Cognitive views in knowledge organization (KO)

Cognitive views in KO are related to cognitive views in LIS (Library and Information Science) in general as well as to broader tends related to the development of cognitive science. Cognitive views became in the forefront in KO about 1992, where the Second international ISKO conference in Madras had this approach as its theme (cf., Neelameghan et al., 1992).


The founder of ISKO and the journal Knowledge Organization, Ingetraut Dahlberg wrote an editorial about the cognitive view in KO (Dahlberg, 1992). In this paper is the term "cognitive approaches" first declared a tautology because all approaches to KO must in one way or another be concerned with conceptual and cognitive issues. The term is thus not specifying anything new in KO. Then different paradigms in LIS is considered. Both the physical view associated with the Cranfield experiments and the influence of Shannon's Information theory "have led astray generations of information workers." In KO is Ranganathan's approach mentioned as the first (and only) paradigm. Very little indeed is said in this paper about cognitive views in KO. De Mey's (1980) often used definition is quoted as is the conclusion that the meaning of the cognitive view is that "an information retrieval system should reflect in its operations, in some way or other, the cognitive world of the user."  Whether or not this is an improvement compared to former approaches to KO is not discussed. (The possibility of an inherent conflict between views is not even mentioned). There is some discussion of approaches in general, but no evaluation of what cognitive views might bring to KO or how it may improve the field. This is indeed strange considered that Dahlberg is a kind of leader-figure in KO. One might suspect that nothing is said because she could not find anything positive to say, because her sympathy is with Ranganathan's paradigm, which does not relate to the cognitive world of the individual user (and she perhaps felt it would be inadequate to make a fundamental criticism, since cognitive paradigms was chosen as the theme of the conference?). This example demonstrates why it may be difficult to find clarification of theoretical views in the printed literature.


Xiao (1994) in a paper about facet-analysis as a paradigm in KO, which also includes a discussion of the relation between facet-analysis and cognition. She fails, however, to consider the specific literature about cognitive views in LIS and the basic assumptions put forward under this label. She just says that Ranganathan had an epistemological view (that knowledge is dynamic, multidimensional and unlimited). So, she fails to identify other contemporary approaches to KO with which the facet-analytic paradigm can be compared.


Frohmann (1990) uses philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to contest the ”mentalism” represented in current work on human indexing. Frohmann claim that indexing” rules” are not based on cognitive processes resident in the mind of users (such as understood in cognitive views, which he also terms "mentalism"), but on socially constructed rules apprehended by indexers. So he argues that the focus in KO must shift indexing theory away from the cognitive view and rule discovery and toward rule construction:


”. . . Mentalism’s focus on processes occurring in minds conceals the crucial social context of rules. Since we do not understand the rule we are constructing without understanding its social context, or the way it is embedded in the social world, its point, its purpose, the intentions and interests it serves, in short, the social role of its practice, indexing theory cannot avoid investigation into the historical, economic, political, and social context of the rules in its domain. Mentalism, on the other hand, either erases the social dimension altogether by conceiving rules as operating in disembodied, ahistorical, classless, genderless, and universal minds, or else acknowledges it only by expanding the set of rules of mental processing’” (Frohman 1990, p. 96)



In another publication Frohman writes:


"These criticisms of cognitive paradigms in knowledge organization are mobilized to suggest the hypothesis that the paradigms might best be understood as the ideological expression of a historical shift from large centralized systems of knowledge organization required by governments and the military, to a new commercial sector aimed at sale of database systems customized to a variety of individual and corporate users." (Frohmann, 1992, p. 36).


"In both the Big Library and Big Science eras, whatever attention was paid to users was not converted into fundamental challenges on their behalf to systems of knowledge organization which were based upon documents and their contents. But according to the cognitive viewpoint, the organization of knowledge, if it is to be a fruitful concept for LIS theory, can no longer be treated primarily as a property of an information system (whether a classification scheme, subject heading list, indexing language, thesaurus, and so on), but rather as a property of a human mind. LIS shifts its theoretical attention away from the system of subject, or concepts, inhering in texts, and toward mental processes of knowledge organization. Whether this shift converts cognitive categories directly into new principles of svstem organization, as in the case of Farradane's relational indexing [32], or improves queries put to systems organized according to a non-user-centric logic, as attempted by Dervin [4,33,34,35], the shared assumption is that LIS theory must begin bv investigating the way human beings construct mental models of their world." (Frohmann, 1992, p. 40).


". . .the shift from the "bibliographic paradigm" to the "user paradigm" (Frohmann, 1992, p. 45).


"A discourse of consumers whose individual needs are best accommodated by experts in the service of centralized commodity production, organization and distribution is a familiar rhetoric of consumer capitalism. In an era of accelerating development of markets in electronic images, intellectual labour directed toward theories constructing information uses as changes in individual, surveyable, machine-processable images is a highly motivated social practice indeed. The cognitive viewpoint belongs to a discursive practice
which legitimates a specific, recent, and historically contingent form of information
seeking - commodity consumption of images on a pay-per-use basis[ 47] - by naturalizing, universalizing, and reifying as mental processes what are in fact the products of very specific techniques and procedures." (Frohmann, 1992, p. 46).


