Category Archives: Comparative Ontology

Rituals, Texts, and Databases

Com­par­a­tive ontol­ogy asserts that humans already have ontolo­gies, and that machine ontolo­gies are both pro­jec­tions of human ontolo­gies (those of the numerati) and mate­r­i­al agents that inter­vene in the ongo­ing repro­duc­tion of ontolo­gies (every­one else’s).  Devel­op­ers of ontolo­gies for the web of linked data would do well to under­stand the nature of human ontolo­gies, as well as they way machine ontolo­gies inter­vene in the ongo­ing con­struc­tion of social life.

Human ontolo­gies are not like ROM pro­grams, hard-wired into our brains and exe­cut­ed with­out mod­i­fi­ca­tion; they are designed to be repro­grammed through engage­ment with the world. They are one of our most effec­tive adap­tive traits.

Ontolo­gies are adap­tive

Anthro­pol­o­gists have stud­ied ontolo­gies in the wild for a long time, under the var­i­ous cat­e­gories of “struc­ture,” “sym­bol­ism,” “cul­ture” and “col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions.”  One of the most impor­tant con­trib­u­tors to the study of ontol­ogy is the Amer­i­can cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­shall Sahlins.

Sahlins began as a cul­tur­al mate­ri­al­ist but had a road to Dam­as­cus expe­ri­ence in the 1970s in which he got cul­ture.  You may rec­og­nize his name as the unfor­tu­nate tar­get of fel­low anthro­pol­o­gist Gananath Obeye­sekere, who crit­i­cized Sahlins’ inter­pre­ta­tion of the events lead­ing to Cap­tain Cook’s death in Hawai’i as ori­en­tal­ist.  In fact, Obeyesekere’s crit­i­cism was an exer­cise in occi­den­tal­ist stereo­typ­ing and, in any case, Sahlins’ con­trol of the mate­r­i­al even­tu­al­ly proved his critic’s posi­tion inco­her­ent.

Sahlins’ prin­ci­pal the­o­ret­i­cal con­ti­bu­tion to cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy has been to retrieve the con­cept of cul­tur­al struc­ture from the ahis­tor­i­cal, for­mal­ist, and mech­a­nis­tic con­cep­tion devel­oped by Lévi-Strauss, whose own work on mythol­o­gy belies his more the­o­ret­i­cal pro­nounce­ments.  Rather than sep­a­rat­ing struc­ture from event (and his­to­ry), and locat­ing the for­mer deeply with­in a uni­ver­sal mind–like a camshaft respon­si­ble for the jig­saw puz­zle of culture–Sahlins focus­es on what he calls the “struc­ture of the con­junc­ture” of struc­ture and event.  His­to­ry emerges as a cul­tur­al­ly dis­tinc­tive sec­ond-order struc­ture that results from the ongo­ing work of cat­e­gories in prax­is. So cat­e­gories have a struc­ture, but that struc­ture under­goes reeval­u­a­tion and change as it is applied to the world.

In this, Sahlins is con­sis­tent with both Vic­tor Turner’s under­stand­ing of proces­su­al struc­ture in rit­u­al behav­ior, and Bourdieu’s con­cept of the habi­tus which medi­ates, through improviza­tion, the “dialec­tic of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and embod­i­ment.”  In fact, I believe that the revised struc­tural­ism devel­oped by these anthro­pol­o­gists (and oth­ers) is coher­ent enough to deserve a name; I call it “neostruc­tural­ism.”

In Islands of His­to­ry Sahlins describes the process of cul­tur­al (onto­log­i­cal) change in terms of the “risk of ref­er­ence”: as cul­tures clas­si­fy things in the world–as they deploy ontologies–they also put these ontolo­gies at risk.  For things in the world do not always behave as clas­si­fied, or planned.  Even the sun  has an occa­sion­al eclipse.  Although the keep­ers of culture–from priests to grandmothers–try to enforce adher­ence to the cat­e­gories, the behav­ior of things will inevitably con­tra­dict the cat­e­gories and call for their revi­sion.  Sahlins reads the Hawai’ian’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Cap­tain Cook as Lono as just such a world chang­ing event.

Rit­u­al is one mech­a­nism humans use to syn­chro­nize the world with world view.  As peo­ple grow, for exam­ple, and change sta­tus­es, rites of pas­sage are used to medi­ate this “con­tra­dic­tion” and reclas­si­fy peo­ple so that they can fit into the sys­tem.  Anoth­er mech­a­nism is prophe­cy, where  the reverse is true–world views are aligned with a world that has changed.  Mil­lenar­i­an move­ments are the clas­sic exam­ple of this: a prophet emerges who can make sense of the new in terms of the old, but changes the old in the process.

Rit­u­als and prophet­ic move­ments are the orig­i­nal forms of change man­age­ment.

This is the ongo­ing work of cul­ture.  Cul­tur­al repro­duc­tion is nev­er mechan­i­cal.  That is one rea­son we humans have his­to­ry.  There is always a dis­pro­por­tion between words and things, plans and sit­u­a­tions.

