I'm doing categorization/classification in the context of creating catalogs of programming libraries. I'm repeatedly hesitating as to which term I should use.

What are the nuances in which both terms differ?

  • 2
    They basically mean what you want them to mean. They would tend to be redefined by each discipline that uses the terms. But, very generally, "categorization" would tend to imply simply sorting into a limited set of categories, while "classification" would suggest noting subtle distinctions to build a "tree" of characteristics.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 18, 2017 at 21:37
  • What did the dictionary tell you?
    – Drew
    Mar 18, 2017 at 21:51

4 Answers 4


I'm taking a shot at my own question even though I'm not a native speaker.

To me classification has a touch of distinguishing objects based on their nature. And categorization has a touch of distinguishing objects based what I want to do with these objects.

E.g. classification makes me think of the classification of animals and categorization makes me think of someone organizing objects into categories to be able to quickly find the correct object.

Please comment (and/or downvote:)) if I'm wrong!

  • This is what I've been suspecting as well. Classes are discovered, categories are contrived. Whether one is categorizing or classifying, one is organizing information; but the former happens through the generation of a system, and the latter happens through the observation of a system. That said, I think any differences between these two terms varies significantly dependant on the field they are being used in, and they are too nuanced and faint to really matter outside fields where their differentiation has been defined.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 5, 2021 at 4:46

I did not think there was very much difference between them, but as it turns out it the nuance was important enough for someone to write a paper on it for Library and Information Science.

Categorization is the process of dividing the world into groups of entities whose members are in some way similar to each other.

In LIS, the term “classification” is used to refer to three distinct but related concepts: a system of classes, ordered according to a predetermined set of principles and used to organize a set of entities; a group or class in a classification system; and the process of assigning entities to classes in a classification system.

It goes on to say...

The Difference between Classification and Categorization
Although there are obvious similarities between classification and categorization, the differences between them have significant implications for the constitution of an information environment. Failure to distinguish between these two systems of organization appears to stem from the mis- conception that they are, in fact, synonymous—a misconception that may be reinforced by the fact that both are mechanisms for organizing information.

The entire paper is found at...
Classification and Categorization: A Difference that Makes a Difference
Elin K. Jacob

  • 7
    I've read the above twice and I still don't see how it's identifying any difference between the two concepts.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 18, 2017 at 22:47
  • @HotLicks Tell the truth, I think it requires reading the entire text. It must be a "librarian" thing. I just did the legwork. But someone based their thesis on this, and to them, it seemed important enough to draw a distinction. Mar 18, 2017 at 23:13

Classification is a systematic arrangement, it's strictly hierarchical, classes are mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping, boundaries are fixed.

Categorization is a creative synthesis based on context or perceived similarity, membership in any group is non-binding, boundaries are "fuzzy", hierarchy may exist or may not.

More in-detail comparison:

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Source: computer-science-tagged paper by E. Jacob: Classification and Categorization: A Difference that Makes a Difference


I'll preface this by admitting I don't have any research to back up my claims.

I've always interpreted classification as a looser type of categorization that's closer in meaning to identification--you may pick up a random object and classify it as what it is. But to me, it seems categorization requires having certain discrete classes on hand in which you may deposit entries belonging to certain categories.

For example, when you're categorizing items in a cabinet, you likely develop a strict structure or organization for where certain objects will be placed. You wouldn't say you're classifying the items in the cabinet. It seems there's a subtle "physical" nature to categorization with a greater emphasis on the act of taking an item and putting it in one place as opposed to another.

Or in other words, it seems all categorizations are a type of classification, but not all classifications are a type of categorization.

  • 2
    Actually, I think it's the reverse. Classification involves a formalized, predefined system of organization while categorization is any grouping based on a similarity.
    – fixer1234
    Mar 19, 2017 at 1:58
  • It seems you contradicted yourself... "you're categorizing items in a cabinet <...> You wouldn't say you're classifying the items". And then... "all categorizations are a type of classification".
    – ZygD
    Oct 29, 2021 at 13:32

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