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Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  321 ratings  ·  31 reviews
A revealing and surprising look at how classification systems can shape both worldviews and social interactions.What do a seventeenth-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, colored, or black; and the separation of machine- from hand-washables ha ...more
Paperback, 392 pages
Published August 28th 2000 by MIT Press (first published 1999)
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Jul 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ethnomethodology
This book is critical reading for anyone involved in any type of standardization, classification, or data modeling work. We are moving toward a world where systems are more inter-connected than ever, and it is classifications (and standards) that form the infrastructure for these systems. Classifications are ubiquitous in the world around us and tend to implicitly shape the way we view our world.

Key points that this book expands on in detail include:

- Classification systems provide the mechanism
Mar 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Assigning things, people, or their actions to categories is a ubiquitous part of work in the modern, bureaucratic world. Categories in this sense arise from work and from other kinds of organized activity, including the conflicts over meaning that occur when multiple groups fight over the nature of a classification systems and its categories.

The authors focus on classification of diseases for much of the book, also touching on race, work practices, and boundaries within and surrounding classific
Sarah Inman
Oct 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star make information infrastructure exciting! They set out to answer what goes into making things seem effortless, who does this work, and what happens to the cases that do not fit? First, they introduce us to their terminology defining classification as “a set of boxes into which things can be put to then do some kind of work” (10) and standardization as “agreed-upon rules for the production of objects…spanning more than one community of p ...more
C. Quabela
Mar 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This was a truly eye-opening read. One does not think that you are going to be finding a particularly engaging read when it comes to classification, and at some points it honestly isn't. But Bowker and Star do address the fact that their method at bottom is one that can be at time down right boring. The book picks up though in its analyses from the ICD to tuberculosis lit. reviews and cultural classifications of apartheid in a way that makes it that you have to feel on a personal level the effec ...more
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Great book. Read it as part of "book club" course called New Perspectives on Organizing at UC Berkeley School of Information. Really important considerations about embedded values in infrastructure, time as a constraint on organizing systems, and offers many important examples of how information systems and classification causes either suffering or advantage, depending on who is being classified. Especially appreciated the perspective that we shouldn't practice classification without recognizing ...more
Jan D
Oct 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: anthropology
The book was very interesting, but hard to read. It is very much an academic work which reads like other social science journal publications (Indeed, some sections follow articles the authors have published very closely). A discipline has its own language, that’s fine, but be aware what you get into.

The content and the ideas are fascinating as classification is explored based on several cases around health, race and profession. The authors develop concepts to make sense of the discussions and d
Allison Roy
Jul 25, 2019 rated it liked it
So I am fascinated with how brains sort and distinguish...well, anything. This book went a bit beyond the single brain but into ways multiple humans sort things to create a working order.

A lot of this book read like stereo instructions (please know that reference) but some was pretty interesting. Some main focuses were health, tuberculosis, the apartheid ( holy fucking shit I barely knew anything about the apartheid and what I read blew my mind and now I need to know more depressing history), n
Glyn Powell
A partial history of ticking boxes and pigeon holing people and phenomena. Half of this book deals with the constantly changing and ever more complicated medical and nursing classifications. This helps explain why people who have been diagnosed as terminally ill can be re-classified as 'fit for work' by social services. Tells how classification of early AIDS sufferers was tailored to suit insurers and politicians.
The second half explains why South Africa's evil policy of Apartheid did so much h
Apr 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: synaps-best-of
This dense volume tackles the delicate question posed by scientific nomenclatures, as applied to diseases, medical acts, and causes of death. Even in technical fields, naming systems turn out to be surprisingly ad hoc, reflecting and reinforcing an era’s inherent biases.
Travis Wagner
May 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you classify things in any capacity in your life you MUST read this.
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A classic of information studies!
Sigfried Gold
Oct 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Other reviews said what needs to be said. This is the book that allows us to think about information infrastructure and how it scaffolds the world we live in.
The preface focuses largely on the nursing classification book/system which is the main object under consideration. Much of Sorting Things Out, however, is enjoyably abstract, i.e. introducing braided identity, a term for a concept complementary to linguistics' "code-switching"(306); "To communicate information in the aggregate, we must first classify"(68). Ultimately infrastructure is central:

"Large information systems such as the Internet or global databases carry with them a politics of voice
Jan 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, but dense. I had this book assigned for a class, and didn't read more than I had to. This is because, even though every chapter raises truly interesting and valuable points, it's probably one of the densest books I've ever read - and I was a philosophy major in undergrad. The diversity of topics covered in this book are commendable, from an analysis of classification of TB patients to an analysis of classification of race in apartheid South Africa. The problem is that Bowker & Star ...more
Eric B. Kennedy
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
It's a real tossup between "Standards" (see recent review) and this book for the category of 'best introduction to STS thinking about classification'. Both are accessibly written, full of interesting examples, and approachable for most educated readers.

