Sorting things out in classification

Sorting Things Out:
Classification and Its
Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star
Second printing, 1999

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bowker, Geoffrey C.
Sorting things out : classification and its consequences /
Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star.
p. cm. (Inside technology)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-262-02461-6 (alk. paper)
1. Knowledge, Sociology of. 2. Classification. I. Star, Susan
Leigh, 1954 . II. Title. III. Series.
BD175.B68 1999
001.012dc2l 99-26894
______ MIT Press
Bowker and Star
Sorting Things Out
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing
C las si fic a lion
My guess is that we ha,re a folk theory of categorization itself. It says that
things come in well-defined kinds, that the kinds are characterized by shared
properties , and that there is one right taxonomy of the kinds .
It is easier to show what is wrong with a scientific theory than with a folk
theory. A folk theory defines common sense itself. When the folk theory and
the technical theory converge, it gets even tougher to see where that theory
gets in the way- or even that it is a theory at all.
(Lakoff 1987, 121)
Introduction : A Good Infrastructure Is Hard to Find
Information infrastructure is a tricky thing to analyze .6 Good , usable
systems disappear almost by definition . The easier they are to use, the
harder they are to see. As well , most of the time , the bigger they are ,
the harder they are to see. Unless “”‘e are electricians or building
inspectors , we rarely think about the myriad of databases, standards ,
and instruction manuals subtending our reading lamps , much less
about the politics of the electric grid that they tap into . And so on , as
many layers of technology accrue and expand over space and time .
Systems of classification (and of standardization ) form a juncture of
social organization , moral ol~der , and layers of technical integration .
Each subsystem inherits , increasingly as it scales up , the inertia of the
installed base of systems that have come before .
Infrastructures are never tl~ansparent for everyone , and their work –
ability as the )! scale up becomes increasingly complex . Through due
methodological attention to the architecture and use of these systems,
we can achieve a deeper understanding of how it is that individuals
and communities meet infrastructure . We know that this means , at the
least, an understanding of infrastructure that includes these points :
34 Chapter 1
. A historical process of development of many tools, arranged for a
wide variety of users , and made to work in concert .
. A practical match among routines of work practice, technology, and
wider scale organizational and technical resources .
. A 11ich set of negotiated compromises ranging from epistemology to
data entry that are both available and transparent to communities of
users .
. A negotiated order in which all of the above, recursively, can function together .
Table 1.1 shows a more elaborate definition of infrastructure , using
Star and Ruhleder (1996), who emphasize that one person ‘s infrastruc –
ture may be another ‘s barrier .
This chapter offers four themes, methodological points of departure
for the analysis of these complex relationships . Each theme operates
as a gestalt switch- it comes in the form of an infrastructural inversion
(Bowker 1994). This inversion is a struggle against the tendency of
infrastructure to disappear (except when breaking down). It means
learning to look closely at technologies and arrangements that , by
design and by habit , tend to fade into the woodwork (sometimes
literally !).
Infrastructural inversion means recognizing the depths of interde –
pendence of technical networks and standards , on the one hand , and
the real work of politics and knowledge production8 on the other. It
foregrounds these normally invisible Lilliputian threads and further –
more gives them causal prominence in many areas usually attributed
to heroic actors , social movements , or cultural mores . The in lTersion is
similar to the argument made by Becker (1982) in his book A1~t Worlds.
Most history and social analysis of art has neglected the details of
infrastructure within which communities of artistic practice emerge .
Becker ‘s inversion examines the conventions and constraints of the
material artistic infrastructure and its ramifications . For example, the
convention of musical concerts lasting about three hours ramifies
throughout the producing organization . Parking attendants, unions,
ticket takers, and theater rentals are arranged in cascading dependence on this interval of time. An , which is
occasionally written , means rearranging all of these expectations,
which in turn is so expensive that such productions are rare. Or
paintings are about the size, usually, that will hang comfortably on a
wall. They are also the size that fits rolls of canvas, the skills of framers,
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 35
Table 1.1
A definition of infrastructure
. E ‘mbeddedness . Infrastructure is sunk into , inside of , other structures , social
arrangements, and technologies,
. Transparency. Infrastructure is transparent to use in the sense that it does
not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task , but
invisibly supports those tasks.
