BOOK REVIEW Bowker & Star Sorting Things out: Classification and Its Consequences

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Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things out: Classification and Its Consequences. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.

“To classify is human”

Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star undertake the challenging and encompassing topic of ‘classification’ in Classification and Its Consequences. The authors argue the that 1) classification is a ubiquitous human activity (“human artifacts”) and 2) the consequences of classificatory architecture influence and ‘torque’ human lives politically, socially, linguistically, and cognitively. The authors provide investigate infrastructure of  classification schemes in the medical and social realm such as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the Nursing Intervention Classification (NIC), and racial classification in South Africa.

Sitting at the crossroads of sociology of knowledge, technology, history, information science, its is not clear exactly how Sorting Things Out seeks to intervene in the current literature on classification. The book is organized topically, and the historical examples move around thematically rather than by location/place. This makes it challenging to follow along the arguments and development of classification and large scale infrastructures such as the 100 year development of the  International Classification of Disease in Part 1.

Rather, the authors provide a methodological and polemical inquiry into the pervasiveness of classification upon society. In their important conclusion, the authors propose a theory of classification as it relates to the formation of social space and boundary infrastructure. (286) The authors argue that classification shapes relationships, forms a community of practice, and signals membership within that community. Classification is also a powerful technology in that they can be rendered invisible and natural within social and political infrastructures. As tools, classification is both material and symbolic.

Method Contributions:

Infrastructural Inversion: recognizing depths of interdependence of technical networks and standards and real work of politics and knowledge production.

Method of approaching studying classification: recognition of classifications ubiquity, examination of the materiality and texture of classifications, acknowledgement of the indeterminancy of the past, reflect on the practical politics of classifying and standardizing, recognize resistance of classification structures. this approach is seen clearly in thinking through the ‘biographies’ and narratives of classification located in times, peoples, places, and relationships.

Classification is not just a top-down relationship, but a network of negotiations: Self-classification and developing standards are part of a way to make visible labor, promote a professional group, and formally enter the record. The example of nursing interventions lists reveals how classification can be a  way of promoting a professional group and organizational legitimacy.

Think through boundary objects: categories and their boundaries are important to science and scientific thinking, but also understand hybridity, marginality, and multiplicity of categories –> offering a theory of boundary infrastructures (rather than just deconstructing universal master narratives of classification systems) (317)

Key points and definitions:

Their research questions include the following: what work do classifications and standards do? who does that work? what happens in the cases that do not fit?

Definition of Classification:

“spatial, temporal, or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world”

  • consistent, unique classificatory principles in operation
  • mutually exclusive categories
  • system is complete

Classification and standards are related to each other and “part of the built information environment” (5), and they also each have a “moral and ethical agenda” (5).

Definition of  ‘standards’

  • set of agreed upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects;
  • a standard spans more than one community of practice (or site of activity)
  • temporal reach as well in that it persists over time
  • legal bodies often enforce standards
  • deployed to make things work together/collaboration/cooperation
  • no natural law that the best standard should win (subjectivity)
  • have inertia and difficult/expensive to change

Definition of infrastructure

  • embeddedness
  • transparency
  • reach/scope
  • learned as part of membership,
  • links with conventions of practice
  • embodiment of standards
  • built on an installed base, becomes visible upon breakdown
  • fixed in modular increments not all at once or globally


3 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW Bowker & Star Sorting Things out: Classification and Its Consequences”

  1. Hi Cindy! I’d like to get in touch with you because I have great interest in learning more about Vietnamese history specifically regarding plant medicine/diet!! I’ve been looking for more sources of books and literature around it. May I email you for us to chat?? P.S. I greatly enjoy your writing. Your Medium posts are captivating stories!

  2. Very nice review, especially the point about thinking through boundary objects and a multiplicity of categories. Thank you.

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