How biodiversity classification, with its ranking of species, has social and political implications as well as implications for the field of information studies.
The idea that species live in nature as pure and clear-cut named individuals is a fiction, as scientists well know. According to Robert D. Montoya, classifications are powerful mechanisms and we must better attend to the machinations of power inherent in them, as well as to how the effects of this power proliferate beyond the boundaries of their original intent. We must acknowledge the many ways our classifications are implicated in environmental, ecological, and social justice work – and information specialists must play a role in updating our notions of what it means to classify.
In Power of Position, Montoya shows how classifications are systems that relate one entity with other entities, requiring those who construct a system to value an entity's relative importance – by way of its position – within a system of other entities. These practices, says Montoya, are important ways of constituting and exerting power. Classification also has very real-world consequences. An animal classified as protected and endangered, for example, is protected by law. Montoya also discusses the Catalogue of Life, a new kind of composite classification that reconciles many local ("traditional") taxonomies, forming a unified taxonomic backbone structure for organizing biological data. Finally, he shows how the theories of information studies are applicable to realms far beyond those of biological classification.
Robert D. Montoya is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Studies in the School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles; Director of UCLA's California Rare Book School; and Director of UCLA's Library, Ethics, and Justice Lab.
"Robert Montoya is one of the most important voices to ever articulate the global magnitude of the power of classification systems. In this epoch of algorithmic sorting, Power of Position will be a definitive work that deepens our understanding of the global stakes of technical systems."
– Safiya U. Noble, Professor, UCLA; author of Algorithms of Oppression
"An inspired and convincing argument that the processes and outcomes of aggregating biological knowledge through classifications must become socially and ecologically just."
– Nico M. Franz, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology, Arizona State University
"A core text for students and scholars concerned with how power is constructed and expressed through classificatory practices."
– Ronald E. Day, Professor, Indiana University
"Montoya offers a compelling and nuanced look at how we can engender epistemic and material justice through deep interrogation into how classification systems construct our responses to an ever-changing world."
– Joseph T. Tennis, Professor, University of Washington Information School