In "Sorting Things Out," the thesis is familiar: classification schemes have significant roles in shaping the world, how we make sense of it, and how we think and act. The authors draw on the examples of disease classification, tuberculosis, race,
Oct 25, 2008 rated it liked it
Finally got through this. There were some really great ideas and passages here, and there were some thick, unreadably opaque sections, of the sort in which all the words in the sentence are clearly English, but all of them have been redefined by other academics so as to make the sentences utterly incomprehensible. If you can make it through (or around) that, however, there's some really good thinking about the role classification plays in our professional and personal lives, and the kind of choi ...more
Feb 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Plea to maintain open spaces, a task of fundamental ethical and political importance. As Michaels Serres argues, the sciences are very good at what they do and the task of the philosopher is to keep open and explore the spaces that otherwise would be left dark and unvisited because of their very success, since new forms of knowledge might arise out of these spaces.

Along similar lines, this book explores what is left dark by our current classifications, ultimately allowing for an ecosystem of li
Jul 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library-science
Classification is often complicated and messy. Bowker and Leigh explore how people develop classifications and then how those classifications change lives. I found the chapter on the classification of race during South Africa's apartheid especially intersting.

I am hoping to remember the differences between implicit classification (grouping similar object intuitively) and Aristotelian classification (using yes/no questions to definatively determine catagories).
Theresa Macphail
Feb 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
An intricate look at classification, focusing on ICD. It's easy to get bogged down in the details with this book, but the details are part of the intricate argument. As a scholar working on infectious disease, info systems, and public health, this is a valuable way to start thinking about how categories are put into practice, and the friction that happens as people try to shoehorn things that don't exactly "fit" into ready-made boxes.
Jun 19, 2007 marked it as to-read
This has been sitting on my shelf ever since graduating from library school. I promised myself I would be a good reader and a better librarian and keep up with classification theory....instead, i put it on the shelf because it looks nice there. Forgot my book at home today and started reading it (again) during lunch. Reminded me of why I went to library school.
Lilly Irani
Jun 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
The best book at the intersection of feminist science studies, STS, and design (in the Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Information Studies modes) I've read. A must if you're interested in the politics of technologies and systems of knowledge (e.g. racial categories, medical categories). Highly readable -- not just for grad students.
Sean Cohmer
Jul 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Sorting seems to be something that we just do. We organize the world in ways that make sense... or do we? This happens to be what I am up to with my Masters thesis, in part, but this book makes sense for those wanting to get some clarity on the difference between "nomenclature", "classification", and "standardization"... not to mention how each has looping and feedback-like effects on the other.
Nov 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
Interesting perspective on how and why we categorize/classify our world. Give a history of several major classification efforts: International Classification of Diseases (ICD), Race classifications during the Apartheid era, etc.
Jan 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
A badly written but important book
Oct 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: library types
Such a dry, academic, theoretical read. I was so glad when I finished it!
Jun 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
There are things we take for granted until we are shown explicitly why it is so. This book is one such example, in the era of Web 2.0 and folksonomy.
Jun 30, 2015 marked it as to-read
Recommended by danah boyd at #alaac15
Petter Wolff
Apr 23, 2016 marked it as stopped-reading
För mycket kuriosa för min smak. Too many curiosities (not really sure about that English term), lack of analysis for my taste. Abandoning.
TK Keanini
Oct 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ethnomethodology
This is a great book and it goes along with her other book 'Standards and their Stories'.
Sep 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Great material, marred by clunky writing & editing. ...more
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Geof Bowker is a professor and faculty member at the University of California, Irvine.

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“The two basic problems for any overarching classification scheme in it rapidly changing and complex field call be described as follows. First, any classificatory decision made now might by its nature block off valuable future developments.” 1 likes
“Second, different designers of the classification system have different needs, and the shifting ecology of relationships among the disciplines using the classification will necessarily be reflected in the scheme itself.” 1 likes
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