The Personal Meaning Scheme as Principle of Information Ordering: Postmodernism, Transdisciplinarity, and the Ontology of Classification

Jeremy J. Shapiro
Human and Organization Development Program
The Fielding Institute
302 West 86th Street
New York, NY 10024-3100

Shelley K. Hughes
Academic Resources
The Fielding Institute
2112 Santa Barbara Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93105-3538


Standard bibliographic classification schemes and scientific taxonomies are useful devices for bringing a certain order -- at least an external and abstract order -- into the mass of available information and knowledge. But they have two limitations: (1) People do not necessarily or automatically organize information and knowledge in accordance with them. Individuals -- scholars, researchers, knowledge workers, and human beings in general -- seem to organize information, at least in part, in accordance with meaning schemes and cognitive principles of their own individual personalities and lifeworlds, which are shaped by personal (Kelly 1963) and cultural forces (D'Andrade 1995) as well, of course, as by the classification schemes and taxonomies that have become embedded in them. (2) Reality itself is not necessarily or automatically structured in accordance with these schemes. While it is useful, even essential, to learn about them, they are often limited and corrupted by untenable or outmoded ontological and cosmological assumptions. In this world of increasing complexity and perpetual information flooding and, at least in the humanities and social sciences, increasingly decentered and interdisciplinary knowledge, innovation in research often comes from grasping, exploring, and articulating relationships that fall outside of or between the categories of standard schemes and that arise from a combination of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization and personal meaning schemes. Articulating and representing personal meaning schemes and using them to order information can be a valuable method of cognitive organization that can counteract information overload and contribute to intellectual and cultural creativity. And software tools for doing this are now becoming available.

The Present Context

Six features of the present postmodern period create the need for new structures for organizing information:
First, the sheer volume of information available through the combination of digital libraries and the World Wide Web means that general classes and descriptors become increasingly less useful in structuring information, because they are less definitive of and make fewer valuable distinctions within the masses of information that they subsume.

Second, the progress of the sciences has led to taxonomic complexification, which has rendered obsolete both linear and hierarchical models that underlie current classification systems and led to new modes of cognitive inter-relationship and ordering. As Nicholas Rescher has argued, the new structure, "is not that of a hierarchy at all, but rather that of chain-mail-work interlinkage reminiscent of medieval armor." (Rescher 1979)

Third, the increasingly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary character of research and scholarship, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is motivated by the quest to understand the real, internal relations of interdependence and mediation that exist in concrete objects of research, and these relations are poorly grasped by disjunctive categories that originate in disciplinary and library classes and descriptors.

Fourth, postmodern awareness of the limitations of objectivistic and rationalistic frameworks for representing and structuring knowledge has delegitimized the philosophical systems and assumptions that underlie modern information organization and classification schemes. Every scheme for classifying or ordering information is grounded in or implies some ontology or cosmology. The majority of current schemes (e.g. the LC and Dewey Decimal systems) are in effect operationalizations of neo-Platonic, realist ontology and theology, the "Great Chain of Being" (Lovejoy 1936) that asserts the priority of the universal over the particular, of the abstract over the concrete and that see the individual or particular as mere emanations of the abstract and the universal. Despite its own occasionally relativistic limitations, the postmodern critique of legitimating metanarratives and ontologies has removed the ground from both traditional ontology and its idealist, rationalist successors and thereby from the information ordering based on them.

Fifth, the emergence of hypertext as a novel and characteristically postmodern method of information ordering has become, through the World Wide Web, a global system for organizing information and knowledge with a simple and viable non-hierarchical infrastructure. Through its use in personal publishing on the Web, hypertext and the mode of cognitive and semantic relationships that it encourages have taken on tremendous cultural and psychological force for individuals, organizations, social groups, and information producers and managers (Landow 1992). And hypertext highlights personal engagement and choice as the basis for information ordering.

Sixth, in postmodern, complex, multi-cultural society, any semblance of a universal, background cosmology, cultural system, or generally shared lifeworld that could serve as an accepted common basis for structuring knowledge and information has dissolved, leaving in its place a multiplicity of diverse lifeworlds, cultural orientations, and individual meaning schemes (Habermas 1992). Thus it would be futile to try to invent a new, more encompassing and universal classification system or taxonomy.

