The tyranny of categorisation

Humans have an obsessive compulsion to categorise. While categorisation is a natural and necessary mechanism to cope with the complexity of our world, it perilously inhibits our ability to address the most pressing and tangible problems of our time.

I work for an organisation with the clumsy name EIT Climate-KIC. It’s a rather unusual beast—part granting agency, part community organiser, part public policy experiment—with the broad mission of addressing climate change through systems innovation. When I try to explain to people what we do, I can often sense a feeling of unease in my listeners. That’s because my organisation’s mission isn’t easily understood. Making sense of it requires careful listening, deliberate contextualisation, and a commitment to engage in a dialogue. In short, it requires people to make an effort.

One reaction I often get in such conversations is a demand for a succinct mission statement. “You must have an elevator pitch!,” they insist. I disagree. Not because some noble causes cannot be succinctly defined. But because reductionist strategies that make for easy conversation are likely to be inadequate to address the most complex challenge humanity has ever faced.

The psychological force at play here is a need to categorise—to fit things into neatly defined, clearly labeled boxes. In times of increasing complexity, such categorisation can be extremely useful, creating order in a world that is fundamentally messy and establishing structures so that we can better organize, analyse, and manage it.

The problem arises when categorisation limits our ability to understand and respond to issues that require systemic thinking, cross-disciplinary analysis, and collaborative action. Climate change, like other grand challenges of our time, is a complex issue that defies categorisation. Yet we often approach it with mindsets and practices that are steeped in rigid classification.

As we enter the “decisive decade” of the 21st century, the time has come to redefine our relationship with categories.

Why we categorise

The world around us is infinitely complex, so we categorise to simplify. In biological evolution, distinguishing between predator and prey is the key to survival. The modern analog is the neatly organised supermarket, in which all products are grouped by classes and variants so that customers can find the items on their shopping lists with ease.

 

Supermarkets are masters of categorisation. But what happens to that order when a hybrid comes along, such as a blood lime or a plumcot?

Creating order allows us to develop shortcuts, saving us from having to sort through a large set of strategies for solving real-world problems. When devising a plan for crossing a busy street, for instance, we group all vehicles into a single class of “dangerous moving objects” irrespective of their colour or make. The benefit of such heuristics is that they reduce our cognitive load, making space for other tasks—like sipping a cup of coffee and listening to your favorite podcast—whilst (safely) crossing the street.

Categorisation also serves as a source of identity. Just consider the tribal pride carried by doctors, bankers, firefighters, social workers, and other members of distinguished professions. That’s because such groups operate under a set of paradigms, worldviews, values, and methods that discern them from others, creating a feeling of community and belonging.

Finally, categorisation facilitates specialisation. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, saw the division of labor as a key to economic prosperity. Today, categorisation is omnipresent in economic life, and we find a dizzying array of classifications—and self-proclaimed experts—in business disciplines such as law, tax, finance, audit, and marketing.

“So, what’s the problem?,” you may ask.

The problem with compulsive categorisation

Categorisation becomes dangerous if it leads to an incomplete understanding of the problem. Analysts steeped in specialised mindsets will frame a problem from narrow, incomplete perspectives. Climate change, though long recognised as a “wicked problem”, is still often framed either as a technological, economic, or political issue depending on whether the analyst is an engineer, policymaker, or economist.

The consequences materialise in ineffective response strategies. The World Economic Forum advocates that we focus on technologies, the Stern Review makes a case for anchoring the debate in discount rates, the magazine Foreign Policy suggests we fix our political system, the Stanford Social Review invokes the idea of a culture war, and Mark Carney sees the root cause of our problem in the short-termism of present-day capitalism. Collectively, these explanations form a coherent whole. On their own, however, each paints an incomplete picture.

In my work, I experience the limiting effects of categorisation on a daily basis—when observing attendees at a World Bank conference cling to a rigid distinction between the public sector and the private sector, when hearing from civil servants in Amsterdam how the city’s departmental structure creates siloed thinking and action, when people ask me why EIT Climate-KIC also cares about biodiversity and gender equality, given that climate action is boxed into Sustainable Development Goal no. 13, when we speak to multilateral development banks about