Monday, October 20, 2003

The Information Ground of The Ministry of Truth

Weber gave us a remarkable view into the inside of the bureaucracy. His views are admittedly rather Orwellian… in a pre-Orwell sort of way:

“Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of 'secret sessions': in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.”(Weber, 1958 p.233)

Are we still confronted by Weber’s “Secret Sessions”? Do we still struggle to pry information from the bureaucratic vault? In some cases… yes.

In a discussion of Information and Referral centres, Risha Levinson claims “bureaucratic complexities, restricted admissions, extended waiting lists, and discriminatory practices often pose overwhelming barriers to those in need of services, particularly the poor, the ill, and the elderly.” (Levinson, 1988 pg.3). Furthermore, Marcella and Baxter maintain that 26% of a survey maintain that they have suffered a disadvantage through not finding information (2000).

It seems that people are unable to get the information they need. I’m unsure, however, if the blame for this lies entirely with our modern bureaucracies. I could go on at length about other communication difficulties such as discursive structures, semantic and epistemic boundaries, emic and etic languages, or peripherality in communities of practice. Weber’s notion, however, seems quite plausible.

Perhaps a way of addressing the problem is to understand who confronts the Weberian bureaucracy. We all do—but only in very specific roles. As professionals, we are rarely threatened by bureaucracy to the extent that our role as a “citizen participant” is reduced to that of a “consumer citizen” (Marcella & Baxter, 2000). Instead, it is as ordinary people that we are threatened. And, as Harris and Dewdney note: “everyone, regardless of occupation or social status, is an 'ordinary person' in some aspect of his or her life.” (Harris & Dewdney, 1994 p. 9).

We seem to maintain this rather Soviet image of the “ordinary person” against the machine—an everyman Atlas struggling with the world on his shoulders. There is, however, another image of the ordinary person. I’m rather partial to Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival and all of the hegemonic resistance that it implies. In terms of information seeking, Pettigrew’s notion of the “information ground” seems to accord with this carnival: “an environment temporarily created by the behaviour of people who have come together to perform a given task, but from which emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information.” (Pettigrew, 1999 p. 811). In the exchanges of the information ground, we exchange stories and give each other information that we need to structure our daily lives. Maybe it’s in these stories of the carnivalesque information ground that we find our resistance to the bureaucracy. One corporate folklorist even claims that “The days of studying organizations as grey Weberian bureaucracies, made up of rules and hierarchies, are now gone, as are the days of looking at people as anonymous functionaries or well-oiled cogs.” (Gabriel, 2000 p. 87).

That said, I don’t think that the Ministry of Health (Truth?) will be holding carnivals any time soon.


Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in organizations : facts, fictions, and fantasies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harris, R. M., & Dewdney, P. (1994). Barriers to information : how formal help systems fail battered women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Levinson, R. W. (1988). Information and referral networks : doorways to human services. New York: Springer.
Marcella, R., & Baxter, G. (2000). Information need, information seeking behaviour and participation, with special reference to needs related to citizenship: Results of a national survey. Journal of Documentation, 56(2), 136-160.
Pettigrew, K. E. (1999). Waiting for chiropody: contextual results from an ethnographic study of the information behaviour among attendees at community clinics. Information Processing & Management, 35(6), 801-817.
Weber, M. (1958). Bureaucracy (H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills, Trans.). In H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills (Eds.), From Wax Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 196-244). New York: Galaxy / Oxford University Press.


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