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Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences

by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

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576829,662 (3.69)1
A revealing and surprising look at how classification systems can shape both worldviews and social interactions. What do a seventeenth-century mortality table (whose causes of death include "fainted in a bath," "frighted," and "itch"); the identification of South Africans during apartheid as European, Asian, colored, or black; and the separation of machine- from hand-washables have in common? All are examples of classification--the scaffolding of information infrastructures. In Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explore the role of categories and standards in shaping the modern world. In a clear and lively style, they investigate a variety of classification systems, including the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, race classification under apartheid in South Africa, and the classification of viruses and of tuberculosis. The authors emphasize the role of invisibility in the process by which classification orders human interaction. They examine how categories are made and kept invisible, and how people can change this invisibility when necessary. They also explore systems of classification as part of the built information environment. Much as an urban historian would review highway permits and zoning decisions to tell a city's story, the authors review archives of classification design to understand how decisions have been made. Sorting Things Out has a moral agenda, for each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. Standards and classifications produce advantage or suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made and how we think about that process are at the moral and political core of this work. The book is an important empirical source for understanding the building of information infrastructures.… (more)
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This was a truly eye-opening read. One does not think that you are going to be finding a particularly engaging read when it comes to classification, and at some points it honestly isn't. But Bowker and Star do address the fact that their method at bottom is one that can be at time down right boring. The book picks up though in its analyses from the ICD to tuberculosis lit. reviews and cultural classifications of apartheid in a way that makes it that you have to feel on a personal level the effects of the classification that they are pointing out. So what is the point? Classification, whether we like it or not, is something that we do. And we have been doing it misguidedly. By not looking at the preexisting structures around us we miss the nuances that reveal so much about ourselves. The biggest thing is that, however much faith and lack of thought we give to them - they are guiding every aspect of our lives. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read. But what Bowker and Star really do is go into the ethical/political implications of these structures and try to find a way by which we could better organize the world so as to fully assimilate the "monster" and the "cyborg" as realities that we can't just push to the wayside. It is about embracing our multiplicities. Now, I do have a quesiton. Some of the new vocabulary that Bowker and Star propose to make this change is simply not there and so they themselves don't offer much of a starting point. They simply say that it is needed. But being aware of the problem can be just as important as trying to solve it and so as a descriptive analysis one should not expect from them a grand unifying theory. ( )
  PhilSroka | Apr 12, 2016 |
After a spectacular start with a discussion of infrastructure (and particularly classification as infrastructure), its pervasiveness, and its power to shape our lives and perceptions, this book switches tack and moves with little rigor between anecdotes, exceptions, and colorful but superficial terms. The end result is a mish-mash of observations that do little to advance the theoretical arguments further; I had to remind myself of the clarity and power of the first few chapters to realize there is much valuable content in the book. ( )
2 vote jorgearanda | Oct 20, 2010 |
This book intertwines a history of various classification schemes, taxonomies, and catalogues with an explanation of the human desire to classify and organise. It's a great read, and a fascinating subject. ( )
  Placebogirl | Jan 11, 2010 |
This book lies somewhere in-between the accessible narrative examples of classification in Everything is Miscellaneous and the dense cognitive science in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Sorting Things Out is far more detailed and organized than the former, but much more approachable than the latter.
The book attempts to answer three questions: “What work do classifications and standards do” “Who does that work?”, and “What happens to the cases that do not fit?” The authors answer these questions by exploring how classification relates to infrastructures, to the lives of individuals (“biography” ), and to work. In exploring these aspects of classification, the authors place a heavy emphasis on health and medicine, often using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the Nursing Intervention Classification (NIC) and the International Classification and Nomenclature of Viruses (INV) as a examples of classification systems, the International Nomenclature of Diseases (IND) as an example of nomenclature, and HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis as examples of shifts in classification. Consequently, this work would best be suited for those researching classification in the health fields, as the information related to the classifications and nomenclature are very subject-specific.
Sorting Things Out does more to evaluate the historical and practical application of classification and categories relating to people (human diseases, apartheid) rather than the things people use (books, journals). In terms of library science, this book adds some good context to real world classification and how categories can be created and applied on a large scale, but offers little for anyone looking for library-specific classification theory or explanation. ( )
2 vote sarahdeanjean | Aug 19, 2009 |
Like Lakoff these authors know that classification helps cure chaos.
  muir | Dec 7, 2007 |
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A revealing and surprising look at how classification systems can shape both worldviews and social interactions. What do a seventeenth-century mortality table (whose causes of death include "fainted in a bath," "frighted," and "itch"); the identification of South Africans during apartheid as European, Asian, colored, or black; and the separation of machine- from hand-washables have in common? All are examples of classification--the scaffolding of information infrastructures. In Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explore the role of categories and standards in shaping the modern world. In a clear and lively style, they investigate a variety of classification systems, including the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, race classification under apartheid in South Africa, and the classification of viruses and of tuberculosis. The authors emphasize the role of invisibility in the process by which classification orders human interaction. They examine how categories are made and kept invisible, and how people can change this invisibility when necessary. They also explore systems of classification as part of the built information environment. Much as an urban historian would review highway permits and zoning decisions to tell a city's story, the authors review archives of classification design to understand how decisions have been made. Sorting Things Out has a moral agenda, for each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. Standards and classifications produce advantage or suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made and how we think about that process are at the moral and political core of this work. The book is an important empirical source for understanding the building of information infrastructures.

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