are at the base, and the more specific classifications are at the top. At the base of the pyramid are superordinate concepts, which are the most general way to classify something. It is at the base because there are a lot of things that can fall under a superordinate concept.

Think about the dog from before: a classification like animal or mammal would be a superordinate concept. It gives us a little information, because we know that what we're talking about is an animal and not a tree, but it doesn't really give us much more information than that.

Remember when I said you were walking somewhere? A term like 'home' is a superordinate concept. A home can be an apartment or a house, a boat or a shack. It can be huge or a single room. Home is a general concept that goes at the very bottom of the hierarchy.


Above the superordinate concepts are basic concepts, which are more specific than superordinate concepts.

What do I mean by more specific? Whenever you think of a concept, think of the features. A basic concept will have more features than a superordinate concept. For example, features that homes have might be a place to sleep and a roof to protect you from the elements. That's a superordinate concept, and there are not really a lot of specifics that all homes have.

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