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Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Inside Technology Series) [Hardcover]

Geoffrey Bowker
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Nov 1999 Inside Technology Series
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 have in common? All are examples of classification -- the scaffolding of information infrastructures. In Sorting Things Out, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explore the role of categories and standards in shaping the modern world. In a clear and lively style, they investigate a variety of classification systems, including the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, race classification under apartheid in South Africa, and the classification of viruses and of tuberculosis. The authors emphasize the role of invisibility in the process by which classification orders human interaction. They examine how categories are made and kept invisible, and how people can change this invisibility when necessary. They also explore systems of classification as part of the built information environment. Much as an urban historian would review highway permits and zoning decisions to tell a city's story, the authors review archives of classification design to understand how decisions have been made. Sorting Things Out has a moral agenda, for each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. Standards and classifications produce advantage or suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made and how we think about that process are at the moral and political core of this work. The book is an important empirical source for understanding the building of information infrastructures.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press (9 Nov 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262024616
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262024617
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 16 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,488,193 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


" Sorting Things Out is a brilliant dissection of a fundamental facet ofsocial life. Its analytic comparisons shed new light on familiar problemswhich plague all the social sciences." Howard S. Becker , University of California-Santa Barbara

About the Author

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
In an episode of The X-Files, a television show devoted to FBI investigations of the paranormal, federal agents Mulder and Scully investigated a spate of murders of psychics of all stamps: palm readers, astrologers, and so forth. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read for everyone, 11 July 2006
For a classification nerd like me, this is a thoroughly engaging look at how the creation and implementiaton of classification schemes infiltrates and is affected by other social and human factors.

For the lay-reader, Sorting things out is a digestible, although sometimes overly worded introduction to the pernicious nature of categorising and dividing anything and a wake-up call to everyone to give more consideration to the segmentations we create and perpetuate on a daily basis and their wider effects.

Great for IA's - gives a wider view of the importance of labelling and structure and the behaviour of users and agents.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Superb book on ethnography of infrastructure 23 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a fascinating insight into the power and role of classification systems in our lives. An important contribution to science and technology studies, closely related to but not beholden to actor-network theory and a substantial contribution to the theorisation of boundary objects.

The conclusion feels weak and seeks to relate this idea (the boundary object) in a scatter-gun approach to lots of other theoretical frameworks e.g activity theory,community of practice and ANT. In this it feels wooly rather than directed at the end.

Essential reading if you are doing research on or around classification systems or standards of interoperability.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
You can't expect every book to make worthy subjects fascinating (e.g. Freakonomics), but this collection of lengthy (so, so lengthy) descriptions of mostly medical classifications is as dull as they come.

Even for academia, the emphasis of description, the paucity of analysis and the complete absence of any practical guidance is disappointing.

OK it was written in 1999, but there is nothing about the emerging challenges of information classification on the Internet at a time when Yahoo! etc. were offering browsable taxonomies of web sites.
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1 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! Good reference! 4 Dec 2000
It does provide the information what I need for classification. Excellent book!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
131 of 144 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A diamond-studded dungheap 11 April 2001
By "rogerva" - Published on
This tragic book is full of important ideas and significant research, but it's so poorly written you hardly notice. Other reviews kindly describe its style as "academic," but it's just bad writing. It's really shocking that publishers still consider this kind of jargon-filled nonsense acceptable to publish outside of the UMI thesis-reprint circuit. (I write professionally, so I'm not unqualified to make this assertion.)
After making a cogent point with examples and internal references, the authors feel the need to bridge to the next section with this clotted delight:
"Leaking out of the freeze frame, comes the insertion of biography, negotiation, and struggles with a shifting infrastructure of classification and treatment. Turning now to other presentation and classification of tuberculosis by a novelist and a sociologist, we will see the complex dialectic of irrevocably local biography and of standard classification."
Wha? What you mean to say is:
"This tension between personal experience and clinical priorities plays a large part in our current understanding of 'tuberculosis.' To further examine this tension, we will now examine the personal tuberculosis stories of a novelist and a sociologist."
The former kind of self-important, get-it-all-down academic writing is as embarrassing to read as adolescent poetry; they're both driven by a desire to make sure the reader gets every last nuance, and the lack of subtlety makes you want to toss the book across the room.
But the ideas buried within this book...the ideas are so sweet. If only they'd had the sense to ghostwrite this book. It could be a classic.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A real advance in knowledge - inspiring. 6 Jan 2002
By Richard R. Wilk - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Most everything in modern societies rests on rules, standards, and regulations of one kind or another. Where do these endless detailed lists and definitions come from? This book is really unprecedented in the way it takes apart the practice of rule-making and nomenclature, to show us that there is a social and cultural process that lies behind the faceless lists. For me, it was like having the curtain of OZ lifted aside, so I could see for once the messy, petty, and often political way that things are sorted into categories and labeled.
I disagee that the book is badly written. I found it better than the average academic title in studies of technology and society, where thick jargon is the primordial soup. This was one of the most original books about technological systems I have read in years, with wide application in many different fields.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dry and overreaching 11 Mar 2009
By Trevor Burnham - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a quintessentially academic book: Much of the subject matter is absolutely fascinating, particularly the chapter on the fraught process of distinguishing black from white in South Africa under apartheid, where many fell into a mixed-race purgatory unrecognized by the state apparatus; yet most of the authors' analysis is less interesting than they presume. They ask the right questions about the problematic nature of categories, but provide few answers, instead falling back to arching assertions such as "all category systems are moral and political entities," a statement that is so plainly false that the authors don't even bother to justify it.

I would recommend the apartheid section of this book to anyone interested in that chapter of history, but the other examples the authors use (the ICD and the DSMIV) have been explored elsewhere to greater effect.
5.0 out of 5 stars Imporant work on classification and its limitations 16 Nov 2013
By Leslie J. - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A major advance in the study of classification infrastructures -- the definitions of infrastructure, socially salient examples, and discussions of places where classification systems fail are invaluable!
16 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars classification as discourse 7 April 2000
By A Customer - Published on
This is an excellent book on classification as discourse. The authors do an excellent job of discussing this topic in terms of its social, political, and professional history and implications. It is an important title in the cultural studies of information and should be familiar to all concerned with this area of study.
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