Texts, as forms of dis­course, can be likened to rit­u­als and prophet­ic move­ments.  Nov­els in par­tic­u­lar are efforts to both makes sense of and influ­ence the world, a task in which they often suc­ceed.  They deploy a set of cat­e­gories that make sense, to the author at least, in a cer­tain time and place.  The risk of ref­er­ence works at var­i­ous levels–from the basal mean­ings of words out of which tropes are cre­at­ed, to the descrip­tion of scenes in which the unsaid is shared among a pre­sumed audi­ence, to more elab­o­rate alle­gor­i­cal map­pings of fic­tion­al char­ac­ters to real per­sons. But the refer­ren­tial risk of tex­tu­al­i­ty is com­pound­ed as the mes­sage is removed from its orig­i­nal per­son­al, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­i­cal con­texts, and the world of the text is forced to fit new con­texts for new read­ers.  Hermeneu­tics arose as a method to retrieve mean­ings lost in this way; Roman Law and the Chris­t­ian Bible being two major exam­ples of dis­tanced texts being applied and reap­plied to new sit­u­a­tions.  The French philoso­pher and hereneu­tic the­o­rist Paul Ricoeur called the result of this risk the “sur­plus of mean­ing” in a text, and saw it at as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a kind of onto­log­i­cal exca­va­tion.

Data­bas­es (and the point of this post)

Now, a data mod­el, such as a set of tables and fields in a rela­tion­al data­base, an XML schema of ele­ments and attrib­ut­es, or an RDF vocab­u­lary of class­es and prop­er­ties, is a plan, a schema of clas­si­fi­ca­tion.   And data­base appli­ca­tions, like rit­u­als and texts, have their own forms of ref­er­en­tial risk to con­tend with. They clas­si­fy the world and, in the process, both effect the world they clas­si­fy and open them­selves up for revi­sion by that world as it changes.

For exam­ple, the cat­e­gories pro­duced by a require­ments elic­i­ta­tion process for an appli­ca­tion designed to improve some work­flow, and encod­ed in a data­base that sits at the bot­tom of an appli­ca­tion stack, may not accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent the work­flow as it is actu­al­ly prac­ticed, and as it will inevitably change as new devel­op­ments take place–changing per­son­nel, clients, strate­gic plans, etc. The data­base, then, is put into a situation–the sit­u­a­tion of the conjuncture–into which its cat­e­gories are at risk.

In this sit­u­a­tion, data­bas­es are like texts–they are built on the arma­ture of a hard-cod­ed ontol­ogy, and they can move beyond their orig­i­nal domain of appli­cat­i­bil­i­ty.

But unlike most texts, and very much like sacred texts, data­base appli­ca­tions (and their admin­is­tra­tors) are usu­al­ly giv­en a cen­tral posi­tion with­in an orga­ni­za­tion.  They are often deployed as key ele­ments of an enter­prise archi­tec­ture that calls the insti­tu­tion­al shots.  Thus they can insu­late them­selves from ref­er­en­tial risk.  They can force con­for­mi­ty to their logic–as Michael Wesch’s New Guinea vil­lagers redesigned their set­tle­ment pat­tern to con­form to the gov­ern­ment census–or they can pro­duce a black mar­ket of behav­iors in an orga­ni­za­tion that bypass­es the data­base gov­erned work­flow.  This is what fac­ul­ty do who are forced to use an LMS but would rather use Google Docs.

Com­par­a­tive ontol­ogy can help here.  If we view ontolo­gies as always sit­u­at­ed, then we should (1) design sys­tems for max­i­mum flex­i­bil­i­ty and adapt­abilty, and (2) learn a les­son from the rit­u­al life of peo­ples around the world and through­out his­to­ry: engage our ontolo­gies in con­stant reeval­u­a­tion and mod­i­fi­ca­tion, mak­ing the world (of our orga­ni­za­tions) fit where appro­pri­ate, and also refin­ing the cat­e­gories to fit the world.

To meet the first chal­lenge, we shouldn’t cre­ate over­wrought ontolo­gies, but rather focus on just enough clas­si­fi­ca­tion to achieve the effects we need. Usu­al­ly, the effects we are most con­cerned with are con­nect­ing peo­ple to peo­ple, peo­ple to infor­ma­tion, and infor­ma­tion to infor­ma­tion, in as few links as pos­si­ble.

To meet the sec­ond chal­lenge, we may want to refine what we mean by “social oper­at­ing system”–for that is pre­cise­ly what a rit­u­al sys­tem is.  Maybe it’s time to fol­low McLuhan’s advice and exploit the rit­u­al effects of the elec­tric, in order to mit­i­gate and shape the more dan­ger­ous effects of the elec­tron­ic.   When we build ontolo­gies, maybe we should also be think­ing of the phys­i­cal and vir­tu­al spaces in which they will be deployed, and the mate­r­i­al and dig­i­tal arti­facts that will be their vehi­cles of expres­sion.