Are relations in thesauri "context-free, definitional, and true in all possible worlds"?

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  • Birger Hjørland
Much of the literature of information science and knowledge organization has accepted and built upon Elaine Svenonius’ (2004) claim that “paradigmatic relationships are those that are context-free, definitional, and true in all possible worlds” (p. 583). At the same time, the literature demonstrates a common understanding that paradigmatic relations are the kinds of semantic relations used in thesauri and other knowledge organization systems (including equivalence relations, hierarchical relations, and associative relations). This understanding is problematic and harmful because it directs attention away from the empirical and contextual basis for knowledge-organizing systems. Whether A is a kind of X is certainly not context-free and definitional in empirical sciences or in much everyday information. Semantic relations are theory-dependent, and in biology, for example, a scientific revolution has taken place in which many relations have changed following the new taxonomic paradigm named “cladism.” This biological example is not an exception, but the norm. Semantic relations including paradigmatic relations are not a priori but are dependent on subject knowledge, scientific findings, and paradigms. As long as information scientists and knowledge organizers isolate themselves from subject knowledge, knowledge organization cannot possibly progress.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Association for Information Science and Technology
Issue number7
Pages (from-to)1367-1373
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2015

Bibliographical note

Article first published online: 11 JUN 2014

ID: 96245381