Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Ouroboros of Activity Classification

I just returned from 10-days in Greece. My brain is still a bit foggy and I think there are a number of thoughts and observations from my trip that I still have to process. Perhaps I’ll save them for another time.

Incapable of intelligent original thought, I’ll revisit some previous ideas and expand on them. One idea that I’ve been mentally kicking around for a few months regards our notion of classification. I’m particularly interested in the popularity of Ranganathan’s universal facets: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. These facets seem to have found some new popularity in the world of Information Architecture. Boxes and Arrows, for example, featured a review of Ranaganathan and his facets (http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/ranganathan_for_ias.php) and similar ideas have appeared in the academic literature (Devadason, Intaraksa, Patamawongjariya, & Desai, 2002; Ellis & Vasconcelos, 1999; Xiao, 1994). While the facets are interesting, they’re not universally applied. The Classification Research Group, for example, fails to recognize the universal facets despite their general support for faceted classification (Spiteri, 1998). Similarly, the “personality” facet is difficult to both understand and apply (Spiteri, 1998, 1999).

In short, I’m interested in the remaining facets: Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. Unfortunately, it seems that Bowker has beat me to most of them.

My initial ideas for exploring space and time revolved around the difficulties of stabilizing both of these conceptualizations. Time, for example, is a tricky concept. It’s difficult to establish base units (i.e., seconds didn’t exist as a unit of time until Robert Hooke developed a sufficiently advanced watch c. 1670!). There are also things like calendars (Gregorian vs. Julian), time zones, and date lines (see review in Zerubavel, 1982). Similarly, qualifying and quantifying space required socially constructed (or at least authorized) innovation such as Cartesian representation and the development of devices like maps and measurements like longitude and latitude (see review in Turnbull, 2000; early portolan maps based on bearing and direction are particularly facinating). Bowker, however, brought these two concepts together and invoked the Bakhtinian concept of the “chronotope” (see Campbell, 2004 for classification example; Montgomery, 1993) to explore how Schlumberger engineers had to control and construct both space and time in order to do the work required of them by the demands of the oil field (Bowker, 1994).

Skipping ahead to Matter, I thought that I would explore some of the difficulties that early scientists such as Lavoisier and Linnaeus had in formalizing their conceptualizations of matter. Bowker beat me again with a paper delivered to the ASIS Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems (Bowker, 1998).

With Sorting Things Out (Bowker & Star, 1999), it was a rout. Bowker and Star’s chapters on nursing classification very clearly addressed the problems with classification of activities or Energy. Now that I’m here, however, I may as well make a few comments and try to stitch in some of the other readings.

On the topic of professions, Bowker and Star provide some very interesting comments regarding the role of classification systems:

“The problem of how to produce any classification scheme is an old one in the philosophy of knowledge, from Occam's razor to Quine's objects. Blurring categories means that existing differences are covered up, merged, or removed altogether while distinctions construct new partitions or reinforcement of existing differences. This mutual process of constructing and shaping differences through classification systems is crucial in anyone's conception of reality; it is the core of much taxonomic anthropology.” p. 230

They then go on to explore the challenges of crafting a classification scheme. In particular, they focus on the notions of “comparability”, “visibility”, and “control”. These observations seem to resonate with Abbott’s (1988) notion that professions construct and use classification systems to both diagnose and treat. Of particular interest, however, are the practices that professions use to compare and control their own classification systems while making them more or less visible to the public.

The notion of space and time is also evident in the work of Star and Griesemer: “…scientific work is heterogeneous. At the same time, science requires cooperation—to create common understandings, to insure reliability across domains, to gather information which retains its integrity across time, space, and local contingencies. This [sic] creates a ‘central tension’ in science between divergent viewpoints and the need for generalizable findings.” (Star & Griesemer, 1999 p. 505) The need to control both space and time results in the formation of “boundary objects” to broker across the gaps between the understanding in various epistemic communities. Of course, the gaps could be the result of things like training, language, and vocabulary; or things like body knowledge vs. brain knowledge (Henderson, 1999; Knorr Cetina, 1999).

