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