I have been somewhat remiss in my writing of late. I will be attempting to redress this fact over the next little bit.
First, I would like to recommend people watch the three videos available at http://www.agjohnson.us/audiovideo/ by Dr. Johnson. I am not going to take the time to summarize them here, beyond stating that they are remarkably uncomfortable things to watch, and that is precisely the reason people need to watch them. They will shake up your world view a great deal, particularly if you are an angry old white guy like myself, by pointing out just how much we take for granted in our society, and how much we don’t want to be awakened to this fact.
The primary purpose of this particular post is to do a fast examination of the introduction to “Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences” by G. Bowker and S. Star. This initial section, titled “Introduction: To Classify is Human” provides an examination of the rational behind why we tend to categorize individuals. This is information that can be fundamental if one is to examine not just the act of categorization, but the motives and purposes.
To quickly summarize: The gist of this section is that as a species we place the individual into categories because of a need to know which rule set applies at what times. We have created a complex compilation of rule sets to deal with a variety of situations from the grounds of common understanding. When first we encounter an individual we rely on set categories to know how to respond to the individual. Is the individual catagorized as a child? We know not to defer to that person’s instructions, but to be the instructor. Is the person a police official? We know to accept the person’s authority.
Without these categorizations we would be completely at sea in terms of knowing how to interact. We would enter every situation with an extreme risk of causing offense or failing to successfully complete the purpose of the interaction. We rely on these categorizations to provide smooth social relationships, and in fact to allow society to begin with.
The problem is that this need can quickly become pathological. Categorization can quickly become a limiter, rather than a bolstering force. When we use categories to push people into predefined roles and do not permit people to move past them then we subjugate them. Examples are not hard to find. When the category “woman” means “restricted to motherhood as work” we thus subjugate women, forcing them out of equal chance to enter the work force. Far more subtly, when the category “woman” quietly includes the assumption “will sacrifice a career for motherhood” then we will allow them to enter the work force, but will assume they should not be invested in as deeply owing to a reduced return on the investment. This, then, becomes a pathological categorization.
By examining the purposes of categorization, we can begin to understand the complexities of dealing with these sorts of issues. Simply stating “categories should not exist” is to fail to appreciate the reason they do, the purpose they serve, and to recognize the inevitability of their creation. Rather, by understanding these things we can begin to recognize the potential for them to become pathological and to address societal creation of the categories productively by altering the creation process to being more equitable.