Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The Narrative of Human Information Behaviour

Why do we persist in self flagellation? Are we atoning for the sin of not being a “real” science—whatever that may be—or we struggling to create a science? In many of the readings (Hewins 1990; Julien 1996; Julien 2000) we see many of the same topics: the information seeking literature isn’t cited outside of the discipline, it depends on many external theories, and there is little emphasis on method or theory building (see McKechnie 2002). There must be a reason we all spend so much time studying this morass of disparate literature. It almost seems like we use it in a different manner than to inform research. Perhaps if Janice Radway turned her academic lens to the review of the information seeking literature she may pen something like:

"Popular [information seeking papers], as they are habitually read and understood by the [library school] readers, it seems, resemble the myths of the oral cultures in the sense that they exist to relate a story already familiar to the people who choose to read them. Although [information seeking papers] are technically [unique] because each purports to tell a 'new' story of unfamiliar characters and uncompleted events, in fact, they all _retell_ a single tale whose final outcome their readers always already know." (Radway 1991 pg. 198)

What is our "single tale"?

If the information seeking literature is much like an oral narrative, how can we change it to an epic tale from its current status as a melodrama? Borrowing Propp’s schema of the fairy tale we quickly discern that all fairy tales have heroes. It seems that we’re lacking one in information science. Where’s our Adam Smith or Albert Einstein? Maybe we should nominate a particularly well published author such as Tom Wilson or Brenda Dervin. I’m not sure who would actually make the appointment as head of our own invisible college.

If not a hero, perhaps we can all be heroes against a common villain or foe. After all, Propp tells us that all heroes have to overcome a particular foe and return home to much rejoicing. Again, we’re lacking a distinct dragon to slay. Information may our foe but as we’ve already scene, the definition of information is fleeting, ephemeral, and already consumed in the simulacrum. Information may be too big a dragon to slay.

Let’s at least protect our home village and ensure that we have fortified against our foe… whoever or whatever that may be. We can erect walls and prepare emergency plans for libraries… and information centers… and places where information professionals are… and the car dealership… and the living room--but only we’re being informed by television. Can it be that we don’t even have a distinct village to protect? Are we nomads hunting and gathering from the intellectual providence of our fellow social scientists?

Indeed we are nomads and shepherds without the guiding light of a paradigm to guide us home:

“However vague the definition of a paradigm, it is an essential concept for describing research on information behaviour. For one thing, it is not possible to talk about competing theories, or schools of theories, in information seeking research. The field is simply too diverse for that, and formal theory is invoked relatively rarely.” (Case 2002 pg. 134)

The question seems to be: how can we create a new paradigm to unite and guide our research? We could turn to Kuhn for his definitive words, but I’m away from my citation manager. Instead we can use Propp’s well established guidelines for narrative stability: hero, villain, conflict, home. If we can define any or all of these things we’ll be on our way.


Forthcoming… once I’m back to my citation manager.


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