Trying to please everyone

September 18, 2009

One of the enduring attractions of our profession (that’s information management, knowledge management, records management, information science, knowledge organization – whatever you want to call it) for me, is that it impacts upon everything. Yes, literally, everything. When we build a taxonomy, relate descriptors in a thesaurus or assign keywords, we are mediators among a multiplicity of points-of-view, creeds and catechisms. But while that heterogeneity, that multicultural dimension, is often the root of our sense of fulfilment, contention can lie just below the surface.

To focus on one problem in particular, how can we know whether a taxonomy we build is ‘true’ – or perhaps ‘authoritative’? Is there such a thing as ‘universal truth’? Do we all see things the same way? Or, to put it another way, how do we distinguish between – and accommodate – the subjective and the objective?

For instance, when we build a taxonomy, or a navigation scheme for a web site, how can we capture the viewpoint of the majority, whilst also allowing for the individual – even idiosyncratic – point-of-view? Thus do philosophy and politics enter an otherwise cosy world.

It’s a problem addressed recently by Fran Alexander of the Department of Information Studies, University College London, who mounted a highly stimulating poster at ISKO UK’s conference on 22-23 June 2009. The poster provides an interesting first-sight of the complex nexus among business sector objectives, attendant socio-economic-environmental constraints, and the influence exerted by the relative subjectivity/objectivity of the domain.

The degree to which a conceptual framework is held in common, the coherence of interpretation of that framework among its stakeholders, and the terminological system designed to represent it, all depend upon a process of intersubjective creation of shared meaning within a defined socio-cultural context. In other words, politics. Taxonomy is therefore partly political, partly individual and partly pragmatic.

Melville Dewey deserves his place in the history of KO for his balanced accommodation of all three dimensions at the time he devised the DDC. But we’re over 130 years further on now, and the mix of political, personal and practical elements required to reflect current understanding of the world (or organization) has changed immensely. Dewey’s innocent assumptions drawn from the Weltanschauung of his time, appear at least inappropriate, sometimes biased and often incorrect in a 21st century context.

In a rather adept (and certainly persuasive) essay in the latest issue of Knowledge Organization*, Richard Davies asks ‘Should Philosophy Books Be Treated As Fiction?’. He makes the point that, in the terms used here, the intersubjective creation of meaning in the domain of philosophy has barely occurred; rather the opposite in fact, each philosopher seeming bent upon distinguishing his/her approach from predecessors. This occurs, although to a lesser degree, in most other domains as well, amongst them the 15 or so covered by Fran Alexander’s research.

Fran’s conclusion is that “The mediation of subjectivity/objectivity is becoming increasingly relevant in a ‘user-centric’ age.”. So, an awareness of the degree of ‘objectivity’ of a taxonomy project is becoming vital to its functional effectiveness, and this is inevitably governed to some extent by political considerations and the degree to which the role of the taxonomist is perceived to have a political dimension by those who provide the support for such projects.

This is an interesting piece of research and I urge you to take closer look at Fran’s poster, and to allow it to stimulate your own thoughts on the issues involved.

* Davies, Richard. Should Philosophy Books Be Treated As Fiction? Knowledge Organization, 36(2/3), 121-129.




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