The power of abstraction and classification: changing practices and varied consequences
Our lives are henged round with systems of classification, limned by standard formats, prescriptions and objects.… yet few see them [classification systems and standards] as artefacts embodying moral and aesthetic choices that in turn craft people’s identities, aspirations, and dignity. 1
The Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity (ccrri) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is dedicated to facilitating the study of race thinking and changing identities so as to improve understanding of, and stimulate public dialogue about, the various bases for perceptions of human diversity and difference. It aims to use South Africa as a complex, multi-layered backdrop to study and suggest practical solutions to local and global issues of race and identity. The ultimate goal is to contribute towards social justice and to confirm and explore that which humans share, in this country and elsewhere. In order to develop an area of scholarly investigation that has wide-reaching societal implications in South Africa and internationally, the ccrri is drawing together a group of engaged national and international scholars for a three-day symposium. The gathering will reflect on the current state of scholarship on the practices of classification in general and race classification specifically, consider work on race thinking and its consequences, and forge a new international and inter-disciplinary research agenda to be pursued collaboratively. In societies that continue to be beset by large-scale conflict driven by racism, xenophobia, sexism, and other forms of intolerance and bigotry, there is a clear need to focus attention on classification and its pervasive impact on the social world.
Rationale for the symposium
The year 2007 marked the tercentenary of the birth of Linnaeus and the ‘Linnaean era…characterized by an ambition to catalogue, organise and give names to the whole natural world’.2 The consequences of these efforts are visible in the innumerable classification systems that permeate our lives – from the informal, banal ordering of our computer files and CD collections to the official classification of plants, animals, diseases, and so forth. Although seemingly objective, the act of classification involves more than a description or ordering of the world as it is found. It is often a subjective process, based on decisions about criteria for inclusion and exclusion that result in apparently objective knowledge.
Classification systems are often afforded public legitimacy and visibility because they are created and endorsed by an official body or institution – such as standard setting authorities and government bureaucracies – but can equally become internalised, common sense knowledge that is popularly assumed to reflect the world as it exists. The ‘ambition to catalogue, organise and give names’ has had disastrous consequences when it has been extended to human beings, a point argued eloquently by Zygmunt Bauman: Indeed: abstraction is one of the modern mind’s principal powers. When applied to humans, that power means effacing the face: whatever marks remain of the face that serve as badges of membership, the signs of belonging to a category, and the fate meted out to the owner of the face is nothing more yet nothing less either than the treatment reserved for the category of the which the owner of the face is but a specimen.3 Classification often obliterates the individual, and disguises the relationship between the individual and the category to which they have been assigned and the social process of assignment. Furthermore, the role that power plays in the social construction of knowledge,4 especially as it applies to knowledge creation through classification, is often hidden – who holds the power of definition, and who is made powerless; what is made visible and what obfuscated through the act of classification?5
Historically, numerous examples can be cited of the devastating consequences of human classification, such as the obvious cases of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Currently race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class and other means of classifying continue to hold social consequences. But if classification is a way through which humans make sense of the world, and if we therefore cannot ever refrain from classifying, it becomes imperative critically to study the practice and systems of classification and the effects that they have in the world. Purpose of the symposium Motivated by a concern for the consequences of taxonomy and labelling, gaps in research on the purpose, practice and power of classificatory systems, and the need for more comparative studies, the aim of the proposed symposium is to discuss, facilitate and initiate a range of inter-disciplinary research projects under the umbrella theme of ‘classification’, especially as it relates to human classification and race.
The symposium will kick-start this process, first, by reviewing different disciplinary approaches to classification and what work already exists and is being conducted in the field; and then by identifying new studies to be conducted collaboratively across disciplines, institutions and countries. Accordingly, the symposium will bring together local and international scholars from a range of disciplines, both to discuss classification in the abstract and to generate new collaborative research projects that will make sense of classificatory practices and their potential and actual consequences, globally and in post-apartheid South Africa.
Although by no means exclusive, themes for new collaborative work might include explorations of the relationships between race and/or other identifiers – including, but not limited to, gender, class, age and religion – and redress; censuses; education; health, medicine and genetics; and xenophobia. Of equal interest is the practices and agents of classification; race in religion; and exploring when classification is actually useful and under what conditions. Importantly, especially as existing orderings of the social world so easily become the common sense of the present, any work must deliberately seek and explore new ways of sense making, community formation and social cohesion.
Duration, themes and outputs
Proceedings will take place over three days, with a public event held the evening before, and will cohere around the following key themes: 1st February (Evening) – Open/ public event: classification, legislation and the Constitutional ideal of non-racialism 2nd February (Day 1) – The power of abstraction and classification: changing practices and varied consequences (theoretical and applied perspectives on human classification). The first day provides an introduction to the overall themes of the symposium. By establishing the agenda, considering the broad implications and posing overarching questions, the proceeding debate and discussion will be contextualised and framed. 3rd February (Day 2) – Systems of classification and implications for humans (current research on classification, race and identity: reports or reflections on existing studies or positions from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and contexts).
The first two sessions consider the manner in which systems of classification are underpinned by humans, and their logics, and the corresponding impacts on access to information, resources, services and environmental justice. The afternoon sessions focus on the banality of classification and its penetration into all facets of daily life. The discussion moves from the macro scales of sense-making and space to the site of the body itself which becomes a canvass for classifications. 4th February (Day 3) – Bureaucrats, consequences and continuing to classify (an expanded research agenda for the future: ideas for new, applied studies on race classification in a variety of contexts). Continuing from the previous day’s discussions, the first session begins by examining state forms of classification and implications for multiculturalism.
The second session considers the consequences of thinking in categories for society. These might be positive, but at their most negative include instances of violence, xenophobia and genocide. Deliberations continue with a discussion of the tensions between continued forms of classification (racial redress policies: affirmative action; and in South Africa black economic empowerment) and alternatives. The symposium thus concludes with a focus on the need for ‘utopian’ thinking, and offers a point to reflect on what the symposium has illustrated and suggested.
The primary ‘output’ of the symposium will be a fully conceptualised intellectual project that will, in turn, shape and provide overall coherence to a number of smaller research projects to be pursued jointly by symposium participants and other research partners over the next number of years. Open lectures and seminars will be scheduled to run alongside the symposium.
This symposium is now an ISSC 2012 World Social Science Forum Lead-Up Event. Funding already received from the Maurice Webb Trust and the National Research Foundation (NRF) is gratefully acknowledged.
- Bowker, G. C. and Star, S. L. 1999, Sorting Things Out – Classification and Its Consequences, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, pages 1,4.
- See http://www.linnaeus2007.se.
- Bauman, Z. 2000, Modernity and the Holocaust, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, page 227.
- Goldblatt, D. 2000, Knowledge and the Social Sciences: Theory, Method, Practice, London and New York: Routledge.
- Bowker and Star 1999.