"Human subjectivity, or personal identity, consist far less in offering a stable ground for the unification of messages  into a coherent "picture", "image" or "model of the world' than various competing, temporary, fragmentary, and contradictory postures and poses, tentatively stitched together from the available products of real social relations. A genuine "shift to users" can therefore not be carried out within the abstract, universal, and representational form of the cognitive paradigm in LlS theory'. "  (Frohmann, 1992, p. 47).



Neelameghan et al. (1992) is the introduction to a conference devoted to the discussion of "cognitive paradigms in knowledge organization".


"Cognitive paradigms indicate the knowledge seeking behaviour of individuals and groups of individuals. It is a nascent state of human mind wherein a kind of gap in knowledge structure occurs and the mind searches for a connection through its external environment. In the context of Information Retrieval, the searcher seeks some relevant information from the vast store of a knowledge base to find some kind of equilibrium in the knowledge state. The analvsis and diagnosis of this state of inquiring mind provides guidelines for organisation of information in databases and similar environments. Such guidelines are aimed at providing a conducive compatibility between searchers approach and knowledge organisation in the database." (Neelameghan et al., 1992, xiii).


"The human mind is physiologically and psychologically the same since the homo sapien was born." (Neelameghan et al., 1992, xiv).

Neelameghan et al. (1992) does not provide any hint at all about how to investigate the mind in a way that may provide basis of indexing or knowledge organization. Their remark that the human mind is physiologically the same since the homo sapien was born is probably right, but psychologically the mind is also historically, culturally and socially determined, why their claim is wrong.  It is also strange and unfruitful. Should concepts be organized in universal ways that disregards the social nature and social application of knowledge? They also fail as did Dahlberg (1992) and Xiao (1994) to present other paradigms to KO and to discuss how cognitive views relate to such other paradigms.

Jack Andersen (2004, 139-144) discuss "request, user and cognitive-oriented indexing". He writes:


 "A cognitive approach to indexing has been put forward in several writings by John Farrow (Farrow, 1991; 1994; 1995). Farrow's objective is to provide an understanding of the indexing process based on cognitive psychology and cognitive reading research. Reading research distinguishes between perceptual and conceptual reading. The former is relying on scanning the text for cues, whereas the latter is dependent on the background knowledge (e.g. knowledge of subject matter) a reader approaches the text with. Basically, Farrow argues that the indexing process may be viewed in light of these two modes of reading.

    It is, however, difficult to see what a cognitive approach to indexing offers and, if it offers something, what is cognitive about it. Turning indexing (and reading) into a cognitive matter is to remove attention away from the typified socio-cultural practices of document production and use, that authors, indexers, and readers are engaged in. Mai (2000, pp. 123-124) also criticizes Farrow's cognitive model of indexing as it


'...adds no further knowledge or instructions to the process. He simply says that indexing is a mental process, which can be explained by using models of human information processing from cognitive psychology. But these arbitrary models of minds, memory and cognition explain little about the indexing process.' "


(Andersen, 2004, p. 143)


Andersen (2004) is rejecting a cognitive approach, but defending a document-oriented view of indexing. However, a document-oriented versus a user oriented view is an unfruitful dualism. Instead of user versus document, we may regard the subjective versus the objective pole in indexing. An indexer is always influenced by his background knowledge, a system of concepts and a world view. The more the indexing is influenced by this, the more "subjective" is the indexing. There is always specific documents to be indexed and any theory of indexing must acknowledge that document properties must be represented by the indexing process. The more the indexing reflects the object of the indexing process, the documents, the more objective is the indexing (not to be confused with objectivity in the positivist understanding as measured by inter-indexer-consistency). There is, however, a third way between the cognitive (or psychological) oriented approach and the document-oriented approach. There are collective views and interests, which the indexing may consider. For example, a pharmaceutical company may index according to its purpose by emphasizing aspects that are important for that company (see also request oriented approaches to KO).


Perhaps the popularity of the cognitive views is based on a confusion between users and subjectivity, between psychology and epistemology. Psychology is about general models of minds or about individual minds. Epistemology, on the other hand is about ways of thinking reflected by groups of people. Intuitively many may feel that knowledge representation is not just about trying to make representations as objective as possible, but to optimize them in relation to certain tasks and values.


A search in Social SciSearch on December 31, 2005 provided  228 hits on the expression KNOWLEDGE(W)ORGANIZATION. A ranking of the most productive sources (rank cw) provide the following result. 

    1       36   J DOC  [Journal of Documentation]
    2       28   COGNITIVE PSYCHOL
[Cognitive Psychology]
    3       26   PSYCHOL REV 
[Psychological Review]
    4       25   KNOWL ORGAN
[Knowledge Organization]
    5       24   J AM SOC INFORM SCI
[Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology]
    6       19   J VERB LEARN VERB BE
[Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior]
    7       18   COGNITIVE SCI
[Cognitive Science]

    8       17   ORGAN SCI [Organization Science]

Although Library and Information Science (LIS) is dominating (Journals listed as 1, 4,& 5), there is a strong indication that psychology/cognitive science is also a major contributor (Journals listed as 2, 3, 6 & 7). The 8th journal is from management studies.


