Saturday, September 04, 2010

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star: Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences

Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT P, 1999.

We want to understand how these categories are made and kept invisible, and in some cases, we want to challenge the silences surrounding them. (Bowker/Star, 5)

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. (Bowker and Star, 5-6)

We are used to viewing moral choices as individual, as dilemmas, and as rational choices. We have an impoverished vocabulary for collective moral passages, to use Addelson’s terminology. For any individual, group or situation, classifications and standards give advantage or they give suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made, and how we may think about that invisible matching process, is at the core of the ethical project of this work. (Bowker and Star, 6)

No real-world classification system that we have looked at meets these “simple” requirements and we doubt that any ever could. In the case of unique classificatory systems, people disagree about their nature; they ignore or misunderstand them; or they routinely mix together different and contradictory principles. A library, for example, may have a consistent Library of Congress system in place, but supplement it in an ad hoc way. Best sellers to be rented out to patrons may be placed on a separate shelf; very rare, pornographic, or expensive books may be locked away from general viewing at the discretion of the local librarian. Thus, the books are moved, without being formally reclassified, yet carry an additional functional system in their physical placement. (Bowker and Star, 11)

The work of making, maintaining, and analyzing classification systems is richly textured. It is one of the central kinds of work of modernity, including science and medicine. It is, we argue, central to social life. (Bowker and Star, 13)

… one medical specialty sees cancer as a localized phenomenon to be cut out and stopped from spreading, another sees it as a disorder of the whole immune system that merely manifests in one location or another. The implications for both treatment and classification differ. (Bowker and Star, 19)

Information infrastructure is a tricky thing to analyze. Good, usable systems disappear almost by definition. The easier they are to use, the harder they are to see. As well, most of the time, the bigger they are, the harder they are to see. … as many layers of technology accrue and expand over space and time. Systems of classification (and of standardization) form a juncture of social organization, moral order, and layers of technical integration. Each subsystem inherits, increasingly as it scales up, the inertia of the installed base of systems that have come before. (Bowker and Star, 33)

[Infrastructural] inversion is a struggle against the tendency of infrastructure to disappear (except when breaking down). It means learning to look closely at technologies and arrangements that, by design and by habit, tend to fade into the woodwork (sometimes literally!). (Bowker and Star, 34)

Infrastructural inversion means recognizing the depths of interdependence of technical networks and standards, on the one hand, and the real work of politics and knowledge production on the other. It foregrounds these normally invisible Lilliputian threads and furthermore gives them casual prominence in many areas usually attributed to heroic actors, social movements, or cultural mores. The inversion is similar to the arguments made by Becker (1982) in his book Art Worlds. Most history and social analysis of art has neglected the details of infrastructure within which communities of artistic practice emerge. Becker’s inversion examines the conventions and constraints of the material artistic infrastructure and its ramifications. For example, the convention of musical concerts lasting about three hours ramifies throughout the producing organization. Parking attendants, unions, ticket takers, and theater rentals are arranged in cascading dependence on this interval of time. An eight-hour musical piece, which is occasionally written, means rearranging all of these expectations, which in turn is so expensive that such productions are rare. Or paintings are about the size, usually, that will hang comfortably on a wall. They are also the size that fits rolls of canvas, the skills of framers, and the very doorways of museums and galleries. These constraints are mutable only at great cost, and artists must always consider them before violating them. (Bowker and Star, 34, 36)

What is needed is a sense of the topography of all of the arrangements: Are they colliding, coextensive, gappy, or orthogonal? One way to get at these questions is to take quite literally the kinds of metaphors that people use when describing their experience of organizations, bureaucracies, and information systems … (Bowker and Star, 40)

The third methodological theme concerns the past as indeterminate. We are constantly revising our knowledge of the past in light of new developments in the present. This is not a new idea to historiography or to biography. We change our resumes as we require new skills to appear like smooth, planned paths of development, even if the change had been unexpected or undesired. When we become members of new social worlds, we often retell our life stories in new terminology. A common example of this is a religious conversion where the past is retold as exemplifying errors, sinning, and repentance. Or when one comes out as gay or lesbian, childhood behaviors and teenage crushes become indicators of early inklings of sexual choice. (Bowker and Star, 40)

At wider levels of scale, these revisions also mean the introduction of new voices—many possible kinds of interpretations of categories, texts and artifacts. Multiple voices and silences are represented in any scheme that attempts to sort out the world. No one classification organizes reality for everyone—for example, the red light, yellow light, green light traffic light distinctions don’t work for blind people (who need sound coding). In looking to classification schemes as ways of ordering the past, it is easy to forget those who have been overlooked in this way. Thus, the indeterminacy of the past implies recovering multivocality; it also means understanding how standard narratives that appear universal have been constructed. (Bowker and Star, 41)

There is no way of ever getting access to the past except through classification systems of one sort or another—formal or informal, hierarchical or not. Take the apparently unproblematic statement: “In 1640, the English revolution occurred; this led to a twenty-year period in which the English had no monarchy.”

The classifications involved here, all problematic, include the following:

The current segmentation of time into days, months, and years. Accounts of the English revolution generally use Gregorian calendar, which was adopted some 100 years later, so causing translation with contemporary documents.

The classification of peoples into English, Irish, Scots, French, and so on. These designations were by no means clear at the time; the whole discourse of “national genius” or character only arose in the nineteenth century.

The classification of events into revolutions, reforms, revolts, rebellions, and so forth … . There was no concept of “revolution” at the time; our current conception is marked by the historiographical work of Karl Marx.

What do we classify as being a “monarchy?” There is a strong historiographical tradition that says that Oliver Cromwell was a monarch—he walked, talked, and acted like one after all. Under this view, there is no hiatus at all in this English institution; rather a usurper took the throne. (Bowker and Star: 41)

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