. Reach or scope. This may be either spatial or temporal – infrastructure has
reach be)Tond a single event or one-site practice;
. Learned as part of membershiP. The taken-for -grantedness of artifacts and
organizational arrangements is a sine qua non of membership in a
community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991, Star 1996). Strangers and
outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about.
New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects as they
become members .
. Links with conventions a/ practice. Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped
by the conventions of a community of practice; for example, the ways that
cycles of day-night work are affected by and affect electrical power rates
and needs . Generations of typists have learned the QWERTY keyboard ; its
limitations are inherited by the computer keyboard and thence by the
design of today’s computer furniture (Becker 1982).
. Embodiment of standards. Modified b}’ scope and often by conflicting
conventions, infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other
infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion .
. Built on an installed base . Infrastructure does not grow de novo ; it wrestles
with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations
from that base. Optical fibers run along old railroad lines, new systems are
designed for backward compatibility ; and failing to account for these
constraints may be fatal or distorting to new development processes
(Monteiro and Hanseth 1996 ).
. Becomes visible upon breakdown. The normally invisible quality of working
infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks : the server is down , the
bridge washes out , there is a power blackout . Even when there are backup
mechanisms or procedures, their existence further highlights the now
visible infrastructure .
. Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally. Because
infrastructure is big, layered, and complex , and because it means different
things locally, it is never changed from above. Chang-es take time and
negotiation , and adjustment with other aspects of the systems involved .7 – .
Source : Star and Rohleder 1996 .
36 Chapter 1
and the very doorways of museums and galleries. These constraints
are mutable only at great cost, and artists must always consider them
before violating them.
Scientific inversions of infrastructure were the theme of a pathbreaking edited volume, The Right Tools for the job : At Work in (Clarke and Fujimura 1992). The purpose of
this volume was to tell the history of biology in a new way- from the
point of view of the materials that constrain and enable biological
researchers. Rats, petri dishes, taxidermy , planaria , drosophila , and
test tubes take center stage in this narrative . The standardization of
genetic research on a few specially bred organisms (notably drosophila )
has constrained the pacing of research and the ways the questions may
be framed , and it has given biological supply houses an important ,
invisible role in research horizons. While elephants or whales might
answer different kinds of biological questions, they are obviously unwieldy lab animals. While pregnant cow’s urine played a critical role
in the discovery and isolation of reproductive hormones, no historian
of biology had thought it important to describe the task of obtaining
gallons of it on a regular basis. Adele Clarke (1998) puckishly relates
her discovery, found in the memoirs of a biologist, of the technique
required to do so: tickle the cow’s labia to make her urinate . A starkly
different view of the tasks of laboratory biology emerges from this
image. It must be added to the processes of stabling, feeding, impreg –
nating , and caring for the cows involved . The supply chain, techniques, and animal handling methods had to be invented along with
biology’s conceptual frame; they are not accidental, but constitutive .
Our infrastructural inversion with respect to information technologies and their attendant classification systems follows this line of analysis. Like the cow’s urine or the eight-hour concert, we have found
many examples of counterintuitive , often humorous struggles with
constraints and conventions in the crafting of classifications. For instance, as we shall see in chapter 5, in analyzing the experience of
tuberculosis patients in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, we found the story
of one woman who had been incarcerated so long in the sanatorium
that leaving it became unthinkable . She recovered from the disease,
but tried to subvert the diagnosis of wellness. When the doctors took
her temperature , she would surreptitiously dip the thermometer in
hot water to make it seem that she still had a fever. On discovering
this, the doctors created a thermometer without markings , so that she
could not tell what the mercury column indicated . They called this
“the silent sister.” The silent sister immediately becomes itself a telling
indicator of the entangled infrastructure , medical politics, and the use
of metrics in classifying tubercular patients. It tells a rich metaphorical
story, and may become a concept useful beyond the l~arified walls of
the fictional Swiss asylum. VlThat other silent sisters will we encounter
in our infrastructural inversion- what surveillance, deception, caring,
struggling , or negotiating ?
In the sections below, four themes are presented that require the
special double vision implied in the anecdotes above. They frame the
new way’ of seeing that brings to life large-scale, bureaucratic classifications and standards. Without this map, excursions into this aspect of
information infrastructure can be stiflingly boring . Many classifications
appear as nothing more than lists of numbers with labels attached,
bul~ied in software menus, users’ manuals, or other references. As
discussed in chapter 2, new eyes are needed for reading classification
systems, for l~estoring the deleted and dessicated narratives to these
peculiar cultural , technical, and scientific artifacts.
