Wikipedia’s Ways of Knowing – Part 2




In the first part of this two-part piece, I discussed arborescent (vertical, discrete, hierarchical) and rhizomatic (horizontal, overlapping, interconnected) ways of acquiring and classifying knowledge, as well as the convergence of the arbor and the rhizome in modern knowledge systems. In this part, I discuss how this applies to Wikipedia.

Most of us use the Web rhizomatically: we enter a search term in Google or Wikipedia, look at the search results, and follow the links, whether to other Wikipedia pages or other online or offline resources. As I said in the previous post, this lets us explore pathways that interest us most, and may also lead to more engaged learning. But this approach can be both over-inclusive, requiring us to sift through a lot of information before getting to what we need the most, and under-inclusive, in that we can miss relevant material that requires different search terms than the ones we used for searching. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a number of ways for accessing knowledge that makes it a more powerful encyclopedia than it would be if you had to rely on the search engine alone.

The first of these is Portals, which in turn direct you to Categories. A teaser is found on Wikipedia’s home page, which has links to eight named portals as well as a link to all of them (see linked screen shot below).

Top bar on Wikipedia's home page with link to major categories.

The Biography portal reveals that biographies are categorized in various ways (e.g., by association, ethnicity, gender, nationality or occupation). Thus, using this method, you could find, for example, a linked list of all Wikipedia biographies on signatories of important documents (an association category), which in turn leads to a subcategory of Signatories of declarations of independence. The most famous of these is the United States Declaration of Independence, and a further subcategory links to the Wikipedia articles on all 56 signatories of that document. These articles are also listed in the Wikipedia page Signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, showing that there is often more than one path to an information source on Wikipedia.

There are currently 1491 portals on English Wikipedia, with one of these portals being an alphabetical index to all 5.4 million Wikipedia articles from Aa (you might be surprised to know how many rivers are named “Aa”) to ZZ (a scale used in model railroading). When it comes to categories, there is also an alphabetical index to all categories, though given the many thousands of categories, it may be more useful to access the topical category index, which organizes categories under 12 broad headings and provides a separate search engine just for categories (see linked screen shot below).

Wikipedia's Contents - Categories

I tested this by searching for a highly topical subject—cybercrime. The results show that this is a named category (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Cybercrime, the standard syntax for categories in Wikipedia). The results list a number of other related categories, such as Cyberwarfare and Cybercrime by country, several of which may be relevant to writing or editing a Wikipedia article. The Cybercrime category in turn currently has 20 subcategories and 123 pages, and the subcategories also have subcategories and pages of their own. Using this approach, I quickly found, for example, the recently created article on the WannaCry cyberattack, reported to have affected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries in May 2017.

The above approach proceeds from the general to the particular in a branching or arborescent fashion (though I could have started at an even higher level of generality—Crime by type). The point I want to make, though, is that you can also discover this structure by going from the particular to the general. For example, if I use Wikipedia’s basic search engine and type in “WannaCry,” I get the article on the WannaCry cyberattack; then, scrolling to the bottom of the article, I find lots of related information, including links to six portals; a template for the category Hacking in the 2010s, showing a timeline with major incidents, groups and vulnerabilities; and links to several other related categories, from “2017 in computer science” to “Ransomware.” From here, I can switch modes and proceed rhizomatically to other topics, while still being able to see the overall structures within which they are organized. In other words, Wikipedia lends itself to a high degree of convergence of both arbor and rhizome.

Image of the links to the major incidence of hacking in the 2010s

Wikipedia provides other methods of organization besides portals and categories, including third-party systems such as the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system that I mused about previously (see below).

Letter Subject area
A General Works
B Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion
C Auxiliary Sciences of History
D General and Old World History
E History of America
F History of the United States and British, Dutch, French, and Latin America
G Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation
H Social Sciences
J Political Science
K Law
L Education
M Music
N Fine Arts
P Language and Literature
Q Science
R Medicine
S Agriculture
T Technology
U Military Science
V Naval Science
Z Bibliography, Library Science, and General Information Resources

While the LCC system has been criticized as being more a guide to the books in a library’s collection than a classification of the world’s knowledge, it is well developed and in use by many academic and research libraries. Its 21 classes are further subdivided into a large number of two- or three-letter subclasses that are listed on the LCC page, with, in many cases, links to their own pages. For example, subclass AE – Encyclopedias, mentioned in my last post, has its own Wikipedia entry. Many of these are important subject articles in their own right. For example, RB – Pathology, a subclass of class R – Medicine, links to the Wikipedia article on Pathology, considered of high importance to WikiProject Medicine and currently rated B-class on the project’s quality scale. (On these rating systems, see my blog posts from February 14 and February 28.) Thus for a researcher already familiar with the LCC system (or a component of it such as, in my case, subclass K – Law), Wikipedia offers a way to translate that familiarity and move easily from browsing a library shelf to browsing an online encyclopedia.

In my next post, I’ll bring together a number of concepts that I’ve been writing about. Specifically, I’ll tell you how you can work with Portals, WikiProjects, and the Wiki Ed program to create a course that incorporates Wikipedia assignments and that uses the Wiki Ed dashboard to keep track of student work.


John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *