2B. Classification Systems

(JDrucker 9/2013)

Structuring data is crucial to machine processing, and digital files have an inherent structure by virtue of being encoded. But the concept of structure can be extended to higher orders of organization, it is not limited to the ways in which streams of data are segmented, identified, or marked. One of the most powerful forms of organizing knowledge is through the use of classification systems. In digital environments, classification systems are used in several ways—to organize the materials on a site, to organize files within a system, to identify and name digital objects and/or the analogue materials to which they refer. Classification systems impose a secondary order of organization into any field of objects (texts, physical objects, files, images, recordings etc.). We use classification systems to identify and sort, but also, to create models of knowledge. The relation between such models of knowledge and the processes of cognition, particularly with regard to cultural differences and embodied experience, are complex, but they are implied in every act of naming or organizing. No classification system is value neutral, objective, or self-evident, and all classification systems bear within them the ideological imprint of their production.

Exercise: Take this excerpt from Jorge Luis Borges and discuss its underlying order: ”…it is written that animals are divided into: (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush, (1) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.”

Exercise: The philosopher Michel Foucault used that passage to engage in a philosophical reflection on the grounds on which knowledge is possible. He asked ”How do we think equivalence, resemblance, and difference/distinction?” The specificity and granularity of distinctions, points of difference, determine the refinement of a classification system, but also embed assumptions into its structure. Can you give an example?

Classification systems arise from many fields. Carolus Linneaus, the 18th century Swedish botanist, created a system for classifying plants according to their reproductive organs. Many of the relationships he identified and named have been contradicted by evidence of the genetic relations among species, but his system is still used and is useful and its principles provide a uniform system. Classification systems are used in every sphere of human activity, and have been the object of philosophical reflection in every culture and era.

At the most basic level, we need classification systems to name and organize digital files. In addition, we use elaborate systems of naming and classifying that encode information about objects and/or knowledge domains. A collection of music recordings might be ordered by the length of the individual soundtracks, but this would make finding works by a particular artist, composer, or conductor impossible to locate. The creation of idiosyncratic or personal schemes of organization may work for an individual, but if information and knowledge are to be shared, then standard systems of classification are essential.

Exercise: What are standard systems of classification that you are familiar with? (e.g. Signs in supermarket aisles, Netflix categories, Library call numbers, and so on).

Classification systems can be organized through a number of different structuring principles. In the article you read for today, Michael Sperberg-McQueen suggests ways that something (anything) can be assigned to a class (in a classification scheme) according to its properties. While that seems straightforward enough, he goes on to make a number of other observations about the nature of these schemes. What is meant by the distinction he makes between nominal/one-dimensional and N-dimensional approaches? What are the advantages and/or limitations of a hierarchical scheme with increasingly fine distinctions? What is the difference (practically as well as theoretically) between enumerative (explicit) and faceted (system of refinement/attributes) approaches to classification? Why are modular approaches more flexible than straightforward naming systems in a hierarchy? What is the connection and/or distinction between indexing and classifying that he makes?

While much of this might seem abstract, theoretical, and philosophical in its orientation, the issues bear immediately and directly on the creation of any organization and classification scheme you use in a project as well as on the information you encode in metadata (information about your information and/or objects, see Lesson 3A).

Exercise: Here are two well-known but very different approaches to understanding classification and/or exemplifying its principles. Paraphrase, summarize, and discuss the principles involved and make an example of one of these. For what kinds of materials are these suited? For what are they ill-suited?

Shiyali Ranganathan, Indian mathematician and librarian

1 unity, God, world, first in evolution or time, one-dimension, line, solid state, …

2 two dimensions, plane, cones, form, structure, anatomy, morphology, sources of knowledge, physiography, constitution, physical anthropology, …

3 three dimensions, space, cubics, analysis, function, physiology, syntax, method, social anthropology, …

4 heat, pathology, disease, transport, interlinking, synthesis, hybrid, salt, …

5 energy, light, radiation, organic, liquid, water, ocean, foreign land, alien, external, environment, ecology, public controlled plan, emotion, foliage, aesthetics, woman, sex, crime, …

6 dimensions, subtle, mysticism, money, finance, abnormal, phylogeny, evolution, …

7 personality, ontogeny, integrated, holism, value, public finance, …

8 travel, organization, fitness.

Brown and the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen (LOB) corpora, used to describe/sort texts

•  A Press: reportage

•  B Press: editorial

•  C Press: reviews

•  D Religion

•  E Skills, trades, and hobbiesz

•  F Popular lore

•  G Belles lettres, biography, essays

•  H Miscellaneous (government documents, foundation reports, industry reports, college catalogue, industry house organ)

•  J Learned and scientific writings

•  K General fiction

•  L Mystery and detective fiction

•  M Science fiction

•  N Adventure and western fiction

•  P Romance and love story

•  R Humor

Exercise: An archaeologist from an alien (off-world) civilization has arrived at UCLA and is studying the students in order to make a museum exhibition on the home planet. So, each student should take something that is part of his/her usual daily stuff/equipment/baggage and put it on the table (one table for the class). Now, to help the poor alien, you need to come up with a classification system (do this in groups of about 4-6). How will you classify them? Color, size, order, materials, function, value, or other? Keep in mind that you are helping communicate something about UCLA student life in your organization. Now, compare classification systems and their principles.

Imagine everyone goes out of the room and that a huge explosion occurs once the doors are closed. The police are called in and it turns out the explosives were concealed in one of the objects on the table. The forensic team tries to figure out who the owner of a blue knapsack was. Does your classification system help or not? If so, how, and if not, why not? What does that tell you about classification schemes?


Classification systems are models of knowledge. They embody ideological and epistemological assumptions in their organization and structure. Classification systems can be at odds with each other even when they describe the same phenomena (a classification of animal species based on form (morphology) can organize fauna very differently from one based on genetic information).

Required reading for 3A:

Ramesh Srinivasan and Jessica Wallack, “Local-Global: Reconciling Mismatched Ontologies,” HICSS, 2009. (http://rameshsrinivasan.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/18-WallackSrinivasanHICSS.pdf)

Study Question for 3A:

  1. How do Srinivasan/Wallack demonstrate that a database enacts a politics of knowledge?

Copyright © 2014 - All Rights Reserved