by Dr. Suzana Sukovic, Executive Director, Educational Research and Evidence Based Practice at HETI (Health Education and Training Institute) in Sydney, Australia
At a time when information spurts from everywhere, numerous voices demand to be heard and traditional authorities are under scrutiny, academia occupies challenging and contested space. Particularly indicative of wider changes in the information and knowledge field are humanistic disciplines. They epitomize academic traditions in which historical resources and dialogues with the past are an essential part of academic work. Scholarship in the humanities can also act as a touchstone for and a commentary on the present.
I would like to propose that the way in which humanists negotiate the fast changing information world is based on the model I call the ‘academic city of villages’. Academics, especially in the developed countries, live in an information metropolis in which information is available in abundance and wide variety. However, academics’ everyday life is defined by norms and traditions of their disciplines which dictate the rules of their academic worlds. ‘City of villages’, a metaphor promoted by town planners of cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Dublin and Sydney, is used to present some of the dynamics of living in disciplinary ‘small worlds’ or ‘villages’ within an information metropolis. This proposition is based on my study of roles of electronic texts in the humanities and, later, research into transliteracy.
Small information worlds and a ‘life in the round’
Women who eat dirt for its perceived benefits, prisoners, janitors and retired women are people who live in impoverished information worlds, yet employ complex information practices. This insight arose from the work of Elfreda Chatman who developed an information theory of a ‘small world’ and a ‘life in the round’, showing how groups influence and determine information behaviour. Chatman (2000, p. 3) described the concept of a small world as ‘a world in which everyday happenings occur with some degree of predictability’. ‘A small world is also defined by natural philosophy and everyday knowledge’ (Chatman, 1999, 210). A ‘life in the round’ is a public form of life, ‘a “taken-for-granted,” “business-as-usual” style of being’ (Chatman, 1999, p. 207). Chatman showed that powerful social rules determine conditions and ways in which information is sought, what acceptable information is and what appropriate uses of information are. Individuals usually conform or keep socially unacceptable practices private.
Saying that the information behaviour of academics follow some similar patterns to those of information impoverished groups sounds far-fetched. However, findings emerging from my study of research practices of academics in the humanities show similarities, which are not obvious at face value.
Social types are central to the normative behaviour of a social group. ‘Legitimised others’ in Chatman’s theory are comparable with academic ‘big guns’ who need to be convinced that a piece of research can and should enter academic circle. A historian who studies contemporary religions, such as Jediism, Heathenism and beliefs in extraterrestrial life, many with a strong online presence, described ‘big guns’ in the following way:
… the big guns have grown up in a different kind of scholarship and they’re the ones who edit the journals and who run the big publishing houses. [It is] important that you convince them that you really can do real scholarship… It’s a kind of professional accreditation problem that people who work in really kind of out there fields are stuck with. (Participant 5/2)
Academic peers are ‘insiders’, people who are in command of norms and who judge what is trivial or useless: ‘They are the quintessential frame of reference for observing and controlling not only behavior, but also the information flow into a social world’ (Chatman, 1999, p. 212). When academics in my study talked about ‘students’, ‘young generation’, ‘traditional historians’, ‘big guns’ and ‘people who work in out-there fields’, they described academic social types that play a part in shaping information processes.
Secrecy and self-protective behaviours are part of living in a small world. Self-protective behaviour is apparent in situations when the need for information is recognised as potentially helpful, but is ignored, often because of the desire to ‘appear normal’ (Chatman, 2000, p. 7). Scholars choose to make their information behaviours, such as the use of online sources, public or keep them private in relation to the norms, worldviews and possible reactions of their peers who have roles of ‘insiders’ and ‘legitimised others’. The dismissive attitude of peers to the use of electronic resources is evident in scholars’ public discourse, summarised in ‘all that crap from the net’ as a conversation topic as described by one of the study participants. This discourse observed in some academic circles is quite likely to make an individual researcher reluctant to ask questions that would reveal the extent of her or his own use, which may be seen as unscholarly or unauthoritative. The majority of study participants talked about an area where information about the use of electronic resources and digital methods was needed, but that information had not been sought. The lack of discussion about uncertainties related to the use of electronic resources and the unexpressed need for training are signs of an impoverished life-world. It does not relate to an absolute amount of information that has been shared, but rather to an undisclosed information need.
