Monday, September 15, 2003

The Hades of Social Constructionism

The question of the day seems straightforward: “How do we write the fish?” Scholes readily provides our answer:

“The way to see the fish and to write the fish is first to see how one's discourse writes the fish.” (Scholes, 1985 pg. 144)

Scholes’s guidance, however, is leading me down a dark trail. In a way I feel like a pilgrim lost in the woods and beset by wild beasts. Like a good supplicant I pray to the saints—geniuses (Traweek, 1996)lang=EN-US>—and recite my litanies—scientific cannon (Kuhn, 1962)lang=EN-US>—but still I find no solace. Instead, the haunting specter of Virgil appears to guide me through the fires of Social Constructionism.

As a neophyte supplicant to the field of information seeking I am already surprised by the depth and breadth of the field. I have yet to find the unifying theory and definitions that will let me cross the River Styx of comprehensive exams. Indeed, the “discourse structures” (Scholes, 1985)lang=EN-US> seem to be redolent with review articles, new theories, and summaries. A paradigm has yet to appear to free us from our own “social leviathan”: the geocentric Phlogiston of information-seeking behaviour.

Perhaps the issue is how we can free the discipline from the bubbling muck of the Wrathful and create a “true” discipline. Perhaps Scholes will be our Virgil with his anecdote about biology:

"...biology became a full-fledged science when it went beyond close observation of the individual object to study the systems by which individual objects were in fact ordered and perceived." (Scholes, 1985 pg. 135)

It seems we should shift our focus to the underlying systems of the field. This sentiment is echoed in Burr’s (1995) introduction to Social Constructionism with its focus on process rather than structure. The underlying systems, however, may be difficult to determine and elucidate. Dante’s Inferno has clear inclusionary criteria for each of its levels. I imagine an old-fashioned elevator operator: “Sixth Ring… City of Dis… All Heretics please get off!” These criteria are lacking in our own field. As indicated by Burr, the criteria themselves are socially constructed and valid only for specific spatio-temporal-cultural settings:

"The two basic problems for any overarching classification scheme in a rapidly changing and complex field may be described as follows: First, any classificatory decision made now might by its nature block off valuable future developments... For these reasons, the decision not to collect is the most difficult to take for people maintaining any sort of collection based on classification system... Second, different designers of the classification system have different needs, and the shifting ecology of relationships among the disciplines using the classification will necessarily be reflected in the scheme itself." (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 69-70)

Our concern with creating this structure will inherently leave something out. This “other” category can itself be an entire crucible of conflict. Bowker and Star (1999), for example, discuss the classification problems of Apartheid as a site of hegemonic resistance. Regardless, we seem to be driven towards a need to classify
and organize. Traweek provides a very eloquent description of this compulsion:

“Certainly, there is an aesthetics of purification that can linger over the ways of the mind and body... Swirling around with Occam's razor, slicing away what cannot be categorized, leaves more than order behind." (Traweek, 1996 pg. 146)

In Babbie’s (1991) description of Social Science research we find a great example of something “more than order” being left behind. Babbie refers to Durkheim’s research on suicide as a prime example of creating theory and operationalizing to address a societal question. Durkheim’s classification schema—Protestant country vs. Catholic country—loaded considerably more than these labels into the model. To a Protestant doctor, filing a death certificate for a suicide leaves the family in grief. To a Catholic doctor, a suicide death certificate damns a soul to the seventh ring of Hell to take root as a gnarled tree that produces poisoned fruit for the rest of eternity. Does the Hippocratic oath extend to eternal damnation?

If our classification schemes and methods are filled with dangers and illusions, I do have some hope. It seems that the information seeking literature is beginning to move away from pure theory and models and classifications and is instead moving towards something a little more explicit. There has been a recent move towards
using the information seeking research to directly inform information retrieval research
(Ford, Wilson, Foster, Ellis, & Spink, 2002; Spink, Wilson, Ford, Foster, & Ellis, 2002a, 2002b; Wilson, Ford,
Ellis, & Foster, 2002)
. In this we see researchers largely ignoring the issue of truth and devoting their time to the creation of technology consistent with Latour’s notion of “black boxes” as stabilized and solidified theory (Latour, 1987). In essence, the researchers are forgoing the discussion of “what is” for the creation of “what works.” As an Engineer, I find this move oddly reassuring. When designing a bridge, there is little consideration of whether or not the bridge is “true” or really exists. Instead, we spend a lot of time ensuring that bridge doesn’t fall down… not falling down is a good thing.

As I start my research career I realize that there is no Virgil… or perhaps that I’m my own Virgil. Regardless, I’ll have to climb down Satan’s hairy back all by myself to be free from the fires.


Babbie, E. (1991). The Practice of Social Research : Sixth Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. London; New York: Routledge.

Ford, N., Wilson, T. D., Foster, A., Ellis, D., & Spink, A. (2002). Information Seeking and Mediated Searching. Part 4. Cognitive Styles in Information Seeking. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(9), 728-735.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Scholes, R. E. (1985). Textual power : literary theory and the teaching of English. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spink, A., Wilson, T. D., Ford, N., Foster, A., & Ellis, D. (2002a). Information Seeking and Mediated Searching Study. Part 3. Successive Searching. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(9), 716-727.

Spink, A., Wilson, T. D., Ford, N., Foster, A., & Ellis, D. (2002b). Information-Seeking and Mediated Searching. Part 1. Theoretical Framework and Research Design. Journal of the American Society for Information Science
and Technology, 53
(9), 695-703.

Traweek, S. (1996). Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. In A. Ross (Ed.), Science wars (pp. 139-150). Durham: Duke University Press.

Wilson, T. D., Ford, N., Ellis, D., & Foster, A. (2002). Information Seeking and Mediated Searching. Part 2. Uncertainty and Its Correlates. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(9),


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