It may look boring, but in another way it's a most worthwhile challenge.

Following on from my last entry about consolidation, the topic of categorisation drew me in. I say ‘categorization’ because Wikipedia has categories, it has a page about categorization, and blogging platforms often have a side-bar for ‘categories’. I'm not concerned with the word itself. Themes; topics; subjects; classes. Whatever plays the role of sorting and classifying.

Now I'm aware that categorization under any name does sound boring and tedious. One aspect of boredom is having to do something that you don't want to do, that you don't find exciting. In my case, like categorising things to keep and things to get rid of. Probably we all know the frustration of sorting things into someone else's categories. How can I know which things you count as ‘X’ and which things as ‘Y’? And if I ask you about something that I think might be X or Y, I don't want to hear that it should be obvious, or that I've been told before and I should remember.

Some things, though, really do have natural categories – one of the pleasant things about mathematics or science at a basic level. In those cases, the challenge is more like letting go of my idiosyncratic categories simply based on my limited experience. And so for all straightforward or (just) ‘complicated’ things.

But when we move to a ‘complex’ realm,1 – and most of human interpersonal life is complex – we all have our own personal ways of categorising things, and those ways often differ, for many reasons. I may think that my classification scheme is self-evident, but really, it is only self-evident to me, so expecting you to ‘get’ it easily is a mistake, based on the mistaken assumption that you naturally think and classify as I do.

So, classifying my writings, what's that like? That's the end point of the consolidation of themes from my writing that I mentioned yesterday. If not downright impossible, it is at very least complex. Witness that many people don't even bother giving categories to their blog posts, and when they do, they look pretty idiosyncratic. All well and good, if I were just classifying for my own benefit, it wouldn't matter that the categories don't make sense to anyone else. But that is not my goal at all. I really want to classify things in a way that makes sense to other people as well.

A similar challenge is likely to confront any group of people trying to create a knowledge commons out of disparate sources. Even if the classification scheme of each resource is not explicit, it is likely to be there implicitly, simply from the fact of it being organised by one person, or a small group of people enculturated into similar enough ways of thinking. So my great interest in knowledge commons inevitably means that I'm absolutely committed to this. No way out.

No discussion of these matters would be honestly complete without mentioning the apparently everlasting tension between those who support common taxonomies and those who support a ‘folksonomy’ approach to ad hoc classification. I'm giving acknowledgement to the fact that these issues have been alive, and unresolved, since before the term was coined in 2004.

But, back to my own challenge. It's not just that I want my categories to make sense to other people: I also want my categories to make sense to me at a later date, when in some senses I will not be exactly the same person. And for knowledge commons, even where my own categories are not involved, I want different people to relate to each other's categories.

So here I am, with a difficult, challenging but potentially creative task. One step on in Wikipedia from ‘folksonomy’ is ‘folk taxonomy’. Reading that, I can readily see that folk taxonomies have been (and may still be) useful social constructs, and we can see them as operating in the context of Kegan's 3rd order consciousness. Staying with Kegan, a folksonomy (as usually thought of) looks like a 4th order phenomenon, going very naturally along with self-authorship. “These are my categories,” we can imagine someone saying “and I reject the traditional ones because they don't work for me.” A classic 4th order stance.

But it will surprise no one who knows me well to hear that what I'm looking for is an approach to classification that fits into a 5th order context, where I want to be living and working. Superficially, the idea of a fluid categorisation seems like a contradiction in terms. If it's fluid, how can you know what is classified as what? But what I see – with no little trepidation, as it looks very challenging – is the possibility, the potential, of cross-linking different classification schemes in a way that allows us to be fluid in our choice of category scheme, but still communicating meaning to someone using other category schemes.

And, even in principle, I can't do that by myself. That's one reason I am such a strong adherent to a collective approach to these matters.

1: When writing of complicated and complex, I'm using the terms similarly to Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework.

Topics: Complex psychology; Journal writing; Knowledge commons;

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