29 March 2009

The behaviour/practice debate: Reijo's response

Tom has written a thoughtful review about my book entitled Everyday Information Practices: A Social Phenomenological Perspective (Scarecrow Press, 2008). In particular, he raises well-founded questions about the conceptual and terminological issues regarding the relationship between information behaviour and information practice.

As Chapter 2 of my book suggests, the exact definition of the concepts of behaviour, action, activity and practice is very difficult, due to their generic nature. Hence, no wonder that there is no consensus among philosophers, psychologists and sociologists about how to specify them. Probably, these terms will remain semantically open in the future, too. This will not make it easier for us how to select and justify ”umbrella terms” such as information behaviour/ human information behaviour and information practice.

One of the main critical points in the book review concerns the ”straw man” argument by which I prefer ”practice” to ”behaviour”. In this context, Tom comments on the ”straw man” argument concerning behaviourism. While characterizing behaviourism, I drew on George Graham´s article published in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I found it easy to agree with Graham in that the behaviourist approach seems to hopelessly restrictive.

Since ”behaviourism” seems to be a ”dead horse” in the pychological discourse, I do not focus on the limitations of behaviourism to undermine the credibility of the concept of ”information behaviour”. As Tom rightly points out, Schutz criticized behaviourism but employed the concept of ”behaviour” in a broad sense. In my view, Schutz´s way to approach the concept of behaviour comes close to Tom´s definition: ”'Human behaviour' ... is about how people act in the world, and it is well understood that a person's actions have both cognitive and social dimensions”.

Further, while commenting on the stimulus – response mechanism, Tom refers to a quotation taken out from page 142 of my book: ”Overall, the findings confirm the results of earlier studies suggesting that health and consumption related issues tend to trigger most processes of problem-specific information seeking in everyday contexts”. However, I would like to understand the ”triggers” here more broadly, not merely as stimuli since this view reminds us of the behaviourist approach. For example, consumption issues (as triggers of information seeking) are not reducible to immediate stimuli experienced and reacted to in the supermarket. The triggering factors may also incorporate values, interests and norms that orient habitual ways to prefer individual products, for example.

Thus, it seems to me that in the book review, the role given to the ”straw man” argument related to behaviourism is more central than it may deserve. Overall, I´m less interested in refuting ”information behaviour” by drawing on arguments such as the limitations of behaviourism. The gist of my critical notions is that so far we lack detailed discussion about how to define ”behaviour” in the context of seeking, retrieving, using, sharing, organizing and managing of information. However, my main interest lies in the positive characterization of information practices composed of specific information actions. Therefore, I would not define information practice as ”a mode of behaviour” as Tom suggests ; -) Information practice may be understood in its own right, as summarized in the model of everyday information practices, presented on page 65 of my book.

However, Tom´s questions about how to relate ”habituated behaviour” and ”information practice” and how modes of information behaviour become habituated and why, are highly relevant. Interestingly, we face here the question about ”action” because it seems to be a constituent of behaviour and as well as practice. Tom wrote: ”'Human behaviour' on the other hand, is pretty unequivocal: it is about how people act in the world, and it is well understood that a person's actions have both cognitive and social dimensions”. If we replace ”human behaviour” with ”information practice”, the end result might be quite same, at least in the empirical world of everyday life.

Tom illuminates the nature of habituated behaviour by taking an example of a person calling in on the newsagent for his copy of The Times. In the light of this example Tom wonders why ”the author does not address this possibility in the empirical chapters and I suspect that this is because instances of information behaviour of various kinds play such a small part in the everyday world of the individual that there is little occasion for how they are performed to become habituated”. Again, this is a good point. On the other hand, my book offers examples of habituated information practices such as the deeply ingrained habit to read morning newspaper while having breakfast (p. 102). Tom is right in that I have not explored how such ways to seek information became habituated (unfortunately, my empirical data were insufficient for this purpose since I concentrated on current habits). Overall, Tom´s idea that practice may be defined as "habituated behaviour" captures very well the fact that practices are constituted by relatively established and sometimes even routine actions. However, as I suggest in Fig. 3.3. (p. 65), practices may also incorporate non-routine elements (actions). Practices are not not necessarily composed of frozen habits since habituated actions evolve, too. From this perspective, defining practice as habituated behaviour may narrow its meaning.

