Salience and Taxonomy Change

Every now and then the principles on which a taxonomy is organised will change fundamentally, because there us a new way of working. This is happening at the moment with solid cancers, which are currently classified by the parts of the body in which they originate. However, oncologists now believe that a biochemical classification makes more sense, because similar biochemical mechanisms underlie cancers that can appear in various parts of the body, and understanding the mechanism can improve detection, prognosis and treatment. The salient organising principle is no longer location, but mechanism. It’s not that a classification by location is wrong, it’s just not especially useful any more. For more, read Science Magazine’s latest article on “Taxonomy of Tumours”.

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People interested in this post will also be interested in a book called “Sorting things out” by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star. Its a detailed look at the sociology of classification and the impact it has on society. In particular the way classification works its way into the infrastructure of society and comes to invisibly influence everything we do. It has a few extended examples of this woven throughout the book and one of these is the historical development of the International Classification of Diseases. It talks about the how the ICD influences everying from insurance to pharmaceuticals and in particular how it it resistant to change so as to ensure historical compatibility, which is its prime purpose. Very interesting reading and it then goes into a detailed look at Turbuculosis. Other cases are just as stimulating, such as the historical development of Apartheid.
Throughout all of this the authors develop a sociological model of classification - “to classify is human” they say and we do it all day long starting with choosing which cloths we wear in the morning (clean vs dirty, suitable for the days activities vs not) and when we get to work (which emails are important and which are not). It all gets woven together into a model of how classification underpins boundary infrastructure, which underpins the way we all relate to each other.
Best regards
Tim Kannegieter

Posted on November 11, 2009 at 02:34 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Absolutely, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in knowledge organisation, and it also unpicks a number of important issues around the “politics” of KM. Their treatment of “boundary objects” and the notion of information infrastructure are both very important and of wider significance than just taxonomies. Thanks for highlighting this Tim.

Posted on November 11, 2009 at 04:58 AM | Comment permalink

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