Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Sameness and Difference: A Cultural Foundation of Classification

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Sameness and Difference: A Cultural Foundation of Classification

Article excerpt

The idea of sameness is used to gather material in classifications. However, it is also used to separate what is different. Sameness and difference as guiding principles of classification seem obvious but are actually fundamental characteristics specifically related to Western culture. Sameness is not a singular factor, but has the potential to represent multiple characteristics or facets. This article explores the ramifications of which characteristics are used to define classifications and in what order. It explains the primacy of division by discipline, its origins in Western philosophy, and the cultural specificity that results. The Dewey Decimal Classification is used as an example throughout.


The duality of sameness and difference is an underlying principle of classification as we construct and practice it in Western culture. We try to group similar things together and separate them from things that are different. This principle is taught at an early age. In children's books and television shows, we learn to identify "which of these things is not like the other." In newspaper comic pages and activity books used in school or to keep children amused on long trips, we are given two nearly identical pictures and asked to find the details that are different. Once we learn to view the world in this manner, classification that groups similar things together seems to be an almost natural or innate way of organizing things. Indeed, for those of us who have been acculturated to identify sameness and difference, we find classification an extremely useful arrangement for browsing. It is so ingrained that we do not even think of it as a "real" way of finding information. It is not uncommon to hear people depre cating their searching skills by admitting that in a library they just find a call number and then browse the shelves. They take the classification for granted as though it were a natural landscape rather than a well-manicured lawn that is the product of intellectual labor.

Classification gathers things according to their commonalities. In doing so it demonstrates the effectiveness of this sameness/difference-principle duality. However, a large body of library literature suggests that classifications embody the biases most common in our culture. This literature, summarized by Olson and Schlegl (1999), documents bias in the placement of topics outside of mainstream North American and European culture and the omission of topics associated with marginalized groups. A. C. Foskett posits that this bias exists because classifications reflect the views and values of the classificationists who create them (1971; 1984). I suggest that a concentration on sameness can explain at least part of this bias and has been an unquestioned presumption of most classificationists. Two questions will help in exploring this possibility:

1. What is the same?

2. Which sameness takes precedence?

In this article I will first examine the sameness/difference duality of classification in more depth, especially its cultural role in creating disciplines, our first level of classificatory gathering. I will then probe each of the two questions I have posed. Finally I will consider how we might look towards solutions, rejecting the idea of universal solutions and pointing in directions where some potential solutions might lie.

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is a useful example that I will use throughout this exploration of classification because of its familiarity to most of us; because of the way its notation reflects its structure making that structure more visible than in other classifications; and because Melvil Dewey, its creator, was articulate in his reasons for constructing the classification as he did. However, the same duality arises in other classification schemes as well, both within libraries and in a broader social and cultural context.

The Duality of Sameness and Difference

The sameness/difference duality has been with us at least since the ancient Greeks. …

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