Living in a city of villages
Academic disciplines define the norms and practices accepted by a disciplinary community and set boundaries of academic small worlds. However, disciplines do not function as isolated environments. It is increasingly common that scholars work in interdisciplinary fields, and belong to different disciplinary communities, negotiating their different cultures, traditions and expectations. Even if they remain within the boundaries of a single discipline, they live in a dynamic information environment populated by international scholars. This vibrant environment can be seen as an information metropolis. At the same time, academics follow the rules of their immediate disciplinary communities, which form their small worlds.
How do scholars negotiate potentially contradictory demands? They usually have a primary discipline, but they seek information in other disciplines if that is the requirement of their projects. Boundary-crossing usually happens according to the rules of the primary discipline. In some cases, it means following traditional trails of academic authority. For example, a literary scholar in the study worked in a well-defined discipline where she has been a recognised expert. A sense of authority is based on knowing sources very well. However, to satisfy the requirements of a particular project, she had to leave the established information paths and seek information in neighbouring fields. The process happened according to the dominant academic tradition by following the advice of a colleague in the other field. In other words, the researcher does not normally leave her village in search of information, but when she has to do that, it happens according to the rules of following well-established academic expertise.
For other scholars, negotiation of different disciplinary rules and project demands require trade-offs. When a historian decided to write a book aiming to open a challenging dialogue with traditional scholars, he excluded references to all sources that he felt would not be acceptable to these colleagues. However, he introduced a style of writing promoted by interactions with electronic sources, which ‘pushed the edges’ of traditional scholarship.
Academics who visit blogs, tourist web sites and forums about extraterrestrials leave an academic neighbourhood to roam around the city and listen to stories in dark alleys and under bridges. Stories from the underbelly of the city are often socially unacceptable in established disciplinary clubs in university quarters. Scholars who frequent the clubs, but cross the boundaries of academia, often learn from the ‘dark stories’ and consider how to present them according to accepted disciplinary conventions. In non-traditional fields within traditional disciplines, it means more or less successful ‘dressing up’ of research, which Participant 5/2 described as a way of using disciplinary theories and citations to make unconventional research acceptable to the mainstream discipline. In more traditional literary and historical studies, it means taking unaccepted sources into account without referring to them openly.
Scholars who do cross boundaries against the rules of their discipline, would do so because information is perceived as critical or there is a perception that a ‘life in the round’ is no longer functioning. Rapid changes in academia, inconsistent systems of promotions and evaluation of scholarly work, as well as conflicting expectations, indicate that academic life is functioning with a number of difficulties. Participant 15/1 talked about experimenting ‘without an umpire’ in mind in the environment in which some peers are interested in experimental work with the multiplicity of resources while others do not think that it meets scholarly standards. According to this participant, scholars who work in new fields start within a traditional disciplineand gradually split away when another community takes shape.
In a metropolis, news travels fast and it is impossible to maintain local customs untouched, but that does not negate the existence and influence of small villages. The balance between the preservation of a village life and the interaction with the metropolis — sometimes threatening, sometimes alluring – is in flux even in the most sheltered villages.
It may be that other professional worlds work in a similar way, but more research is needed to establish the evidence. However, an understanding of social processes in academia helps us to enhance our understanding of knowledge processes and wider societal changes. It helps us also to provide information and professional development services tailored with deeper understanding of our clients’ information worlds.
CHATMAN, E. A. 1999. A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50, 207-217.
CHATMAN, E. A. 2000. Framing social life in theory and research. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 1, 3-17.
This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.