The first major theme is the ubiquity of classifying and standardizing .
Classification schemes and standards literally saturate our environ –
ment. In the built world we inhabit , thousands and thousands of
standards are used everywhere, from setting up the plumbing in a
house to assembling a car engine to transferring a file from one
computer to another. Consider the canonically simple act of writing a
letter longhand , putting it in an envelope, and mailing it . There are
standards for paper size, the distance between lines in lined paper,
envelope size, the glue on the envelope, the size of stamps, their glue,
the ink in a pen, the sharpness of its nib, the composition of the paper
(which in turn can be broken do”’!’n to the nature of the watermark , if
any; the degree of recycled material used in its production , the defini –
tion of what counts as recycling), and so forth .
Similarly, in an)T bureaucracy, classifications abound- consider the
simple but increasingly common classifications that are used when you
dial an airline for information (“if you are traveling domestically, press
1 “; “if you want information about flight arriv’als and departures .
. . .”). And once the airline has you on the line , you are classified by
them as a frequent flyer (normal , gold or platinum ); corporate or
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 37
Methodological Themes for Inversion
38 Chapter 1
individual ; tourist or business class; short haul or long haul (different
fare rates and scheduling apply).
This categorical saturation furthermore forms a complex web. Although it is possible to pullout a single classification scheme or standard for reference purposes, in reality none of them stand alone. So
a subproperty of ubiquity is interdependence , and frequently , integra –
tion . .iL systems approach might see the proliferation of both standards
and classifications as purely a matter of integration – almost like a
gigantic web of interoperability . Yet the sheer density of these phenom –
ena go beyond questions of interoperability . They are layered, tangled,
textured ; they interact to form an ecology as well as a flat set of
compatibilities . That is to say, they facilitate the coordination of heterogeneous “dispositifs techniques” (Foucault 1975). They are lodged
in different communities of practice such as laboratories , records
offices , insurance companies , and so forth .9 There are spaces between
(unclassified, nonstandard areas), of course, and these are equally
important to the analysis. It seems that increasingly these spaces are
marked as unclassified and nonstandard .
It is a struggle to step back from this complexity and think about
the issue of ubiquity rather than try to trace the myriad connections
in anyone case. The ubiquity of classifications and standards is curi –
ously difficult to see, as we are quite schooled in ignoring both , for a
variety of interesting reasons. We also need concepts for under –
Becoming an Irate
Howard Becker relates a delightful anecdote concerning his classification by an airline . A relative working for one of the airlines told him
how desk clerks handle customer complaints. The strategy is first to try
to solve the problem . If the customer remains unsatisfied and becomes
very angry in the process , the clerk dubs him or her ” an irate .” The
clerk then calls the supervisor , ” I ha”l’e an irate on the line ,” shorthand
for the catego11Y of an irritated passenger .
One day Becker was having a difficult interaction with the same
airline . He called the airline desk , and in a calm tone of voice , said ,
“Hello , my name is Howard Becker and I ‘m an irate. Can you help me
with this ticket?” The clerk began to sputter, “How did you know that
word ?” Becker had succeeded in unearthing a little of the hidden
classificatory apparatus behind the scenes at the airline . He notes that
the interaction after this speeded up and went particularly smoothly.
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 39
standing movements , textures , and shifts that will grasp patterns
within the ubiquitous larger phenomenon . The distribution of residual
categories ( ” not elsewhere classified ” or ” other ” ) is one such concept .
” Others ” are everywhere , st11ucturing social order . Another such con –
cept might be what Strauss et al . ( 1985 ) call a ” cumulative mess trajec –
tory . ” In medicine , this occurs when one has an illness , is given a
medicine to cure the illness , but incurs a serious side effect , which then
needs to be treated with another medicine , and so forth . If the trajec –
tory becomes so tangled that you cannot turn back and the interactions
multiply , ” cumulative mess ” results . We see this phenomenon in the
interaction of categories and standards all the time – ecological exam –
ples are particularly rich places to look .
Materiality and Texture
The second methodological departure point is that classifications and
standards are material , as well as symbolic . How do we perceive this
densely saturated classified and textured world ? Under the sway of
cognitive idealism , it is easy to see classifications as properties of mind
and standards as ideal numbers or floating cultural inheritances . But
they ha , re material force in the world . They are built into and embed –
ded in every feature of the built environment ( and in many of
the nature – culture borderlands , such as with engineered genetic
organisms ) .
All classification and standardization schemes are a mixture ofphysi –
cal entities , such as paper forms , plugs , or software instructions en –
coded in silicon , and conventional arrangements such as speed and
rhythm , dimension , and how specifications are implemented . Perhaps
because of this mixture , the web of intertwined schemes can be difficult
to see . In general , the trick is to question every apparently natural
easiness in the world around us and look for the work involved in
making it easy . Within a project or on a desktop , the seeing consists
in seamlessly moving between the physical and the conventional . So
when computer programmers write some lines of Java code , they move
within conventional constraints and make innovations based on them ;
at the same time , they strike plastic keys , shift notes around on a
desktop , and consult manuals for various standards and other infor –
mation . If we were to try to list all the classifications and standards
involved in w ~ riting a program , the list could run to pages . Classifica –
tions include types of objects , types of hardware , matches between
requirements categories and code categories , and metacategories such
40 Chapter 1
The Indeterminacy of the Past.. MultiPle Times, MultiPle Voices
The third methodological theme concerns the past as indeterminate.lo We
are constantly revising our knowledge of the past in light of new
developments in the present . This is not a new idea to historiography
or to biography . We change our resumes as we acquire new skills to
appear like smooth , planned paths of development , even if the change
had been unexpected or undesired . When we become membel ‘s of new
social worlds , ve often retell our life stories in new terminolog )’. A
common exam pIe of this is a religious conversion where the past is
retold as exemplifying errors , sinning , and repentance (Strauss 1959).
Or V’hen one comes out as gay or lesbian , childhood behaviors and
teenage crushes become indicators of early inklings of sexual choice
(Wolfe and Stanley 1980).
as the goodness of fit of the piece of code with the larger system under
development. Standards range from the precise integration of the
underlying hardware to the 60Hz power coming out of the wall
through a standard size plug.
Merely reducing the description to the physical aspect such as the
plug does not get us anY”,There interesting about the actual mixture of
physical and conventional or symbolic. A good operations researcher
could describe how and whether things would work together, often
purposefully blurring the ph)Tsical and conventional boundaries in
making the analysis. But what is missing is a sense of the landscape of
work as experienced by those within it. It gives no sense of something
as important as the texture of an organization: Is it smooth or rough?
Bare or knotty? What is needed is a sense of the topography of all of
the arrangements: Are they colliding, coextensive, gappy, or orthogonal? One way to get at these questions is to take quite literally the kinds
of metaphors that people use when describing their experience of
organizations, bureaucracies, and information systems, which are discussed in more detail in chapter 9.
When we think of classifications and standards as both material and
symbolic, we adapt a set of tools not usually applied to them. There
are tools for analyzing built structures, such as structural integrity,
enclosures and confinements, permeability, and durability, among
man)’ others. Structures have texture and depth. The textural Wa)T of
speaking of classifications and standards is common in organizations
and groups. Metaphors of tautness, knots, fabrics, and networks pervade modern language (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 41
At wider levels of scale , these revisions also mean the introduction
of new voices – many possible kinds of interpretations of categories ,
texts , and artifacts . Multiple voices and silences are represented in any
scheme that attempts to sort out the world . No one classification
organizes reality for everyone – for example , the red light , yellow light ,
green light traffic light distinctions do not work for blind people ( who
need sound coding ) . In looking to classification schemes as ways of
ordering the past , it is easy to forget those who have been overlooked
in this way . Thus , the indeterminacy of the past implies recovering
multivocality ; it also means understanding how standard narratives
that appear univer , sal have been constructed ( Star 1991a ) .
There is no way of ever getting access to the past except through
classification systems of one sort or another – formal or informal , hi –
erarchical or not . Take the apparently unproblematic statement : ” In
1640 , the English revolution occul ‘ red ; this led to a twenty – year period
in which the English had no monarchy . ” The classifications involved
here , all problematic , include the following :
. The current segmentation of time into days , months , and years .
Accounts of the English revolution generally use the Gregorian calen –
dar , which was adopted some 100 years later , so causing translation
problems with contemporary ‘ documents .
. The classification of peoples into English , Irish , Scots , French , and
so on . These designations were by no means so clear at the time ; the
whole discourse of ” national genius ” or character only arose in the
nineteenth centurv .
