Geoffery Bowker and Susan Star: Sorting Things Out

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:18 pm)


Sorting Things Out discusses the methods and applications of sorting in a multitude of circumstances. The thesis of the book is that classification is an inherent cognitive process, but serves to create moral and ethical dilemmas when it is built into social systems. Classification is understood as a form of cognition. Classification is especially important to larger systems which could be thought to have cognition of some form. Large scale systems form infrastructure, which is big and ubiquitous and invisible.


Classification is recognized as a sort of space. With it comes notions such as inherency and intimacy. Significant questions to be pursued are: Where do classes come from? Who makes them? (p. 1)

DSM, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 3” is discussed. This is a handbook of psychiatry classification, which is ubiquitous and used everywhere, but professionals maintain some incredulity regarding it: “Allan Young (1995) makes the complicating observation that psychiatrists increasingly use the language of DSM to communicate with each other and their accounting departments, although hey frequently do not believe in the categories they are using.” This is simulation resignation. Classification is not a direct means of affecting the world, but defines some supersystem on the world with its own rules and logics. These are related to reality, but ultimately describes a simulation of it. (p. 4)

Classification informs the social and moral order via technological infrastructures. “We have a moral and ethical agenda in our querying of these systems. Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing–indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous–not bad, but dangerous.” Especially if classification is framed as a cognitive process, making classification choices directly affects the way we model, interpret, and perceive the world. (p. 5)

Baudrillard reference: We can get lost in simulation, but who constructs or writes it? Simulation is a functional form of classification. (p. 10)

Classification is necessary: implies algorithms for codification and obsures moral questions. When attribution of class is codified, the reasoning and implications of this simplification gets lost and internalized. (p. 24)

Classification acts retroactively: Past is indeterminate. “We are constantly revising our knowledge of the past in light of new developments in the present.” The past redefined and re-interpreted using present logic. Concurrent infrastructures are enforced on old. (p. 40)

Practical politics: Categories formed on what is practical at the time, practical turns to legitimization, and statistical. Focus is on indeterminacy, and indeterminacy within a category. What differences are observed outside a category? what are inside, but ignored? (p. 44)

“Reality is ‘that which resists’ according to Latour’s (1987) Pragmatist-inspired definition. The resistances that designers and users encounter will change the ubiquitous networks of classifications and standards. Although convergence may appear at times to create an inescapable cycle of feedback and verification, the very multiplicity of people things and processes involved mean that they are never locked in for all time.” Compare this with Baudrillard’s definition of reality. (p. 49)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBowker, G and S.L. Star
TitleSorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
ContextClassification relates to cognitive science, mental models, and reasoning. Bowker and Star encourage the idea that reality is constructed through classification.
Tagsmedia theory, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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