The arbitrary nature of classification

As part of our work on the UW Technology Service Catalog we had to agree on a taxonomy into which we can arrange our services. Despite my years in library school, whenever I have to do a classification exercise I am always struck by the ways in which any classification scheme is at some level an arbitrary decision to freeze one particular view while excluding many other possibly equally valid ones.

In preparing for a presentation today I came across a couple of good quotes that show that this is not an original observation.

“Crude classifications and false generalizations are the curse of organized life.”

– George Bernard Shaw

“Inanimate objects are classified scientifically into three major categories – those that don’t work, those that break down and those that get lost.”

– Russell Baker

Those, of course, go along with Duke Ellington’s famous observation that

“There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

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2 thoughts on “The arbitrary nature of classification”

  1. You probably noted this with your son as well, but the little folk are very good at coming up with seemingly random cataloging systems. The other night, Ray was putting away the chess pieces and it was clear to me that he was arranging them in some conscious manner. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was making sure that the friends were all together in the box. I would have gone with “black pieces on the left and white pieces on the right.” I never knew that black knights should go with white rooks because of friendship!

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