An overview of concept relationships and why they are important in Terminology –PART 1

complex concept mapWhen I read about concept relationships for the first time, I felt as if I was reading it in Klingon. I decided it was too confusing and was sure it was one of those things that we will never put into practice. Of course, being a newbie to Terminology, I was wrong.

Yes, it may seem a bit overwhelming, probably because in our mind we connect it to advanced database management, but once you understand the basics you will also understand why it is important and you will even want to start building your own concept maps. It is not my intention to give a dissertation about it, and I have also mentioned it briefly on separate posts, but this time I wanted to go into a little bit more detail and, if you want to learn more, under Further Reading below I provide a few useful links.

One of those links is the Pavel Tutorial which explains that: “In terminology work, the knowledge acquired in a given subject field is structured according to the hierarchical relationships and associative relationships between the concepts that make up the subject field.” I will cover hierarchical relationships in this post, because they are the classic system of concept representation, and the most common. There are also associative relationships, a combination of both (combined systems), etc. that I will cover in Part 2.

Hierarchical relationships are based on degrees or levels of superiority or subordination: The upper level is a class, supertype, or broad concept, (e.g., energy), and its elements, subclasses, or subtypes are the lower levels or narrow concepts (e.g., wind energy). The lower classes inherit characteristics from the upper class.

To illustrate, think of them as an itemized list (tree structure), as follows (for more examples see Marcia Lei Zeng examples of hierarchical displays.

  1. Respiratory Tract Diseases
    1.1. Bronchial Diseases
    1.1.1 Asthma Asthma, Exercise-induced Status asthmaticus

Hierarchical relationships are divided into generic-specific relationships  and partitive (or part-whole) relationships.

Going back to broad and narrow concepts, the generic-specific relationships are classified as:

(1) superordinate terms or concepts that represent a class (the broad concept), and

(2) subordinate terms that refer to its elements or parts (the narrow concept).

Lei Zeng suggests an easy way to identify them by formulating the statement “[narrower term] is a [broader term].” For example, “Asthma” is a “Bronchial Disease”.

Besides the itemized list, they can be illustrated as tree diagrams, as follows.

generic specific

The partitive relationships represent relationships made of parts and wholes (that’s why they are also called part-whole relationships). A is part of B: a constituent part of something or material of something or a member of something.

The concepts at the whole level are called comprehensive concepts, and the concepts at the parts level are called partitive concepts. One concept is included into another. Again, we can illustrate as an itemized list or tree structure:

  1. Nervous System
    1.1. Central Nervous System
    1.1.1 Brain
    1.1.2 Spinal Cord

They are illustrated as bracket (or rake) diagrams, as follows.


Anita Nuopponen explains that generic and partitive concept systems are nested hierarchies, the superordinate concept contains or consists of the subordinate concepts. Also, a generic superordinate concept contains the extension of its subordinate concepts; a partitive superordinate concept refers to a whole while its subordinate concept refers to a part in the whole.

As I said, hierarchical relationships are the most common, but next week I will talk about other types of relationships.

Sources and further readings:

Hjørland, Birger. Lifeboat for Knowledge Organization.

Semantic relationships used in Controlled Vocabularies. Hierarchical Relationships.

Hierarchical relationships. EUROVOC.

Nuopponen, Anita. Tangled Web of Concept Relations. Concept relations for ISO 1087-1 and ISO 704

The Pavel Tutorial on concept relationships.


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