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Sorting Things Out

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What do a 17th-century mortality table (whose causes of death include "fainted in a bath", "frighted" and "itch"); the identification of South Africans during apartheid as European, Asian, coloured or black; and the separation of machine- from hand-washables have in common? All are examples of classification - the scaffolding of information infrastructures. In "Sorting Things Out", Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explore the role of categories and standards in shaping the modern world. In a clear and lively style, they investigate a variety of classification systems, incuding the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, race classification under apartheid in South Africa, and the classification of viruses and tuberculosis. The authors emphasize the role of "invisibility" in the process by which classification orders human interaction. They examine how categories are made and kept invisible, and how people can change this invisibility when necessary. They also explore systems of classification as part of the built information environment. Much as an urban historian would review highway permits and zoning decisions to tell a city's story, the authors review archives of classification design to understand how decisions have been made. "Sorting Things Out" has a moral agenda, for each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. Standards and classifications produce advantage or suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made and how we think about that process are at the moral and political core of this work. The book is an empirical source for understanding the building of information infrastructures.
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This book provides a tool to help all of us -- from designers of technical systems to users of e-mail -- understand and knowledgeably influence the infrastructures that shape our lives. -- JoAnne Yates, Professor of Communication, Information, and Organization Studies, Sloan School of Management, MIT Sorting Things Out is a brilliant dissection of a fundamental facet of social life. Its analytic comparisons shed new light on familiar problems which plague all the social sciences. -- Howard S. Becker, University of California-Santa Barbara

About the Author

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University.


Classification theory is tough reading, but this is an important book that expounds the basics in a new fashion. Bowker and Star, both professors in the department of communication at the University of California, San Diego, emphasize (and show how) classification becomes invisible as it gains acceptance and exerts ever greater influence over our daily lives. They explore three issues: the role of classification in large infrastructures; classification and biography; and classification and work practice. The authors analyze the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, the South African race classification under apartheid, and other working systems to illustrate their points about the inevitable social, political, and economic impacts of classification on people, mainly because we take them for granted, assume they represent the "natural" way of the world, and therefore that we must conform to them. The closing chapter, "Why Classifications Matter," should be required reading for every librarian. It sums up what has gone before and sensitizes us to the power of classificationÄa power we wield as organizers of information. Highly recommended for library and information science educators, students, and practicing classifiers; this book is a must for all professional bookshelves, not just for those of library schools and research institutions.ÄSheila S. Intner, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

" Sorting Things Out is a brilliant dissection of a fundamental facet ofsocial life. Its analytic comparisons shed new light on familiar problemswhich plague all the social sciences." Howard S. Becker , University of California-Santa Barbara

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