. The classification of events into revolutions , reforms , revolts , rebel –
lions , and so forth ( see Furet 1978 on thinking the French revolution ) .
There was no concept of ” re ‘ Tolution ” at the time ; our current concep –
tion is marked by the historiographical work of Karl Marx .
. What do we classify as being a ” monarchy ? ” There is a strong
historiographical tradition that says that Oliver Cromwell ” Tas a mon –
arch – he walked , talked , and acted like one after all . U ndel ‘ this view ,
there is no hiatus at all in this English institution ; rather a usurper
took the throne .
There are two major historiographic schools of thought about using
classification systems on the past . One maintains that we should only
use classifications available to actors at the time , much as an ethnog –
rapher tries faithfully to mirror the categories of their respondents .
42 Chapter 1
.tLuthors in this tradition warn against the dangers of anachronism.
Hacking (1995) on child abuse is a sophisticated version that we discuss
in chapter 7. If a category did not exist contemporaneously, it should
not be retroactively applied .
The other school of thought holds that we should use the real
classifications that progress in the arts and sciences has uncovered .
Often history informed by current sociology will take this path. For
example, Tort ‘s (1989) work on “genetic” classification systems (which
were not so called at the time , but which are of vital interest to the
Foucaldian problematic ) imposes a post hoc order on nineteenth -century classification schemes in a variety of sciences. Even though those
schemes were perceived by their creators as responding solely to the
specific needs of the discipline they were dealing with (etymology, say,
or mineralogy ), Tort demonstrates that there wa~ a link between many
different schemes (both direct in people shifting disciplines and conceptual in their organization ) that allows us to perceive an order
nowhere apparent to contemporaries .
From a pragmatist point of view, both aspects are important in
analyzing the consequences of modern systems of classification and
standardization . We seek to understand classification systems accord –
ing to the work that they are doing and the networks within which
they are embedded. That entails both an understanding of the categories of those designing and using the systems, and a set of analytic
questions derived from our own concerns as analysts.
When we ask historical questions about the deeply and heterogeneously structured space of classification systems and standards, we are
dealing with a four -dimensional archaeology. The systems move in
space, time, and process. Some of the archaeological structures we
uncover are stable, some in motion , some evolving, some decaying.
They are not consistent. An institutional memory about an epidemic,
for example, can be held simultaneously and with internal contradic –
tions (sometimes piecemeal or distributed and sometimes with entirely
different stories at different locations) across a given institutional
space .
In the case of AIDS , classifications have shifted significantly over the
last twenty years, including the invention of the category in the
1980s- from (GRID ) through a chain of
other monikers to the now accepted acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS ). It is now to some extent possible to look back at cases
that might previously have been AIDS (Grmek 1990) before we had
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 43
When Is It a Harley?
One of the ways the past becomes indeterminate is through gradual
shifts in what it means to really be somethingthe essence of it.
Sitting in a tattoo parlor, surrounded by people I do not usually hang
out with. Young men in black leather vests and sun-bleached hair. I turn
to the waiting room reading material, which in this case is the monthly
Thunder Press, a newsletter for motorbike aficionados. The lead article
asks the question: Is It Still a Harley if you have customized your bike
yourself? The Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles makes the definitive call: Anything that is not totally factory built will make it a reconstructed motorcycle, and it will be called assembled on the title (69).
A major activity in the Harley social world is customizing features of
ones motorcycle, and there are important symbolic and affihiative signs
attached to the customizing process. Deleting the name Harley from the
registration form is perceived as an insult to the owner, and this insult
is stitched together in the article with others that come from the government toward bikers (restricting meeting places, insisting on helmet-
wearing, being overly enthusiastic in enforcing traffic violations by
This is a pure example of the politics of essence, of identity politics.
It is echoed in many areas of life, for example, in James Davis (1991)
classic study Who Is Black? where the question of the one-drop rule in
the United States, and the rejection of mixed-race people as a legitimate
category is an old and a cruel story. The central process here is the
distillation of the sine qua non out from the messy and crenellated
surroundsthe rejection of marginality in favor of purity.
When this occurs, the suffering of the marginal becomes privatized
and distributed, creating the conditions for pluralistic ignorance (Im
the only one). Meeting the purity criteria of the essentialized category
also becomes bureaucratized and again the onus is shifted to the individual alone. Only when the category is joined with a social movement
can the black box of essence be reopened, as for example with the recent
uprisings and demonstrations of mixed race Hispanic people toward the
U.S. census and its rigid categories. The problem becomes clear if one
is both black and Hispanic, a common combination in the Caribbean.
