Thursday, November 06, 2003

Communicating Across the Disadvantage Margin

What does it really mean to be disadvantaged? According to Childers and Post: “It means to be lacking in something that society considers important.” (Childers & Post, 1975). I wonder it there is opportunities within this lacking.

In The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders, Chatman provides a cogent overview of the issues facing disadvantaged communities: elders, the poor, and the unemployed (Chatman, 1996). In her discussion, Chatman provides a taxonomy of key considerations when studying the disadvantaged: Secrecy, Deception, Situational Relevance, and Risk Taking. Her key finding is that the poor are not a community of insiders who share information among themselves but rather a constellation of outsiders who are often afraid and unwilling to share information. The consideration that I find particularly interesting is Chatman’s focus on “Situational Relevance” and the notion that the value of information and communication is rooted in the practices of a particular community.

This concept of communally established relevance is inherent in many other works. Wenger, for example, talks at length about the processes of community establishment and communication (Wenger, 1998). Even sociological (e.g., Berger & Luckmann, 1989 [1966]) and philosophical (e.g., Wittgenstein, 1958) works have discussed the importance of communal practice in establishing meaning and importance. Menou refers to situational relevance as Paradigmatic Knowledge (Menou, 1995b). Despite Menou’s often Polonius-like double-speak for those studying information exchange in disadvantaged communities (e.g., Menou, 1995a), his taxonomy of paradigmatic knowledge is useful for understanding and exploring paradigmatic knowledge or situational relevance: Informal-Formal, Endogeneous-Exogeneous, Resident-Circulating, Unconscious-Conscious, Acient-Recent, Stable-Changing, and Multiple Purposes-Single Purposes.

In her other work, Chatman has explored the notion of situational relevance that has led to the conclusion that particular people may actively block information. Prisoners, for example, may purposely ignore contact with “the outside” (Chatman, 1999). If individuals are driven by their cultural practices, how can they possibly get new information? Do the disadvantaged have any “weak ties” from whom to get valuable or innovative information? If everyone is on the margin of a community, can there possibly be an early adopter (Holland, 1997) to introduce new innovations?


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1989 [1966]). The social construction of reality : a treatise in the sociology of knowledge (Anchor Book ed. ed.). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Chatman, E. A. (1996). The impoverished life-world of outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47(3), 193-206.
Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(3), 207-217.
Childers, T., & Post, J. A. (1975). Introduction. In The information-poor in America (pp. 182 p.). Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
Holland, M. (1997). Diffusion of innovation theories and their relevance to understanding the role of librarians when introducing users to networked information. Electronic Library, 15(5), 389-394.
Menou, M. J. (1995a). The Impact of Information .1. Toward a Research Agenda for Its Definition and Measurement. Information Processing & Management, 31(4), 455-477.
Menou, M. J. (1995b). The Impact of Information .2. Concepts of Information and Its Value. Information Processing & Management, 31(4), 479-490.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.


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