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Contingent Consensus: Documentary Control in Biodiversity Classifications


In order to gain a better sense of the globe’s biodiversity there have been concerted efforts within the biodiversity community to aggregate dispersed databases to facilitate universal access to information. Central to these systems are nomenclatural and taxonomic mechanisms that validate, organize, and collocate data using established standards and classifications. This dissertation is about the identification, naming, control of, and access to, this cache of biodiversity knowledge, and the common information, documentation, and classification problems that materialize as part of this process. Invoking theories articulated in Information Studies, I examine how documentary control functions within the biodiversity environment, defined as it is by contingent concepts and documents, and how these disciplinary conditions negotiate this tension through classification structures. In particular, composite taxonomies are examined as authoritative access-oriented classifications designed predominantly to aggregate multiple biodiversity taxonomies under one management classification to facilitate efficient data communication. Such composite structures are situated in contradistinction to traditional, descriptive-based taxonomies, primarily designed to argue a hypothesis-driven position about how organisms are related. As constructed knowledge organization systems, biological classifications make implicit epistemological and ontological claims about biological facts, yet these attributes are often overlooked in the practice of interfacing with these systems. Given the increased prominence of these databases within scientific and professional communities, this dissertation asks what kind of knowledge these composite taxonomies instantiate and represent, and how successful they are in serving a consensus-based taxonomic purpose. Taking a critical Information Studies approach, these issues are explored by deeply analyzing the Catalogue of Life, a prominent composite taxonomic schema, invoking documentary, historical, and qualitative methodologies. This project critiques and illustrates the radiant effects of composite taxonomies in biodiversity networks and their multiple uses in professional and scientific practice. This manuscript argues all knowledge organization systems—biological and otherwise—are constructs of cultural and historical circumstances, manufactured artifacts of certain spatiotemporal positions. My goal is to show how other disciplines can inform the literature, theories, and work within Information Studies to rethink our problems anew. As I see it, the question is no longer whether our classification systems can attain true representational capacities, it is more about how we are going to acknowledge their constructedness and harness their contingencies for the most situated social benefit.

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