Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Ascending the ladder toward constructionist ideals… and away from the user

I received an email from a friend yesterday. She had a seemingly simple question: “Which web search engines do people favour and how long do they spend looking for answers?” I figured that this question would be simple to answer. Using my nascent specialist skills in information behaviour I began to craft an explanation. I explained the features of information seeking and how it’s driven by social norms and epistemic communities and how it’s all a process of sense-making. What I didn’t do, however, was answer her question.

So I went to the literature and after some crafty searching in LibraryLit and Web of Science I still didn’t have an answer. I realized that her question wasn’t an academic one. Indeed, this type of question is the sort of blue-collar thing that the powdered wigs and velvet robes of academia ignore. Using my vocational skills as a librarian, however, I was able to quickly drag out some references (iProspect’s April 2004 report: Search Engine User Attitudes and Equiro’s April 2004 report: Search Engine Usage in North America http://www.enquiro.com/research.asp).

This anecdote casts some light on my thoughts of the teleology of LIS. Where, exactly, are we going? As noted by Ellis (1992), information seeking research started with a very specific goal: improving information systems. Ellis describes this sort of early empirical work as the “physical paradigm” and uses the Cranfield tests as an example. The sort of studies presented by iProspect and Equiro would likely by considered part of this paradigm. The physical paradigm, however, eventually ran out of steam in favour of the “cognitive paradigm” that changed the focus of study from the structure of the machine to the structure of the user. As noted by Frohmann (1992), the cognitive paradigm came to dominate information science perhaps due to the powerful nature of its discourse. Despite their popularity, the paradigmatic nature of both the physical and cognitive paradigms has been called into question. They may represent “quasi paradigms” (Ellis, 1992). Since information science research inherently involves both the subjective—people—and objective—things—the stability of both paradigms is somewhat questionable.

Moving on from the physical and cognitive paradigms, researchers began to explore constructivist (Tuominen, Talja, & Savolainen, 2002) ideas that placed primacy on the needs and behaviours of the “information man” (Tuominen & Savolainen, 1997) or homo informaticus. Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory (Savolainen, 1993) and Belkin’s Anomalous States of Knowledge represent two of the primary vectors of escape from the cognitive paradigm (Hewins, 1990). This shift has been noted by other researchers such as Hewins (1990) who, in her review of the information needs literature, noted the shift away from questionnaires to constructivist types of studies such as critical moment inquiry. Similarly, Wilson praises the approach of phenomenology to explicate the behaviour of the various roles taken by information actors such as “scientist”, “man on the street”, and “well informed citizens” (Wilson, 1984; revisited in Wilson, 2002). This approach has certain similarities with Chatman’s ideas about the role of “social types” in small worlds (Chatman, 1991, 2000; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998).

Even the constructivist approach has begun to fall as researchers have struggled with the notion of knowledge formation rather than just information recall. A new paradigm (or quasi-paradigm) has begun to emerge: the constructionist approach (Tuominen et al., 2002). The constructionist approach is consistent with the social constructionist principles inherent in post-structuralist or post-modern accounts of research (see Burr, 1995). Accordingly, the constructionist approach focuses on language use or discourses as its unit of research since, according to social constructionism and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958), language is inherently the basis of all thought, communication, and ultimately—sense-making. This approach has been used to great effect in recent studies of information behaviour such as McKenzie’s description of how expecting mothers of twins construct cognitive authority (2003).

It seems that as an academic tradition we have been scaling a ladder. On the lowest rung we have the “bloody sooty” physical approach and at the top of the ladder we have emerged at the constructionist approach [nb. Newton once referred to Robert Hooke as a “bloody sooty empiric”]. Perhaps part of these machinations is due to the difficulties inherent in theory building given the ephemeral nature of information (Hewins, 1990). Another explanation may be our collective need as an academic pursuit and professional calling to reify a particular aspect of knowledge to such an extent that it becomes unassailable by other professions (Abbott, 1988; Freidson, 1986). Regardless of the reasons for this shift, we must account for its effect i.e., my inability to state what search engine people use and for how long they use it.

In climbing the ladder to constructionist approaches perhaps we have forgotten about the reason for making the climb: to help people find and use information. It seems that this goal has been left in the dust at the bottom of the ladder like a forgotten tool or a dropped bit of roofing material. In our study of information perhaps we should reconsider this aspect of our profession.

