Books about the classifying impulse
January 27, 2014 6:52 PM   Subscribe

I suspect there must be quite a number of books dealing with our need to classify things…

but I can only think of is Perec's Thoughts of Sorts. Are there any other non-technical books about this? Novels, essays, non-fiction, short stories are welcome. What I do not want are technical books discussing how to categorize X thing for a narrow discipline (kinds of acne scars, kinds of plants, etc.)…

I mean, it is something so deeply engrained that there must be a ton of things about this that are also readable, literary, accessible and smart… right?

Other media (films, tv shows, documentaries) are also welcome. Thanks in advance…
posted by MrMisterio to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe sort of previously?
posted by wintersweet at 7:03 PM on January 27, 2014

Wow, I searched previous questions and didn't find that, wintersweet. Thanks. That's a great thread but I was hoping for something more abstract and maybe philosophical about this whole thing… or some novels and short stories about these classifying urges…
posted by MrMisterio at 7:15 PM on January 27, 2014

There are also a couple things on Goodreads if you search for taxonomy, e.g. The Naming of Names. I agree that it's an interesting topic and I hope some other people have better suggestions.
posted by wintersweet at 7:22 PM on January 27, 2014

There's a thread that runs throughout the history of anthropology that's all to do with how people categorize things, probably starting around the observation that kinship relations were classified differently in different societies (Lewis Henry Morgan), that categories made a difference to how people thought about society and the person (Durkheim and Mauss), that binary categories might structure all kinds of things in how people think and act (Lévi-Strauss), that 'native' taxonomies by themselves revealed substantive local knowledge about the world (Goodenough, Frake, Spradley, and ethnoscience generally), and so on.

But among more recent texts you might actually want to have a look at, I suggest Foucault's The Order of Things (see the preface and chapter five in particular), Goody's The Domestication of the Savage Mind (for its discussions of literacy and looking at whole lists/tables of things at once), and Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (for a more or less modern view of categorization as an act of cognition).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:32 PM on January 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The professor and the madman," perhaps?
posted by Good Brain at 8:54 PM on January 27, 2014

A few years ago, Umberto Eco curated an exhibit at the Louvre called "The Infinity of Lists", about the evolution of lists in human history and how lists and categorization are a way of creating culture and making sense of the infinite. Much of the exhibit made its way into his The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, which been on my to-buy list for a while. In this interview with Der Spiegel, he talks a bit about the ideas of the exhibit/book.
posted by bassooner at 8:58 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in some of Eleanor Rosch's articles and edited books. They do lean a little technical on the psychological side but they can be enjoyable to read if you find the topic interesting (I did, and wound up doing my master's thesis on prototypes of people on college campuses).
posted by Fuego at 9:21 PM on January 27, 2014

The philosophers' debate about natural kinds would speak to this. (The idea is that some classifications correspond to divisions in nature, while others do not. But if and where this is so is debatable.)

(The bibliography at the end of the wikipedia entry on natural kinds looks pretty apposite and nifty. Includes mostly shorter writings like John Dupré's article In Defence of Classification and from Robert Sokal, Classification: Purposes, Principles, Progress, Prospects, along with other texts on classification instincts in race, music, and sexuality.

None of which will be a breezy read, probably. But if you want 'philosophical', at some point you'd do well to try actual philosophy.)
posted by bertran at 9:42 PM on January 27, 2014

Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Inside Technology)
Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

I found this to be a decent generalist type read on the subject.

Also, Nth-ing the Order of Things by Foucault for a step up on the topic. (The Foucault was paired with some Perec when this subject was addressed in a class for school a couple of years ago).
posted by safetyfork at 5:24 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon is a great easy read about flora/fauna taxonomy and our emotional attachments with same.

Nthing Sorting Things Out, also.
posted by magdalemon at 6:16 AM on January 28, 2014

I have not read it yet, but Glut by Alex Wright might fit the bill
posted by neutralmojo at 8:57 AM on January 29, 2014

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