Existing classification systems: analysis and critique

The library and academic worlds today are dominated by a small number of primary schemes and principles for ordering information (Rowley 1992). Each of these represents a particular ontology or cosmology, i.e. a particular way of organizing or classifying the structure of being or reality. Each scheme has particular philosophical and practical virtues and limitations, that follow primarily from the ontology on which it is based. We consider the contributions and disadvantages of major ordering systems and their ontological or cosmological premises: enumerated classification ("official", classical information orderings, e.g. LC, and semiotic ordering, e.g. Dewey Decimal); faceted classification (Ranganathan and colon classification); historical/chronological ordering (e.g. timelines); cultural symbol systems (e.g. folk taxonomies, the I Ching); hypertext ordering ("point and click your way across the Internet"); hybrid ordering schemes that combine hypertext and classical features (e.g. Internet experts and mavens); and metadata systems (e.g. the Dublin Core). It is our contention that, despite the value of and need for such systems, creative and important research, at least in the humanities and social sciences, often comes from relationships most visible in or highlighted by personal meaning schemes.

Personal meaning schemes

For the contemporary knowledge worker, researcher, and citizen, the personally (and culturally) constructed meaning scheme is a useful alternative method for the organization of knowledge and information. By personal meaning scheme we mean a map of the cognitive/symbolic organization of a person's individuated world, which we take to be not only scientific and conceptual but also to include affective, normative, aesthetic, and existential dimensions (Mucchielli 1970). Personal meaning schemes draw on a number of sources, including cultural context, individual psychological development, the canonical information ordering schemes to which the individual has been exposed, the scientific community of which she may be a part, metaphysical systems and traditions, historical context, and technologies (Goody 1977).

In the emphatic sense in which we are using the term, a personal meaning scheme, while person-centered, is systematic. That is, isolating it involves a review, analysis, and organization of an individual's entire, structured personal world that, as embodied in a particular social, historical, natural, and informational world, is also "objective" and systematic. However, its objectivity and systematicity are explicitly and awarely rooted in that particular context. The personally and socially constructed nature of the meaning scheme is "worn on its sleeve." As contextual, the personal meaning scheme is dynamic and revisable in accordance with changes in the social, historical, natural, and informational worlds and with the person's changing relation to those worlds. Focusing on the objective and systematic character of the personal meaning scheme also favors intellectual and ethical autonomy and personal self-reflection on the part of the individual. That is, it requires the individual to take cognitive responsibility for her or his organization of her or his world, in relation to other, differing but overlapping contemporaneous personal meaning schemes or worldviews.

Psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science provide a rich collection of theories and models for the articulation and representation of personal meaning schemes, from Freudian through existential to personal-construct psychology (Kelly 1963), from structuralist through symbolic to cognitive anthropology (D'Andrade 1995, Lévi-Strauss 1966, Wagner 1986), and from cognitive science's analyses of the structure of mental models and representations (Johnson-Laird 1983). And, because personal meaning schemes are frequently unarticulated or unconscious, psychological and anthropological methods, several of which are particularly focused on unconscious meanings, lend themselves to the identification and formulation of such schemes. Several research methodologies that can be used to elicit and formulate personal meaning schemes and world views: psychological inventories, phenomenological research, ethnography, the sociology of knowledge, and mental modeling.

Software tools for personal meaning schemes

There are a number of methods that individuals use in practice to organize information for reasons of personal predilection and utility, ranging from directory and file structure organization to the use of bookmarks and personal Web pages to reflect their personal interests and personal information framework. Software that seems to hold promise for the representation and utilization of personal meaning schemes includes visual mapping and diagramming software (e.g. Inspiration, Visio), which can visually represent the elements and inter-relationships of a mental model; qualitative research software (e.g. Atlas/Ti, NUD*IST), which can visually display relationships among thoughts and concepts; and HTML image-mapping software (e.g. Coffee Cup), which can hyperlink elements of a visually mapped mental model to other information. Probably the most advanced software for the use of a personal meaning scheme to organize information is The Brain, which integrates both visual mapping and information-linking in a single software product.

Conclusion and recommendations

From the Dublin Core to the Web search engine, from the digitization and placing on-line of millions of heretofore relatively inaccessible information objects to, which has recently been proposed as a model of the digital library (Coffman 1999), professional and amateur information scientists are devising new methods to make knowledge and information accessible and usable. We believe that the personal meaning scheme, while not viable as the fundamental organizing principle for libraries or large collections of information, is valuable for individuals' information organization and can contribute to the current discourse on the organization of information in the contemporary, postmodern world of information explosion and transdisciplinary intellectual work. There are several avenues of research to be carried out in this area: (1) exploration of the use of relevant theories and empirical research from psychology, cognitive science, and anthropology in developing methods of capturing individuals' personal meaning schemes and cognitive systems; (2) the use of computer tools for the representation and easy manipulation of personal meaning schemes; (3) the practical application of personal meaning schemes to individuals' methods of storing and organizing information; (4) the role of personal meaning schemes in promoting interdisciplinary research and scholarly dialogue.


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