Reintegrating the user and the means of providing information to that user may be difficult. The physical and cognitive paradigms were abandoned for good reasons: a realist/positivist approach simply wasn’t providing the granularity of information and detail of context that was necessary to explicate the phenomena of information production and information use. It may be possible, however, to reintegrate these aspects of the study of information through the use of interpretivist approaches more in line with constructionist principles.

Personally, I’m partial to some of the concepts of work place study and particularly some of Suchman’s recent work where she studies settings by producing tools for the setting (Suchman, 2000; Suchman, Trigg, & Blomberg, 2002). By creating the tools, she not only develops an intimate knowledge of the setting but also enables some sort of change within the organization. While this approach is anathema to strictly positivist approaches it fulfills several goals of the information science researcher such as acquiring thick description of a setting, and helping people find and use information.

A research approach involving the creation of new technology needs a name. We can’t use the title “workplace studies” because that particular moniker has already been claimed at least twice. The work of Suchman and Orr and other Xerox PARC researchers frequently adopts this title as does much of the ethnographic work of the early Chicago school (Star, 1996). Personally I’m drawn to the Jeremy Bentham approach of etymology that involves mixing up Latin and Greek roots (found via liberal surfing of the OED). Unfortunately, I can’t think of any Greek roots! Using Latin, I could say “manu-ative” (i.e., consisting of the hand), or perhaps “fabric-ative” (i.e., consisting of working).

Or perhaps I can just leave this whole train of thought for a later time… like after comps.


Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions : an essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. New York: Routledge.
Chatman, E. A. (1991). Life in a Small World - Applicability of Gratification Theory to Information-Seeking Behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(6), 438-449.
Chatman, E. A. (2000). Framing social life in theory and research. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 1, 3-17.
Ellis, D. (1992). The Physical and Cognitive Paradigms in Information-Retrieval Research. Journal of Documentation, 48(1), 45-64.
Freidson, E. (1986). Professional powers : a study of the institutionalization of formal knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Frohmann, B. (1992). The power of images: A discourse analysis of the cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Documentation, 48, 365-386.
Hewins, E. T. (1990). Information need and use studies. Annual review of information science and technology, 25, 145-172.
McKenzie, P. J. (2003). Justifying cognitive authority decisions: Discursive strategies of information seekers. Library Quarterly, 73(3), 261-288.
Pendleton, V. E. M., & Chatman, E. A. (1998). Small world lives: Implications for the public library. Library Trends, 46(4), 732-751.
Savolainen, R. (1993). The Sense-Making Theory - Reviewing the Interests of a User-Centered Approach to Information Seeking and Use. Information Processing & Management, 29(1), 13-28.
Star, S. L. (1996). Working together: symbolic interactionism, activity theory, and information systems. In Y. Engestrom & D. Middleton (Eds.), Cognition and communication at work (pp. 296-318). Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
Suchman, L. (2000). Organizing alignment: A case of bridge-building. Organization, 7(2), 311-327.
Suchman, L., Trigg, R., & Blomberg, J. (2002). Working artefacts: ethnomethods of the prototype. British Journal of Sociology, 53(2), 163-179.
Tuominen, K., & Savolainen, R. (1997). A social constructionist approach to the study of information use as discursive action. In P. Vakkari, R. Savolainen & B. Dervin. (Eds.), Information seeking in context : proceedings of an International Conference on Research in Information Needs, Seeking and Use in Different Contexts, 14-16 August, 1996, Tampere Finland (pp. 81-97). London: Taylor Graham.
Tuominen, K., Talja, S., & Savolainen, R. (2002). Discourse, cognition, and reality: toward a social constructionist metatheory for library and information science. In H. Bruce, R. Fidel, P. Ingwersen & P. Vakkari (Eds.), Emerging frameworks and methods: CoLIS 4. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Seattle, WA, USA, July 21-25, 2002 (pp. 271-283). Greenwood Village, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Wilson, T. D. (1984). The cognitive approach to information-seeking behaviour and information use. Social Science Information Studies, 4, 197-204.
Wilson, T. D. (2002). Alfred Schutz, phenomenology and research methodology for information behaviour research. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 3, 71-81.
Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.


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