Classifying people, practices and institutions

Just as classifications of species, genes, stages of development, or macromolecules can shape research in biology, classification in the humanities and social sciences can condition our analyses. In the pig strand of the project I’m working on, classifying people, practices and institutions is necessary. My aim is to explain, so it is not adequate to simply provide a chronicle of everything that pertains to pig genome research, even if this were possible.

Two examples show what is at stake in classifying. First, when thinking about the changing relationships between people in different kinds of organisations and industry, I use the term ‘publicly-funded research’ to distinguish between that and the private sector. This term relates to institutions that would not easily fit the label ‘public-sector’, e.g. the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh. This has been part of an institute of a research council, an independent institute, a limited company and part of a university. It has mainly received funding from public bodies, but also the private sector.

This ‘public-private’ distinction has motivated and been used by actors that I am studying, for instance in the formulation of research programmes by the European Commission. For other purposes, however, it is less adequate. For instance, when thinking about collaboration, more concrete and fine-grained distinctions between types of institutions helps us to understand how and why certain interactions between researchers working in different organisations occurred or didn’t. For example, some researchers working in an American government research facility had less scope for international travel to disseminate results than ones working in American land-grant universities. Both were publicly-funded, albeit in different ways.

Second, I keep separate folders for documents relating to ‘mapping’ and ‘sequencing’. However, I have come to question the firm distinction between these two practices. For example, physical mapping of the pig genome was a key part of the overall sequencing project. Mapping can be split into genetic and physical, and within those different practices to place markers on maps. So should these be distinguished in the way I organise my files and thinking? It would reflect certain patterns of research collaborations in the 1990s but a key part of pig mapping efforts then was in the integration of markers derived from genetic and physical mapping efforts. The danger is that categories established for good reasons become reinforced by shaping how I analyse my empirical materials.

There is no ‘view from nowhere’ or ‘view from everywhere’ that can render these questions and problems moot. We can, however, try to be sensitive to the distinction between the way we categorise aspects of the research and the way that actors saw the field. We can also ensure that any distinctions we make are explicit, provisional and revisable. Categorisation and classification need not be a biscuit cutter that produces only outlines that reflect and reinforce it, but can instead be used as an overlay that makes us aware of the mismatches between the way that it frames the objects of study and the way that for particular purposes we might conceive them. So used to jar us rather than comfort, they can prompt us to think of new and different ways to think about the similarities and differences between the objects of study. 

James Lowe, May 2017

The Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, Scotland. Researchers at this institution have been key players in the efforts to map and sequence the pig genome from the 1990s to the present day. The European PiGMaP consortium was coordinated at Roslin, and it also contributed significantly to the genesis and execution of the swine genome project. Image available in Wikimedia Commons.


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