Through which master trait will the government perceive you?
Leigh Star
Source: Anonymous, Is It Still a Harley, Thunder Press 5:4 (July 1996,
1 and 69).
44 Chapter 1
. the category ( a problematic gaze to be sure , as Bruno Latour ( forth –
coming ) has written about tuberculosis ) . There are epidemiological
stories about trying to collect information about a shameful disease ;
there is a wealth of personal and public narratives about living with it .
There is a public health story and a virology story , which use different
category systems . There are the standardized forms of insurance com –
panies and the categories and standards of the Census Bureau . When
an attempt was made to combine these data in the 1980s to disenfran –
chise young men living in San Francisco , from health insurance , the
resultant political challenge stopped the combination of these data
from being so used . At the same time , the San Francisco blood banks
refused for years to employ HIV screening , thus denying the admis –
sion of another category to their blood labeling , as Shilts ( 1987 ) tells
us , with many casualties as a result . Whose story has categorical ascen –
dancy here ? That question is forever morally moot – all of the stories
are important and all of the categories tell a different one .
Practical Politics
The fourth major theme is uncovering the practical politics of classifying
and standardizing . This is the design end of the spectrum of investigat –
ing categories and standards as technologies . There are two processes
associated with these politics : arriving at categories and standards , and ,
along the way , deciding what will be visible or invisible within the
system .
It follows from the indeterminacy discussed above that the spread
or enforcement of categories and standards involves negotiation or
force . Whatever appears as universal or indeed standard , is the result
of negotiations , organizational processes , and conflict . How do these
negotiations take place ? Who determines the final outcome in prepar –
ing a formal classification ? Visibility issues arise as one decides where
to make cuts in the system , for example , down to what level of detail
one specifies a description of work , of an illness , of a setting . Because
there are always advantages and disadvantages to being visible , this
becomes crucial in the workability of the schema . As well , ordinary
biases of what should be visible , or legitimated , within a particular
scheme are always in action . The trade – offs involved in this sort of
politics are discussed in chapters 5 on tuberculosis and 7 on nursing
work .
Someone , somewhere , must decide and argue over the minutiae of
classifying and standardizing . The negotiations themselves form the
Some Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Class fication 45
Theres No Such Thing as a Rodent
An article in the San Jose Mercury News by Rick Weiss declares: Researchers say theres no such thing as a rodent. He quotes an article
from Nature, which argues that the 2,000 species of animals ordinarily
considered rodentsincluding rats, mice, and guinea pigsdid not
evolve from a common ancestor. The finding is deeply controversial.
Weiss says, On one side are researchers who have spent their careers
hunched over fossils or skeletal remains to determine which animals
evolved from which. On the other, the article continues, are those who
would use DNA analysis to make the determination. The fossil studiers
say that DNA is not yet accurate enough. The classification of species
has always been deeply controversial. Biologists speak of a rough cut
among their ranks: lumpers (those who see fewer categories and more
commonalties) versus splitters (those who would name a new species
with fewer kinds of difference cited). There are always practical consequences for these names. Splitters, for example, often included people
who wanted a new species named after them, and the more species there
are, the more likely is an eponymous label. The deliberately provocative
headline of this article demands a response: well, dont tell that to my
cat. We often refer implicitly in this fashion to the power of naming
blurring the name of the category with its members. (San Jose Mercury
News, June 13, 1996: 5A by Rick Weiss)
basis for a fascinating practical ontologyour favorite example is when
is someone really alive? Is it breathing, attempts at breathing, or
movement? And how long must each of those last? Whose voice will
determine the outcome is sometimes an exercise of pure power: We,
the holders of western medicine and scions of colonial regimes, will
decide what a disease is and simply obviate systems such as acupuncture or Aryuvedic medicine. Sometimes the negotiations are more
subtle, involving questions such as the disparate viewpoints of an
immunologist and a surgeon, or a public health official (interested in
even one case of the plague) and a statistician (for whom one case is
not relevant).
Once a system is in place, the practical politics of these decisions are
often forgotten, literally buried in archives (when records are kept at
all) or built into software or the sizes and compositions of things. In
addition to our archaeological expeditions into the records of such
negotiations, this book provides some observations of the negotiations
in action.