We know, however, that professions—or occupations—are in a constant flux of intervention, competition, and cooperation. In this regard, the boundary objects are not merely a way of communicating but also a means of competing and protecting. Perhaps, it is in the work of Fox (2000) that we best see this notion operationalized. As Fox notes, Wenger’s (1998) perspective of a Community of Practice is basically a constructionist one that lacks some of the notions of power and competition that are evident in the work of Abbott and others. Perhaps the interaction of various actors [must actants be human to exercise Foucauldian power? Is it an issue of agency…] and the use of boundary objects to broker these exchanges are acts of enrollment (as indicated by Fox). In this regard, the actual interpretation and use of boundary objects becomes an important issue [at this stage I could go in to a long rant about Fiske, or Eco, or Chomsky, or social psychology… but I won’t].

Now that we have the classification of various types of work, and the interactions between the various communities using boundary objects, and these boundary objects as contentious and perhaps malicious things based on the need that organizations have to protect their roles (and their classification schemes), and the issues around reading boundary objects… maybe I should briefly explore some of Davenport and Hall’s (2002) arguments about Communities of Practice since Communities of Practice may afford the readings that individuals ascribe to various artifacts [wow… is that a bad sentence]. According to Davenport and Hall various things are required for creating a community of practice: clear rules, shared language, social events, and collocation. In addition, the infrastructure must provide technologies for communicating and representation, boundary objects, social infrastructure, and discursive infrastructure.

At this stage, it seems that I’m getting involved in a kind of ouroboros and my various arguments are coming in on themselves. I suspect that all of this discussion of the classification of action and energy and the various means of protecting and enacting these classifications are highly dependent upon the chronotopic conceptualization involving both space and time. Working these things out, however, is going to take a whole lot more time in a different space.


Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions : an essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bowker, G. C. (1994). Science on the run : information management and industrial geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920-1940. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Bowker, G. C. (1998). The game of the name: nomenclatural instability in the history of botanical informatics. Paper presented at the Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Campbell, D. G. (2004). Global abstractions: the classification of international economic data for bibliographic and statistical purposes. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 37(1/2), 221 - 234.
Davenport, E., & Hall, H. (2002). Organizational knowledge and communities of practice. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 36, 171-227.
Devadason, F. J., Intaraksa, N., Patamawongjariya, P., & Desai, K. (2002). Faceted indexing based system for organizing and accessing Internet resources. Knowledge Organization, 29(2), 65-77.
Ellis, D., & Vasconcelos, A. (1999). Ranganathan and the Net: using facet analysis to search and organise the World Wide Web. Aslib Proceedings, 51(1), 3-10.
Fox, S. (2000). Communities of practice, Foucault and actor-network theory. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 853-867.
Henderson, K. (1999). On line and on paper : visual representations, visual culture, and computer graphics in design engineering. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Knorr Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Montgomery, M. V. (1993). Carnivals and commonplaces : Bakhtin's chronotope, cultural studies, and film. New York: P. Lang.
Spiteri, L. F. (1998). A simplified model for facet analysis: Ranganathan 101. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science-Revue Canadienne Des Sciences De L Information Et De Bibliotheconomie, 23(1-2), 1-30.
Spiteri, L. F. (1999). The essential elements of faceted thesauri. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 28(4), 31-52.
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1999). Institutional ecology, "translations" and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 503-524). New York; London: Routledge.
Turnbull, D. (2000). Masons, tricksters, and cartographers : comparative studies in the sociology of scientific and indeigenous knowledge. Australia: Harwood Academic.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Xiao, Y. (1994). Faceted Classification - a Consideration of Its Features as a Paradigm of Knowledge Organization. Knowledge Organization, 21(2), 64-68.
Zerubavel, E. (1982). The standardization of time : a sociohistorical perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 88(1), 1-23.