My family is a family of identifiers. Whether it is a bird, tree, or salamander, we are often dissatisfied until we know which species it is. Thus we have binoculars and a whole shelf of Field Guides for identifying much of the flora and fauna. While others can certainly dissect the psychological interests behind the desire to know these names, the process of observation intrigues me.
My wife has often pointed out how our interest in identifying these creatures leads us to be more observant. We can see this clearly in our kids. When they were little, the observation was that there is a bird or a butterfly. As they grew older, they could note that it was a red bird or a blue bird. As they learned more, they began to note specific markings to identify the blue bird as either a Blue Jay, Eastern Bluebird, or Indigo Bunting (pictured above). The act of identifying teaches us to observe particular elements more closely and filter out or ignore other elements.
My colleagues at Culture on the Edge often critique the assumption that our descriptions simply reflect the reality that a person describes, even suggesting much about the describer him/herself. As the example of identifying different birds illustrates, we have to be educated about what elements to observe, what sensory information we should note. Thus, our observations of the items and activities around us are not a simple, one-for-one description of what our senses experience but become filtered through our education, individual interests, and socialization.
I began thinking about our filtered observation of birds and trees after reading a recent article about the Facebook algorithms and what they decided to show the author when he liked everything he saw on Facebook. Critiques of such filters within the media are quite common (see Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, as one example). Similar critiques are made of the historical record, as what we can know depends on what others have recorded, often though not exclusively those who are the victors and the elite.
It is easy to forget, though, that each of our general, unmediated observations of the world around us also goes through a series of internal filters that are constructed, not necessarily by Facebook or different media corporations, but our own society and interests. The world that we see and hear thus reflects much about ourselves and the contexts in which we have lived.
Photo of Indigo Bunting by bitslammer [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons