vol. 27 no. 3, September, 2022

Book Reviews

Montoya, Robert D. Power of position: classification and the biodiversity sciences. Cambridge, Mas: MIT Press, 2022. x, 255 p. ISBN 978-0-26204527-8. $40.00.

The earliest memory of the power of cataloguing is related to my early childhood when my younger brother and I were arguing the meaning of the letter with a dot (an initial) standing in front of the family name of the author. Should we include it when arranging our children's books on the shelf or not? If yes, the book will get to the front (under the A), if not, it will be somewhere in the obscure middle (under the P). Next surprise came during the school years and the predictive power embedded in Mendeleyev's table. Certainly, I was not thinking about any power and was not even aware of such a concept, though met power aspects all over my small world, but a dark suspicion grew that these things are somehow significant in life in general.

Information professionals usually regard document description, identification and retrieval and such tools as catalogues, calssifications, taxonomies or thesauri as the source or root of the whole information science. Their creation, maintenance and use are the core of many of our research and professional activities and have led to the development of the whole information study area in many different related directions. Power issues within the creation and application of various classificatory tools were also researched (e.g., Mai, 2010; or Olson, 2002). However, the power of these tools over the concerned subjects or rather processes (p. 129) is a quite recent development. The book by Robert D. Montoya from the University of California, Los Angeles, explores this aspect of classification at the meeting point of information and biodiversity sciences. This alone makes it a most interesting text, but application of fundamental methodologies in combination with great narrative capacity of the author turn it into a reading adventure and help a reader to generate one's own ideas.

The main object of analysis in the book is the Catalogue of Life as a composite taxonomy (p. 13) (also called a consensus taxonomy or a management classification), which is understood as an aggregating taxonomy providing space for multiple other taxonomies constructed on diverse foundations and using a variety of methodologies. This composition inevitably creates various conflicts that require significant intellectual efforts aiming not to reconcile them, but to keep the track of this genuine diversity of taxonomic products. The aim of the Catalogue of Life is to help sharing information, approaches and understanding embedded in the taxonomies, aiding the retrieval of different objects inside these composite elements.

The author himself is investigating the effect of classifications on the external objects that they order and group, on the agents involved in the effort of building classificatory instruments and on the internal relationships or rather epistemic conflicts between these instruments. However, the most important aspect that is highlighted in the book is power directed towards external environment and its objects. Montoya illustrates this power of naming and positioning of species in biodiversity taxonomies with real life examples, such as the treatment of the dingo or the balsam fir, which show its effects on both natural and social world.

Nine chapters lead a reader through the book starting with the introduction of the main object of its concern - the Catalogue of Life, the theoretical foundations of the whole investigation and the construction of the taxonomy, different types of power that are present in classificatory instruments and to which the latter are subjugated, the epistemic conflicts and the ultimate aim of implementing justice, first of all - ecological justice in our taxonomies.

The book is incredibly rich in content. The application of comparative principle, mainly applied to information science and biodiversity sciences classificatory approaches (which are surprisingly similar), but also to different classificatory tools provides a broad understanding of the modern knowledge organisation developments. Search for power defined in terms of Patrick Wilson (1968) highlights the social influences on and of classificatory instruments and also complex epistemic and societal conflicts affecting them, but also born out of them. Socionatural position of the author presents the conflict in our thinking about nature and culture, but also their unity and interdependence that is shown through the biodervisity discourse. Classifications as linguistic tools also introduce the semantic and semiotic aspect as well as force thinking about the significance of language in establishing and promoting power relations. But the most interesting for me was to see a successful attemp to implement the social epistemology stance as proposed by Egan and Shera (1952), as well as the space triad by Lefebre (1974). As a result the reader also grasps the diversity of methodological approaches that are woven into a coherent system that is rich in tensions and contradictions. However, this also opens the text to questioning and critique as each of these complex approaches are attracting different and sometimes conflicting interpretations. Nevertheless, these rich approaches were quite logically coordinated and smoothly merged into the text.

It is interesting to observe the relation between human intellect and technological capacity in building consensus classifications, though it is far from the main topics of the book, but occupies a significant place in the deployment of instrumental and epistemic powers. So far, the intellectual complexity of consensus taxonomies requires considerable human competence to resolve the conflicts, but it also depends on the computational capacities used in preparation of the classificatory instruments and implementation of human decisions. It also implies the danger of leaving these processes exclusively to algorithmic and technical tools.

While reading the book I was also enriching my knowledge about concrete biodiversity taxonomies, but also about the types and functions of classificatory instruments. I am a trained librarian and rather well-versed in the matters of knowledge organisation, but it was very useful to get such a dynamic and overall picture of the existing classifications, their foundational principles and applications. it was double as exiting to see parallels between library and bibliographic classification and biodiversity taxonomy instruments and processes.

Classifications are constructed to reflect our own understanding of the world and include not only our achievement, but also all gaps, prejudice, errors and lies embedded in our knowledge, not to speak of diverse understanding, epistamological and ontological positions and socionatural conflicts. Just as the knowledge and together with it, classification(s) is a process, changing and developing to accomodate the innovative and conservative. This book is not only a deep theoretical investigation of this process but also a comprehensive guide in understanding it.

As such, it will meet the needs of a rather wide audience: students on all levels studying biodiversity and information sciences and other subjects, their teachers and especially researchers dealing with complex information problems of modern information and communication world.


Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
August, 2022

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2022). Review of: Montoya, Robert D. Power of position: classification and the biodiversity sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. Information Research, 27(3), review no. R744 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs744.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.