Finally, even where everyone agrees on how classifications or standards should be established, there are often P11actical difficulties about
how to craft them. For example, a classification system with 20,000
bins on every form is practically unusable for data-entry purposes. The
constraints of technological record keeping come into play at every
turn . For example, the original ICD had some 200 diseases not because
of the nature of the human body and its problems but because this
was the maximum number that would fit the large census sheets then .
In use.
Sometimes the decision simply about how fine-grained to make the
system has political consequences as well. For instance, describing and
recording someone’s tasks, as in the case of nursing work , may mean
controlling or surveilling their work as well, and may imply an attempt
to take away discretion . After all, the loosest classification of work is
accorded to those with the most power and discretion who are able to
set their own terms. There are financial stakes as well. In a study of a
health insurance company’s system of classifying for doctor and patient
reimbursement , Gerson and Star (1986) found that doctors wanted the
most fine-grained of category systems, so that each procedure could
be reimbursed separately and thus most profitably . Data-entry personnel and hospital administrators , among others, wanted broader, simpler, and coarser-grained categories for reasons of efficiency. These
conflicts were, however, invisible to the outside world , which received
only the forms for reimbursement purposes and a copy of the codebook for reference. Both the content of the categories and the structure of the overall scheme are concerns for due process within
organizations- whose voice will be heard and when will enough data,
of the right granularity , have been collected?
46 Chapter 1
Infrastructure and Method : Convergence
These ubiquitous , textured classifications and standards help frame
our representation of the past and the sequencing of events in the
present. They can best be understood as doing the ever local, ever
partial work of making it appear that science describes nature (and
nature alone) and that politics is about social power (and social power
alone). Consider the case of psychoanalysts discussed at length in
Young (1995), Kirk and Kutchins (1992), and Kutchins and Kirk
(1997). To receive reimbursement for their procedures, psychoanalysts
now need to couch them in a biomedical language (using the DSM).
Fitting Categories to Circumstances
An academic friend on the East Coast tells an anecdote of negotiation
with her long-term psychoanalyst about how to fill out her insurance
forms. She was able to receive se’eral free sessions of therapy a year
under her health insurance plan . Each year, she and her therapist would
discuss how best to categorize her. It was important to represent the
illness as serious and long-term . At the same time, they were worried that the information about the diagnosis might not always remain
confidential . What could they label her that would be both serious
and nonstigmatizing ? Finally, they settled on the diagnosis of obsessivecompulsive. No academic would ever be penalized for being obsessivecompulsive, our friend concluded with a wry laugh ! (Kirk and Kutchins
(1992 ) document similar negotiations between psychiatrists and
patients. )
Som,e Tricks of the Trade in Analyzing Classification 47
Theoretically , this rubric is anathema to them, systematically replacing
the categories of psychoanalysis with the language of the pharmacopoeia and of the biochemistry of the brain . The DSM, however, is the
lingua franca of the medical insurance companies. Thus , psychoanalysts use the categories not only to obtain reimbursement but as a
shorthand to communicate with each other. There are local translation
mechanisms that allow the DSM to continue to operate in this fashion
and, at the same time, to become the sole legal, recognized repre –
sentation of mental disorder. A “reverse engineering ” of the DSM or
the ICD reveals the multitude of local political and social struggles
and compromises that go into the constitution of a “universal ”
Standards, categories, technologies, and phenomenology are increasingly converging in large-scale information infrastructure . As we
have indicated in this chapter, this convergence poses both political
and ethical questions. These questions are by no means obvious in
ordinary moral discourse. For all the reasons given above, large-scale
classification systems are often invisible, erased by their naturalization
into the routines of life. Conflict and multiplicity are often buried
beneath layers of obscure representation .
Methodologically , we do not stand outside these systems, nor pro –
nounce on their mapping to some otherworldly “real” or “constructed”
nature . Rather, we are concerned with what they do, pragmatically
speaking, as scaffolding in the conduct of modern life. Part of that
48 Chapter 1
analysis means understanding the coconstruction of classification systems with the means for data collection and validation .
