Friday, September 19, 2003

Note on the Synthesis of Patterns

UML is intriguing as a means of communication. It addresses an age-old problem in how to get various epistemic cultures to interact. In many ways, UML appears to be a perfect “boundary object” (Star & Griesemer, 1999) to align programmers, systems experts, and designers. The boundary objects I’m referring to shouldn’t be confused with that other boundary object associated with object oriented programming and design. Rather, boundary objects:

"…are those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. Boundary objects are thus both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete... Such objects have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities." (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 297)

UML provides supports the various communities through the creation of both Ontological—of nature—and Methodological—of observing—artefacts (see discussion in Case, 2002). Ontological relationships, for example, become encoded into Use Case, Class, Object, and Deployment diagrams. Sequence and Activity diagrams likewise capture methodological processes. One particularly intriguing diagram is the State diagram that strives to capture and document the exact condition of a particular entity or object at any given time—an admiral goal in our post modern reality!

Much of the language of UML appears to be borrowed from Architecture. “Patterns” for example, are wholesale rip offs (see below for discussion of Christopher Alexander). One key difference remains between architecture and OOA/D. When constructing buildings, the design has to be frozen before the system can be built. In systems design, the design is never frozen. Indeed, Hunt (2000) discusses software design phases as a spiral rather than a waterfall; you always return to elaboration phase! It seems that the design of the systems just won’t stand still so we can fully document it. In their discussion of boundary objects (the sociological kind) Bowker and Star (1999) recognized this:

"At its most abstract, the design and use of information systems involves linking experience gained in one time and place with that gained in another, via representations of some sort. Even simple replication and transmission of information from one place to another involves encoding and decoding as time and place shift. Thus the context of information shifts in spite of its continuities; and this shift in context of imparts heterogeneity to the information itself." (pg. 290)

UML, however, provides an interesting way of capturing this heterogeneity through the use of Patterns. As noted by Hunt (2000), the concept of patterns were borrowed from Architecture, particularly the work of Christopher Alexander (Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977). Although Alexander’s books are visually stunning and the rational orders they present are appealing to all sorts of designers, his actually building designs have met with little critical or popular success. Indeed, many are outright architectural disasters (see Gabriel, 1996 for discussion) and his purely theoretical work is mere academic kabala (for an example, see Alexander, 1970). These failures may stem from the lack of documentation that Alexander applies to his patterns. Indeed, Hunt (2000) notes this on his discussion of software architectures:

“The architecture is much more than just its basic structure. In producing an architecture the architect has made multiple assumptions and trade offs, and these should be included in the documentation supporting the architecture.” (pg. 39)

It is in UML's use of documentation that we see innovations that may be valuable for the exchange of knowledge between epistemic communities. In Hunt’s discussion on the documentation for patterns we learn that although difficult to support, patterns promote common vocabularies, improve communication, and capture expert knowledge that otherwise remains tacit. In other words, patterns themselves are boundary objects. In creating these objects, Hunt advises us to document: the motivation or context, the prerequisites for using patterns, descriptions of their structure, list of the participants required, consequences of use both positive and negative, and examples of use. Could Hunt’s advice become the source of a new classification schema for IR or Knowledge Management? Would these criteria support Cutter’s bibliographic objectives of finding, collocating, and choosing; or IFLA’s: finding, identifying, selecting, accessing, and navigating? Nota Bene: navigating objective supplied by (Svenonius, 2000).

Although UML seems to offer a positivist panacea for the creation of software, it is losing ground to another design methodology: Extreme Programming or XP. In XP, two programmers work together at a single station to solve problems. It is very popular and has been adopted by organizations like HP and Microsoft (Baer, 2003). If UML offers a way of making programming as explicit as possible, XP embraces programming as an activity rooted in tacit knowledge and provides the socialization processes (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) required to exchange that tacit knowledge.

After all of this I’m left with the issues: social or technological, tacit or explicit…


Alexander, C. (1970). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). A Pattern Language. New York: Oxford University Press.
Baer, M. (2003). The New X-Men. Wired Magazine, 11(9).
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Case, D. O. (2002). Looking for information : a survey of research on information seeking, needs, and behavior. New York: Academic Press.
Gabriel, R. P. (1996). Patterns of software: tales from the software community. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, J. (2000). The unified process for practitioners : object-oriented design, UML and Java. New York: Springer.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company : How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1999). Institutional Ecology, "Translations" and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 503-524). New York; London: Routledge.
Svenonius, E. (2000). Bibliographic Objectives. In The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The Intertext of Entity/Relationship Diagrams

After reviewing the vade mecum of entity relationship diagrams and relational models (Date, 1995), I have a few questions and concerns. We currently ask a lot from our databases and commentary has been written on the importance of applying the human information behaviour literature to information retrieval technology (Hewins, 1990). The question I have is whether or not the technology can deliver.

My first concern comes from the nature of databases themselves and our efforts to make them more efficient. The process of normalization strips away redundant information in a manner that is both reversible and lossless. I can’t help but think that much of the information that is removed may not be redundant at all. By changing the organization of our “tupples” the user may become mired in a sea of unfamiliar terms. Imagine two different fields in the same database: one for the English word and one for the corresponding French word. By relegating the French word to a lookup table or thesaurus it would seem that the overall efficiency of the system is compromised… at least for the French.

An additional concern is the nature of the semantic information contained within a database. Ideally each field in a database contains a scalar—a single value with a static meaning. While this situation is fine for persistent financial data, static meanings are considerably more difficult to attain in IR systems. Early semioticians realized that the links between specific words and their meanings are arbitrary and determined primarily through language (Burr, 1995; Wittgenstein, 1958). Databases however lock in a static meaning. Indeed, in particular instances (like unique keys, etc.) databases demand a constant semantic significance. This mismatch between the demands of computer science and the constraints of human cognition may lead user queries astray. Instead of producing results that are relevant, the query falls through the gaps of intertextuality inherent in the database design.

Perhaps my most grave concern is for our handmaidens of database design: entity/relationship diagrams. Date (1995) notes that in E/R diagrams, relationships cannot be entities. This statement seems to suggest that relationships also lack the features of entities such as properties. In an E/R diagram, a relationship can exist in a state of sub- or superiority but we can never know the intimate details. It seems that many of our current understandings of information as a type of process to affect cognitive change (Belkin, 1978; Buckland, 1991; Dervin, 1983) depends on exactly these sort of details. In the E/R paradigm of sanitized relationships there is no room for potentially vital information. Sure we know who an individual’s boss is, but can we discern details about their relationship? Who buys the morning coffee? What tasks does the boss _really_ delegate? What other tacit details crucial to understanding something get left on the cutting room floor when we concoct our E/R diagrams?


Belkin, N. J. (1978). Information concepts for information science. Journal of Documentation, 34(1), 55-85.
Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. New York: Routledge.
Date, C. J. (1995). An introduction to database systems (6th ed. ed.). Reading Mass.: Addison-Welsley.
Dervin, B. (1983). Information as a user construct: The relevance of perceived information needs to synthesis and interpretation. In S. A. Ward & L. J. Reed (Eds.), Knowledge structure and use: Implications for synthesis and interpretation (pp. 155-183). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Hewins, E. T. (1990). Information need and use studies. Annual review of information science and technology, 25, 145-172.
Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.

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.

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),