All in all, Tom´s review captures very well the main points of my book. I learned a lot while scrutinizing the review. We define and interpret the main ”umbrella concepts” somewhat differently but this may enrich discussion in our field and keep it alive. Information behaviour and information practice are closely related. They incorporate common elements such as "action" but still they are not reducible to each other. Behaviour draws more strongly on the tradition of psychology (or social psychology) while the conceptualizations of practice draw more on sociology (Bourdieu, Giddens) and social philosophy (Schutz, Schatzki, Wittgenstein). From this perspective, information behaviour and information practice complement each other.

To clarify the meaning of key concepts, it is important to continue the analysis of conceptual issues by scrutinizing how information behaviour and information practice are related and how they may be understood as diverse (complementary) aspects of a common phenomenon. Given the myriad of approaches to behaviour and practice in psychology, sociology and philosophy, I´m somewhat sceptical about the possibility to find a rigorous definition of these concepts. Probably, this state of affairs will be reflected in the attempts to define information behaviour and information practice as well. Nevertheless, we should go on, step by step to explore these exciting concepts and try to identify their similarities and differences. Apparently, such endeavour would help us to clarify the self-portrait of information research, too.

The behaviour/practice debate

The current issue of Information Research carries by review of Reijo Savolainen's new book on everyday information seeking. Before publication, I sent the review to Reijo and asked if he would like to respond. He did so, but did not wish to publish the response formally in the journal. I suggested, therefore, that we might be able to generate some debate, if the response and my reply were to be published on this Weblog.

So - if this is a topic of interest to you, please read the review and then Reijo's response. You can comment on the response (or the original review) by clicking on "Comment".

I shall publish Reijo's response as a normal Weblog entry and wait a few days before publishing my response.

17 March 2009

iMAC experience

For a company with an enviable record in the design of technology, Apple can certainly make mistakes. A lot of users have never been happy with the so-called 'Mighty Mouse', which seems to function rather erratically at times. Certainly, the one I have is no where near as positive in use as the Logitech wireless mouse I was using with my PC - in fact, as it will work just as well with the iMac. I may well switch.

Imperfect as it may be, the mouse is at least ergonomic - the same cannot be said for the keyboard, which is a design disaster. The keyboard measures just 28 x 17.5 cms - the num pad has gone, the arrow keys have been minimised and incorporated into the space normally occupied by other keys on the main board, the main navigation keys, such as Home and End, Page up and Page down have gone, there is no Delete key - instead one must use other key combinations to achieve the same result. Also, because of the small width of the keyboard, ones hands are brought together in the centre of one's body, instead of being spaced apart at about shoulder width, as the best ergonomic keyboards are.

In this respect, if in no other, Apple lags way behind Microsoft. I've been using one of the Msoft ergonomic keyboards for some years - in fact, I think it was the first one they introduced and one can now get several, not only from Msoft but from other makers - some of whom, unfortunately, don't operate in the UK. But wouldn't it be ironic if I had to attach a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard to the iMac and thereby destroy the beautiful unity of design?!

I figure that one of these days we are going to see a class action brought against Apple as a result of the all the RSI cases their keyboards must be generating.

16 March 2009

New issue of Information Research

Volume 14 No. 1 is now available at the site. Here's the editorial:


With this issue, we are back to a normal scale of operations, although 'normal' now means quite a load of work in managing the whole process. We now mount papers on the site as soon as they are ready, but wait until the due date of an issue before publicising. This is also the first issue of our fourteenth year of publication, but I think we'll hold off any celebration until the fifteenth - perhaps a special issue on scholarly communication might be appropriate for Volume 14 No. 1 in March, 2010. In fact, take that as an announcement: papers are invited for a special issue on scholarly communication to be published in March 2010. That means we shall need submissions in, let's say, July, August and September to get through the refereeing and copy-editing process. All aspects of scholarly communication will be welcomed, from the use of electronic communication in scientific collaboratories to institutional archives, open access publishing, and aspects of traditional print publication. Start writing now!

