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1995 | Draft

Category Ecosystems


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It is useful to distinguish between emphases in the use of categories in terms of:

For the unsuspecting, each of these offers particular kinds of trap in that the categories emphasized are readily treated as a "reality". It is of course possible to move from one approach to another, reducing the constraints imposed by any one of them. Use of alternative search engines on Internet, or of the many menus of categories offered on home-pages, is an example.

But, whether taken in apparent isolation, or as part of a system, categories imply an often unrecognized challenge to those who use them. This may be usefully clarified by using an optical lens as a metaphoric description of a category. Within this metaphor, individuals (and institutions) are visually challenged to the point of blindness unless they make use of a category to provide conceptual focus through which to view and comprehend the world. But the question is how to select the category to use and the adequacy of the category that is selected. As with the poorly sighted, people can make do with extremely inadequate corrective lenses (even the bottom of a bottle may be used!). Either vanity or economics may lead to tolerance of a fuzzy perception of the world -- people cannot repeatedly afford to invest in acquisition of the newest and sharpest category definitions through refresher courses and retraining programmes. People may choose not to switch between lenses for close-up and distant viewing; dark glasses may be worn as a fashion accessory even at night. And it may be virtually impossible to correct for some inherent conceptual deficiencies, as illustrated by the visual challenge for the colour blind.

The unwary may also be easily led to believe that the world of categories is inherently stable if not static. Ways in which this is less than true include:

Underlying these dynamic processes is a tendency for people and groups to "play" with categories -- possibly seen as a pursuit that requires no justification. Such play, as game-playing, usually involves elements of deception. This may be for purposes of innocent humour, to distinguish the player in academic, literary or other circles, or as a part of a complex covert exercise in disinformation (involving propaganda and image-building, whether for political, economic or religious purposes).

It is possible to assume that any focus on "categories" is so abstract as to be of little relevance in practice. To do so is to lose sight of the many ways in which categories are used to structure and manipulate social reality -- usually to the advantage of the privileged. The apartheid era categories of "white" and "non-white" are an example. The arguments for political correctness are another. Often it is as much a case of the excluded categories in any discourse as of those that are included. It should not be forgotten that the many ongoing religious conflicts have their origin in differences over categories and their interpretation.

In the following paragraphs the concern is neither with particular content nor with particular category systems, but rather with the ways in which both content and pattern can be used in a repertoire articulating interaction and dialogue. The concern is both with deliberate and inadvertent misuse, as well as with coming to an understanding of richer and more appropriate modes of dialogue -- and their implication for future knowledge organization.

Consider a space of discourse, whether a discourse community, a roundtable or some other context. Participants are each free to place in this space various categories and may well order them through some category system. If the space is understood to be convexly curved (a table top such that items on it tend to roll off the edge), this helps to understand how only by participants constantly pushing categories back into the middle is it possible to avoid them being gradually forgotten (and falling out of the discourse space). Continuous mapping of the space reduces this tendency, but some discourse spaces are so curved that it is virtually impossible to prevent categories from being rapidly forgotten.

Categories are of course positioned by participants to compete most effectively for collective attention. But participants, like gardeners, may be quite cold-blooded in discarding particular categories in favour of others with greater chance of success. Rather than discard them, they may be reframed ("pruned") to improve their status -- although such reframing tends to bear more resemblance to the software technique of "morphing" images into forms that bear little apparent relationship to their initial form. Skilled participants will not necessarily rely on a few major categories, rather they may use strategies typical of the game of go to position advantageously many minor categories.

The rich interplay of categories in a space of discourse can perhaps best be compared to the many forms of interplay within and between species in a coral reef.

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