Last month, Informatics Professor Geoffrey Bowker attended a unique conference in Paris called “A Book Defying Classification: Sorting Things Out’s Legacy, 20 Years After.” The event, held Dec. 19, 2019, celebrated Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, a book coauthored by Bowker and the late Susan Leigh Star in 1999.
“It felt very strange to be the guest of honor,” admits Bowker. “I am much more used to discussing the work of other people than having mine discussed.” Yet delighted by continued interest in the work and the recent French translation of the book, he delivered the keynote and participated in a roundtable discussion focused on the book and its influence on Science and Technology Studies (STS).
Sorting Things Out is considered a landmark in the fields of STS and sociology in general, though it is lesser known in France. “[The conference] came about through some French colleagues translating [the book],” says Bowker. “While the book is well known in the anglophone world, the organizers felt that it was not sufficiently appreciated in France.” The work is an exploration of the role that categories and standards have played in shaping the modern world, producing both advantage and suffering.
Bowker recognizes that, in recent years, the need for classification systems has been questioned. “The rise of data science has been taken to mean that we don’t need the clunky old systems which put things manually into boxes,” he says, though he argues that this is not the case. “The work of classification continues unabated — and has just as much influence in terms of human potential and suffering — it’s just buried into systems in ways that most users find difficult to access.”
In his keynote at the conference, Bowker discussed the issue of classification as it relates to current issues. “I drew especially on issues of environmental sustainability,” he explains, “arguing that the ways in which we classify the world are enormously consequential for the ways in which we deal with issues such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis.”
— Shani Murray