Christina's LIS Rant
Friday, July 11, 2008
  Positivist vs Pragmatic Classification Theory - yes, that's it
A long strange trip - reading about citations in Ange. Chem. then tried to find reference, then got only to the TOC page, so then started browsing and ran across...

Hjørland's readers digest version of classification theory (thank you! everyone go read the whole thing, it's short and I'll wait):
Hjørland, B.(2008). Core classification theory: a reply to Szostak. JDoc 64, 333-342: DOI:10.1108/00220410810867560 find

I know next to nothing about classification theory (so Mark can help me!) - but I really hate some of Clay Shirky's throw off statements regarding LCSH and why it is broken vis tagging. One of his arguments (actually confusing LC call numbers with LCSH in some places) is that that system fails in describing all of man's knowledge. Of course it does, that's not what it's intended to do.

Anyway - I've lacked the terminology for my point but I think I've found it in this excellent classification theory for dummies - this builds on current understandings of knowledge representation and social studies of knowledge instead of some of the superficial things some people like to pretend are reality:
Any work on any subject is always made from a point of view, which may be uncovered by analysis (e.g. a feminist point of view or a “traditional” or an eclectic point of view). The same is the case with any classification. Ørom (2003) uncovered underlying points of view in major library classification schemes with regard to arts. Although it is often difficult to uncover the underlying point of view, it is meaningless to claim that is does not exists. “Objectivity” and “neutrality” are not attainable and are also problematic goals from the pragmatic point of view. Any given classification will always be a reflection of a certain view or approach to the objects being classified.  

The (false) belief that there exist objective criteria for classification may be termed “empiricism” (or “positivism”), while the belief that classifications are always reflecting a purpose may be termed “pragmatism”.

Classification systems that do not consider the different goals and interest reflected in the literature of a given domain are “positivist”. Two documents may “resemble” each other in many different ways, and there is no neutral ground on which to choose, for example, “a proximity measure”
Hjorland argues that there can be no objective or neutral classification system because we always see things through a lens (my words) and choose words based on our purposes - and this is as it should be. Specialized language develops for a particular use, with particular meaning within a discipline (or other groupings of people).

I'm all about classifying things for a purpose. While there is some beauty in a perfectly described resource (which is not possible), librarians catalog or index resources to provide access -- so that users can answer questions and fill their information need. There is some aboutness there, but it's also: "who can this help? What questions can be answered by this? For what searches should this appear as a result?"

Likewise, when we're doing natural language search in free text (like using a web search engine) we try to find and use words from the domain of the information we're seeking. The other morning I happened (finally) upon the "correct" term the people in the domain use, and all of the sudden, tons of relevant hits when using what looked like a synonym to me retrieved few decent results. (luckily someone had used my terms and the correct terms).

Slight problem with the author's reference to chemistry - read the nano registration thread on Cheminf-L.
You might also be interested in my (Hjorland's) book reviews about 3 famous classification systems:

Hjørland, Birger (2008) Book review of: Eric R. Scerri. The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Knowledge Organization 35(4):pp. 251-255.

Hjørland, Birger (2008) Book review of: Marc Ereshefsky. The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy: A Philosophical Study of Biological Taxonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. . Knowledge Organization 35(4).


Hjørland, Birger (2008) Book review of: Rachel Cooper. Classifying Madness: A Philosophical Examination of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Berlin: Springer, 2005. . Knowledge Organization 35(4):pp. 259-263.


kind regards

Birger Hjørland
Posted on behalf of Eric Scerri"I want to say that not everybody agrees with Hjorland who reviewed my book on the periodic table. Most physical scientists maintain that they are discovering objective systems of classifications. Opponents like Dupre(cited by Hjorland) and Hjorland himself believe that a field like chemistry is somehow biased because it seeks to control Nature. This is plain wrong. Most scientists are interested in getting knowledge for the sake of knowledge not because they want to exert control. If gaining knowledge is a specific aim then so be it but this does not make the
classification systems developed any less objective."
Rejoinder to Eric Scerri

1) Eric wrote: "Most physical scientists maintain that they are discovering objective systems of classifications."

answer: I have not doubted this (although my review may seem close to this).

2) Eric wrote: "Opponents like Dupre(cited by Hjorland) and Hjorland himself believe that a field like chemistry is somehow biased because it seeks to control Nature."

answer: Again this is not a fully correct quote. First, i did not (this time) use the word "bias". My central claim is that concepts and classifications reflects a perspective and a purpose, not that they are "wrong" (bias may be understood as wrong).
Second it is very wrong when Eric write that I believe that fields like chemistry are biased. On the contrary, I explicitly wrote that chemistry is the field in which pragmatic epistemology is most difficult to defend. By implication: I see chemistry as less "biased" compared to almost any other field.
I see hovever, interests, preunderstanding and purposes involved in all human cognition. It's is a human condition.

3) Eric wrote:"Most scientists are interested in getting knowledge for the sake of knowledge not because they want to exert control. "

Answer: Again, I have not said exaxctly what Eric claims. I do not believe that most scientists have a wish to control in the sense of, for example, applied science. But I do believe, for example, that pragmatic criteria may be at play at some deep level when it is decided what make a problem an interesting one.

I have suggested the editor of Knowledge Organization that thes debate should be continued in that journal.

Birger Hjørland
My comment to E.S. in e-mail - I was hoping to polish, but better here than no where:
For one thing - everyone is biased. We all view the world based on our experiences and knowledge. The knowledge organization systems we develop reflect certain biases, and this is not only to be expected, but perfectly fine. I personally don't hold that there is some perfect universal classification that can be discovered - these are technologies of man developed by man to serve a purpose.

There are many different types of control - there is, for example, bibliographic control. People describe things and organize things into a structure for many reasons, among them communication. So there is some form of "control" when classifying things in nature (or existing for very short periods of time at high energy in a lab).

Also, in STS, there's the whole idea of the purpose of a lab for control (hold x constant while varying y or whatever)

In any case, I haven't read either his review or your book, so I really can't speak to that.
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This is my blog on library and information science. I'm into Sci/Tech libraries, special libraries, personal information management, sci/tech scholarly comms.... My name is Christina Pikas and I'm a librarian in a physics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering library. I'm also a doctoral student at Maryland. Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or CLIS. You may reach me via e-mail at cpikas {at} gmail {dot} com.

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Christina Kirk Pikas

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