Cognitive science is, for example, interested with how knowledge is organized in long term memory and short term memory. Wyman & Randel (1998) evaluated the relationship between organization of knowledge in memory and level of proficiency in the performance of a complex cognitive task. This paper may be characteristic of the view of cognitive science on KO. Based on their performance in a scenario, 42 Electronic Warfare (EW) technicians were categorized into 3 performance levels. To measure the organization of knowledge, the EWs rated all possible pairs of 24 concepts on degree of relatedness, and a Pathfinder net was created for each subject and for 2 expert EWs. A correlation of 0.40 between performance scores and a concept similarity measure indicates a significant positive association between level of proficiency and knowledge organization. Both high and intermediate performance groups produced nets that were more similar to the expert net than were those of the low performance group.


"In knowledge organization theory, cognitive perspectives have not been as dominant as in information behavior research. The reason for this is it is practically impossible, at least in the long run, to avoid connecting knowledge organization and classification research to the actual content of the documents and document collections in relation to the classification and indexing performed. This can seem trivial, but it is actually not . . ."  (Hansson, 2006).





Andersen, J. (2004). Analyzing the role of knowledge organization in scholarly communication: An inquiry into the intellectual foundation of knowledge organization. PhD dissertation. Copenhagen: Department of Information Studies, Royal School of Library and Information Science, 2004. (Chapter 7.3.3.: Request, user and cognitive oriented indexing, pp. 139-144). Available:  (Visited May 10, 2004).


Bertrand, A. & Cellier, J.-M. (1995). Psychological approach to indexing: effects of the operator's expertise upon indexing behaviour. Journal of Information Science, 21(6), 459-472.


Broughton, V.; Hansson, J.; Hjørland, B. & López-Huertas, M. J. (2005), “Knowledge organization: Report of working group 7”, in Kajberg, L. and Lørring L. (Eds.), European Curriculum Reflections on Education in Library and Information Science, Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen, available at:


Dahlberg, I. (1992). Cognitive paradigms in knowledge Organization, International Classification, 19, 125+145 (2 pages!).


Farrow, J. D. (1991). A cognitive process model of document indexing. Journal of Documentation, 47(2), 149-166.


Farrow, J. D. (1994). Indexing as a cognitive process. IN: Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Vol. 53, Supplement 16, 155-171.


Farrow, J. D. (1995). All in the mind: Concept analysis in indexing. The Indexer, 19(4), 243-247.


Frohmann, B. (1990). Rules of indexing: A critique of mentalism in information retrieval theory. Journal of Documentation, 46(2), 81-101.


Frohmann, B. (1992). Cognitive paradigms and user needs. IN: Neelameghan, A.; Gopinath, M. A. Raghavan, K. S. & Sankaralingam, S. P. (Eds.). Cognitive paradigms in knowledge organization. Second international ISKO conference. Madras, August, 26.-28 1992. Madras: Sarda Ranganathan Endowment for Library Science. (Pp. 35-50).


Hansson, J. (2006). Knowledge organization from an institutional point of view: Implications for Theoretical & Practical Development. Progressive Librarian: A Journal for Critical Studies & Progressive Politics in Librarianship, No. 27, 31-43.


Mai, J. E. (2000). The Subject Indexing Process: An Investigation of Problems in Knowledge Representation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The University of Texas at Austin. Available at:


De Mey, M. (1980). The relevance of the cognitive paradigm for information science. IN: Harbo, O . & Kajberg, L. (Eds.): Theory and application of information research. Proceedings of the 2nd International Research Forum on Information Science. London: Mansell. (Pp. 49-61).


Jörgensen, C. (2003). Image Retrieval. Theory and Research. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.


Neelameghan, A.; Gopinath, M. A. Raghavan, K. S. & Sankaralingam, S. P. (1992). Introduction. IN:  Cognitive paradigms in knowledge organization. Second international ISKO conference. Madras, August, 26.-28 1992. Madras: Sarda Ranganathan Endowment for Library Science (pp. xiii-xvi).


Wyman, B. G. & Randel, J. M. (1998). The relation of knowledge organization to performance of a complex cognitive task. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12(3), 251-264.


Xiao, Y. (1994). Faceted classification - a consideration of its features as a paradigm for knowledge organization. Knowledge Organization, 21(2), 64-68.



See also: Approaches to knowledge organizationBook House System; Cognitive views in LIS ; Individuality in information use; User and User Studies in KO





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 13-02-2007



  1. Are cognitive views in knowledge organization the same as "user based" views? If not, what are the differences?

  2. In theory, how would a knowledge organization system (KOS) constructed on the basis of a cognitive approach differ from KOS constructed on the basis of other approaches?

  3. Consider how individuality in information use or personality traits in information use is or should be considered in knowledge organization.