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Author: Dale A. Stirling
Title: Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001

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Source: Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out
Dale A. Stirling

vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out

Dale A. Stirling

  • Bowker, Geoffrey and Star, Susan . Sorting Things Out. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1999. $29.95. Cloth. ISBN 0-262-02461-6. 377 pages.

On a personal, professional, or other level, we have all uttered the phrase "I have to sort this out." In essence, the task of sorting things out, or classifying "things", is the subject of this engrossing book. Nearly every aspect of our lives is subject to classification, whether self-directed or externally directed. And while it may seem a simple matter at first blush, the process of classifying "things" is no easy task. Bowker and Star explain theories and applications of classification using several interesting situations–the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (ICD), Nursing Interventions Classification (NIC), race classification in apartheid South Africa, and the classification of viruses and tuberculosis.

The book begins by focusing on four broad methodological themes of infrastructure essential to classification. They include the ubiquity of classifying and standardization–such themes saturate our daily lives; the materiality and texture of classifications and standards–because they are in part physical entities; the indeterminate past which effects classification and standards–we revise based on what was originally surmised; and the practical politics behind classification and standards–we develop classification and standards based on what will or will not be within that system.

Chapters three through five examine the process and use of classification using the World Health Organization's ICD and then focusing on the disease of tuberculosis. The ICD is ideal for examination due to its complexity and the fact that it focuses on a world of issues rather than a smaller or single entity. A key point of the author's is that the ICD reflects the changing nature of how information is stored–from analog to digital devices. In addition, they touch upon continuing debates whether the ICD is a nomenclature–a simple list of names, or a classification that includes causes and arranges them in relation to one another. Focusing further inward, the history of tuberculosis classification is examined and we learn of the difficulty in classifying a single disease that changes over time, that is evidenced in more than one body organ, and has multiple causes.

The sobering reality of classifying humans by race and the practical classification of nursing activities are described in Chapters six and seven. South Africa's system of apartheid used race classification to institute "race order." However, it was one-dimensional and did not, could not, take into account the fantastic variability of human ethnicity. But its impact was devastating and proved that some systems of classifying are immoral and unjust. The work we do, our job titles, are subject to classification by federal agencies, professional organizations, and our peers. The Nursing profession is so touched and the NIC is used as an example of a classification system in-progress.

The remaining three chapters focus on "what happens when the system is used to encode and classify current and past knowledge and store it for future use" (pg. 255). Interweaving their previous examples of the ICD, NCI, and other classification systems the authors focus on the theory and practice of classification and they attempt to explain why this system of structure matters. They also explain why classifications need reclassifying. Because classifications usually represent multiple audiences they need to have a certain ambiguity in order to be open to multiple definitions. Classification systems also tend to become more embedded and inflexible and, they are sometimes not sensitive to exclusions because someone determines categories. In essence, human infallibilities impact classification at every turn.

Classification, or the invisible infrastructures that align much of our lives is complex and intriguing. Bowers and Clark have done an admirable job of sorting out that world. With tongue-in-cheek, in the book's introduction, the authors state, "we would hate to have to assign a Dewey classification number to this book, which straddles sociology, anthropology, history and information systems, and design. Our modest hope is that it will not find its way on the fantasy shelves" (pg. xii). This reviewer thinks that it will never find its way onto the fantasy shelves. However, those wanting to classify fantasy in its many forms may find this book most useful.

Dale Stirling at