Friday, June 29, 2012

Analogous Terms

A while back I blogged on Univocal, Equivocal, and Analogous terms.  Thomas Aquinas wrote about these in Summa Theologica, so it is not really a new topic.  That said, I think that how we deal with these three classes of term in information management is a fairly murky area, and requires the development of practical guidance. 

Let’s start with analogous terms.  What is an analogy?  The Free Dictionary provides the following definition:

similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar.
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This is a reasonable start, but I think that we need to understand a lot more about analogous terms in information management.  I would suggest that an analogous term is:

a term used to signify a concept that uses all or part of a term which signifies a second concept that is better understood.  There are supposed to be attributes in common between the two concepts (often only one or a very few), or some other similarity (maybe an emotional response to the term). 

An analogous term I particularly dislike in information management is “Data Owner”.  For IT staff this signifies a person who has some unspecified responsibility for the data in question.  The word “Owner” is clearly an analogous term, because the IT staff have no intention of referring to holding legal title – which is the true meaning of “Owner”.  An individual who is a Data Owner should be able to take the data and sell it to anyone they liked.  Of course, anyone trying that in a major enterprise would be promptly fired, sued, and have criminal charges preferred against them.  It would be no defense to say that somebody in IT told them they were a Data Owner.

So what concept does the term “Data Owner” signify?  I cannot find out what it is, but I know for sure that for IT folks at least it does not mean “an individual who holds legal title to the data”.  For the moment, let us label this new concept “Concept D” (which may or may not exist). 

What I think is going on is that IT folks have a vague idea about Concept D and that Concept D has an analogous relationship with the concept signified by the term “Owner”.  I suggest, based on years of dealing with this, that the IT folks think of one shared attribute between Concept D and “Owner” – and that attribute is “responsibility”.

An owner of some item of property will generally assume responsibility for it.  For instance, when it comes to my house I pay the mortgage, mow the lawn, take out the trash, shovel the snow, and so on.  I could enumerate a very long list of tasks that I undertake because I own my house.  All of these tasks could be generalized into the attribute of “responsibility”. 

My guess is that IT folks have no clue what the specific tasks are that a “Data Owner” is obliged to perform for the data they “own”.  However, it is nevertheless certain that all these unknown tasks could be generalized into the attribute of “responsibility”.  The logic here can be expressed as:

1.      Every Owner has responsibility for an item they own
2.      Individual X has responsibility for a specific set of data
3.      Therefore, Individual X is an Owner

This syllogism is of course an invalid argument since it contains 4 terms (rather than 3).  The problem is that the terms “an item they own” and “a specific set of data” are distinct.  As we have seen, there is no real ownership of data.  Hence, we have the 4-term fallacy.

Let us focus now on the term “responsibility” which is the core shared attribute in the analogical relationship.

IT cannot really tell anyone they are responsible for a particular set of data, as nobody in IT is empowered to assign such responsibility.  Furthermore, as noted above, IT cannot give a specific list of the tasks associated with being responsible for a set of data.  Using the term “Data Owner” gets IT out of these difficulties – unless the “Data Owner” refuses to accept the term, or asks IT what responsibilities are involved in being a Data Owner.

The aspect of the abstraction of specific tasks into the term “responsibility” is an interesting one.  It shows how an abstract term can be used to suggest that someone should (or does know) the specifics covered by the abstract term in the context under consideration.  This is good fodder for a future blog post

So let us return to Concept D.  What exactly is it that IT is signifying by the term “Data Owner”?  It is quite possible that some IT staff do not know, in which case it is a null concept.  However, other IT staff may simply be seeking somebody who is an actual user of the data, and who can explain the data to them.  This is a good deal more mundane than being a “Data Owner”.

One last point is that new concepts emerge frequently in information management.  It seems natural to use analogical terms to signify them because the concepts themselves are not yet properly understood.  I have no problem with this, but what I have a problem with is giving the impression that the concept exists and is fully understood.  The use of an analogical term brings with it the concreteness of the second concept which the term signifies.  This gives the impression that something is fully known when it is not.  I have experienced this many times over my career in information management.

So what can we learn from this?  I suggest the following:

1.       In information management be on the lookout for terms that are clearly analogical.  They suggest that there is either a null concept or poorly understood concept.

2.      Identify the attributes that are in common between the concept to which the analogical term is now being applied and the concept which it originally signified.

3.      Determine if the attributes that are supposedly shared between the two concepts are abstracted.  If so, this indicates that a level of specificity is missing and further suggests that the new concept is poorly understood – or unintelligible. 

4.      If an analogical term is used to signify a poorly understood concept, be honest and say this.  Try to define the concept, and what its boundaries are.

5.   Try to isolate any emotive of suggestive notions associated with the analogical term and determine what their impact is.

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