Birger Hjørland

Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science (RSLIS), Denmark

Epistemology of classification with emphasis on Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss


Classification is about ordering some elements (or basic units). What exists in the world to be classified is an ontological (or metaphysical) question. What exist in the world is independent of our theories, concepts, knowledge and research methods. In short: Ontology is independent of epistemology. However, our knowledge of ontology is not independent of epistemology. This is important because it is sometimes claimed that there are two different approaches to classification: the ontological and the epistemological. But any ontological claim has to be defended by methodological/epistemological arguments. I have formerly presented four basic approaches to classification: rationalism (e.g. logical division), empiricism (e.g. numerical taxonomy), historicism (e.g. Cladism) and pragmatism (e.g. feminist theory). In this speech, I will go further into these issues, with a focus on psychologism, sociologism and realism. As knowers, human beings are influenced by the culture and the society in which we live. Durkheim and Mauss (1903) claimed that the way human beings classify something is a direct reflection of the society in which they live. Their “sociologism” has been widely criticized and rejected, but the relation between culture and human thinking is still extremely important and related to the epistemological foundation of classification.  


Birger Hjørland holds an MA in psychology and PhD in library and information science. He is Professor in knowledge organization at the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen since 2001 and at the University College in Borås 2000-2001. He was research librarian at the Royal Library in Copenhagen 1978-1990, and taught information science at the Department of Mathematical and Applied Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen 1983-1986. He is chair of ISKO’s Scientific Advisory Council and a member of the editorial boards of Knowledge Organization, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology and Journal of Documentation. He is the editor-in-chief of ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization. His H-index is 41 in Google Scholar and 23 in Web of Science.