To clarify our position here, let us take an analogy. In the early
nineteenth century in England there were a huge number of capital
crimes, starting from stealing a loaf of bread and going on up . Precisely
because the penalties were so draconian , however, fe”,,’ juries would
ever impose the maximum sentence; and indeed there was a drastic
reduction in the number of executions even as the penal code was
progressively strengthened . There are two ways of writing this history :
one can either concentrate on the creation of the law; or one can
concentrate on the way things worked out in practice. This is very
similar to the position taken in Latour ‘s We Have Never Been Modern
(1993). He argues that we can either look at what scientists say they
are doing (working within a purified realm of knowledge) or at what
they actually al~e doing (manufactul~ing hybrids of nature-culture ). We
think both are important . We advocate here a pragmatic methodologi –
cal development- pay more attention to the classification and standardization work that allows for hybrids to be manufactured and so
more deeply explore the terrain of the politics of science in action.
The point is that both words and deeds are valid kinds of account.
Early sociolog)T of science in the
on the ways in which it comes to appear that science gives an objective
account of natural order : trials of strength, enrolling of allies, cascades
of inscriptions , and the operation of immutable mobiles (Latour 1987,
1988). Actor network theory drew attention to the importance of the
development of standards (though not to the linked development of
classification systems), but did not look at these in detail. Sociologists
of science invited us to look at the process of producing something
that looked like what the positivists alleged science to be. We got to
see the Janus face of science as both constructed and realist. In so
doing we followed the actors, often ethnographically . \Te shared their
insights. Allies must be enrolled , translation mechanisms must be set
in train so that, in the canonical case, Pasteur’s laboratory work can be
seen as a direct translation of the quest for French honor after defeat
in the battlefield (Latour 1988).
By the very nature of the method , However, we also shared the
actors’ blindness. The actors being followed did not themselves see
what was excluded : they’ constructed a world in which that exclusion
could occur. Thus if we just follow the doctors who create the ICD at
the WHO in Geneva, we will not see the variety of representation
Some Tricks of the Trade in .l4 nalyzing Classification 49
systems that other cultures have for classifying diseases of the body
and spirit ; and we will not see the fragile networks these classification
systems subtend. Rather, we will see only those who are strong enough
and shaped in such a fashion as to impact allopathic medicine. We will
see the blind leading the blind .
This blindness occurs by changing the world such that the system’s
description of reality becomes true . Thus , for example, conside]’ the
case where all diseases are classified purely physiologically. Systems of
medical observation and treatment are set up such that physical manifestations are the only manifestations recorded . Physical treatments are
the only treatments available. Under these conditions , then, logically
schizophrenia may only result purely and simply from a chemical
imbalance in the brain . It will be impossible to think or act otherwise.
We have called this the principle of convergence (Star, Bowker and
Neumann in press).
Reality is ‘that which resists,’ according to Latour ‘s (1987) Pl~agmatist –
inspired definition . The resistances that designers and users encounter
will change the ubiquitous networks of classifications and standards .
Although convergence may appear at times to create an inescapable
cycle of feedback and verification , the very multiplicity of people ,
things and processes involved mean that they are never locked in for
all time .
The methods in this chapter offer an approach to resistance as a
reading of where and how political work is done in the world of
classifications and standards , and how such artifacts can be problema –
tized and challenged . Donald MacKenzie ‘s (1990) wonderful study of
” missile accuracy ” furnishes the best example of this approach . In a
concluding chapter to his book , he discusses the possibility of “unin –
venting the bomb ,” by which he means changing society and technol –
ogy in such a way that the atomic bomb becomes an impossibility . Such
change , he suggests, can be carried out in part at the overt level of
political organizations . Crucially for our purposes , however , he also
sensitizes the l~eader to the site of the development and maintenance
of technical standards as a site of political decisions and struggle .
Standards and classifications , however dry and formal on the surfaces ,
are suffused with traces of political and social work . Whether we wish
to uninvent any particular aspect of complex infol ~mation infra –
50 Chapter 1
structure is properly a political and a public issue. Because it has rarely
been cast in that light , tyrannies of various sorts flourish . Some are the
tyrannies of inertia – red tape- rather than explicit public policies.
Others are the quiet victories of infrastructure builders inscribing their
politics into the systems. Still other are almost accidental- systems that
become so complex that no one person and no organization can
predict or administer good policy.
The magic of modern technoscience is a lot of hard work involving
smoke-filled rooms, and boring lists of numbers and settings. Tyranny
or democracy, its import on our lives cannot be denied. This chapter
has offered a number of points of departure for evaluation, resistance,
and better analysis of one of its least understood aspects.

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