Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 2000

Book Reviews

Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences

Elizabeth R. Lorbeer
Collection Development Librarian
Library of Rush University
Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center

Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 377 pp. $ 29.95 (ISBN 0-262-02461-1)
Sorting Things Out is a sociological work that explains how individuals sort perceived characteristics into categories and the consequences of those choices. The authors, George C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, describe how the use of classification influences human behavior towards standardizing the physical world. Classification is the systematic categorization of entities into meaningful content. Selecting how the physical world is categorized is a human element dependent upon one's judgment, yet it also allows us to segregate undesirable qualities.

Bowker and Star analyze social and medical classification schemes to best illustrate how the use of categorizing influences our society. Classifying the physical world has both positive and negative effects. The authors explain the complexities of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as managing how clinicians categorize medical symptoms to gather biostatistics. Unlike taxonomy, there is no official classification system for medicine, so interpreting morbidity and mortality data is a challenge for clinical researchers. The authors conclude that uniform terminology created by clinicians to standardize medical vocabulary is essential if health organizations want to communicate with each other without language barriers or cultural misunderstandings. On the other hand, the authors show categorizing a population based on genealogy can influence an individual's social, economic and political status. During apartheid in South Africa, racial classification played a key role in unjustly segregating the population based on physical characteristics.

A lively debate which Bowker and Star do not fully explore is the opportunity of individuals to categorize themselves. In the millennial census, Americans will be able to choose more than one racial category. Will there be a paradigm shift now that individuals can control their own classification?

The concept of classification is important to academic scholarship and any social scientist is likely to appreciate the content of this study. Unlike most serious academic texts, Bowker and Star write a refreshing discussion. A short introduction accompanies each section, besides many pictorial examples of classification systems and an extensive bibliography and index. Recommended for graduate and medical library collections.


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