Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoughts and Questions for Tuesday

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out

Thoughts and questions for Tuesday’s class.

This very rich and deep book invites readers to consider the infrastructures of information—the often invisible or unexamined structures of categorization and classification that underlie and affect many aspects of the perceived world and its participants. The authors use as their examples the classification of diseases and mortality, of nursing practice, and of race, drawing out the impact of classification not only upon individuals and populations, but also the conflicts and changes that arise when classifications extend across various groups, and the role of classification in the development of a profession such as nursing. They note the tensions in classification at the sites of conflict in medicine and society, such as AIDS, abortion and stillbirth. They touch as well upon the importance of classification in remembering/forgetting, and in the interstices, silences, and human cost when classifications fail.

The authors suggest that classification is part of a “built moral environment”—here is what struck me as the core of the argument : “The importance lies in a fundamental rethinking of the nature of information systems. We need to recognize that all information systems are necessarily infused with ethical and political values, modulated by local administrative procedures. These systems are active creators of categories in the world as well as simulators of existing categories”……

Questions: How are information systems infused with values? Where do these values come from? What is the interplay between administrative procedures and values? Can we relate this interrelationship to any of the other reading we have done so far, such as the development of information technology before the computer? Or the development of contemporary information technology? What kind of role do information work and workers play in this “built moral environment.”

On a more mundane level, Bowker and Star offer a definition of categorization/classification that we might want to examine: In relation to developing their analysis of classifications as a co-construction of nature and society, they distinguish between prototype and Aristotelian classifications. Prototype classifications are fuzzy, involving a broad picture, and they involve extensions by metaphor and analogy as we try to decide if something is part of this classification. Aristotelian classification works according to a binary set of characteristics that the object being classified either possess or does not possess.

Questions: how important/ useful are these distinctions? Do these differences alter or affect the idea of classification as part of a built moral environment? Can we provide examples of these distinctions beyond those provided by Bowker and Star? If so, can we describe a co-creation such as that suggested by Bowker and Star?

Well, that is a beginning.. add more if you'd like to. Barbara


natezilla said...

This is a comment in reference to the differing types of classification systems.

I read this section as the debunking of an urban myth. Bowker and Star were indicating that these categories don't really exist in the way that they are popularly thought of. The authors went to great lengths to demonstrate the vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and spaces that exist within Aristotelian classification, and how it really isn't different than fuzzy classification in any major way other than its reification as an Aristotelian classification system.

Jeff Gibbens said...

To add to Barbara's and Nate's observations, I'm impressed by the social/ethical focus of the book, and how, by choosing to look at classification, it comes in under the radar of some thorny ideological problems with information labor.

The book seems to take the position that classification is normative, and to proceed to explore the resulting problems. Using the discussion on p. 13 about the work of classification as a starting point, I would argue that work creates labor, which produces class consciousness, which is a form of self-reclassification by a constituency. So the question is whether the presence of classification, standards, and so forth, in the world, is enough social work, or whether we need that additional consciousness of class by laboring people to make political sense of it all.

Bourdieu's work on the self-classification of social groups in France in his book about Distinction is a valuable contribution to understanding this issue.

(Comment also copied to my personal blog page.)

MarFra said...

Barbara's question: "How are information systems infused with values?" Well, my take on that is: since information systems are built around the needs of a specific group, and taking into account their background, their approach to solving problems, and their view of what a solution is like.

And yes, Jeff is right. La Distinction is a great tool for understanding that. Bourdieu's idea of the 'habitus' (if you are something, you are something. If you're not that something, as much as you try to emulate being that something and acquiring the modus vivendi of those who are that something, still you may not become that something -- my brief explanation of it, feel free to comment) gives us a hint as to what systems are 'good' or 'bad', and what do you need to know to become part of that information system.