Regular readers will spot some design changes with this issue: the contents page, this editorial and some of the book reviews have all been redesigned, using div tags and style sheets instead of tables. The style sheets are based on those presented by Charles Wyke-Smith in his book reviewed in this issue and the new design should result in these pages loading a little faster than previously.
In this issue

All of the papers in this issue have been on the Website since editing was completed, so some of them already have a significant number of hits. I think this benefits authors, since they have the benefit of early 'publication', while the journal retains the regularity of a publication programme with quarterly 'issues'. I'll be interested to hear from authors as to the benefits, or otherwise, of this approach.

The papers cover a wide variety of topics and we have authors from Portugal and Chile, Iceland, France, Finland, South Africa, Taiwan, and Canada and the USA. The topics are truly diverse. Three deal with information behaviour: Palsdottir reports on a study of health-related information behaviour, while Savolainen is concerned with the nature of information use, and Meyer reports on information sharing in a cross-cultural context. One, by Bo-Christer Björk and his colleagues, covers journal publising and the share taken by open access publishing, concluding that 4.6% of the 2006 output was immediately available, with an additional 3.5% after one year, and 11.3% in repositories or on home pages. The remaining four papers deal with evaluating shared virtual work space, the use of intelligent agents in environmental scanning, the relationship between innovation and IT capability in the financial service sector, and the evolution of comparison metrics for indexing languages. In other words we seem to have something here for pretty well everyone.

Those whose interests aren't catered for by the papers might well find something of value in the book reviews. We have ten on this occasion, three of which deal with various aspects of Google and its service. We also review books on public library management in times of change, a guide to reference sources, a festschrift for Professor Peter Brophy, information architecture, and designing Web pages with Cascading Style Sheets - the latter has led to a new design for the book reviews and may influence other parts of the journal.

I noted in the last editorial that this journal is a collaborative effort and could not be published without considerable efforts by a large number of people, so I would once again like to thank the Associate Editors, the referees and the copy-editors for their efforts, as well as our colleagues at Lund who keep the server running!"

15 March 2009


One of the reasons I've been quiet on the Weblog is that I've been in the process of switching from PC to iMac. I've been thinking of this for a long time and using an iMac briefly recently, decided I had to make the effort. I had become fed up with getting that 'Sorry this application has to close, would you like to tell Microsoft?' message and I seemed to spend more time waiting for the machine to boot up or applications to open (or re-open) that I decided the switch was necessary.

However, it takes time, including putting VMFusion on to the iMac so that I can run Windows. Now, why would I want to do that, given the problems? Well, it is essentially only for one program - Homesite, my HTML editor, which isn't available for the Mac. The last version, 5.5, was put out about 8 years ago and I think that Adobe has probably abandoned its development. In the software industry, 8 years is a long time to go without a new version.

I've been using it since it was shareware produced by Nick Bradbury - he and his program were bought by Allaire, which was bought by Macromedia, which was bought by Adobe, which will be bought by... who knows? I find that blogs and discussion groups devoted to Web design on the Mac all have individuals who have been using Homesite as long as I have and who bewail the fact that nothing for the Mac is anything like as good. I can testify to this - I've tried out just about every freeware, shareware and priced html editor for the Mac and not one of them is anywhere near as good.

Why Homesite hasn't been ported to the Mac is a mystery - perhaps Bradbury's latest development, TopStyle, which is an xhtml, html and css editor, which looks very much like Homesite, will make the transition.

08 March 2009

"Knowledge" exchange

A rather comic announcement in Peter Suber's Open Access Forum, to the effect that:
Knowledge & Library Services at Harvard Business School and the Library at Copenhagen Business School are launching an international network of professionals interested in understanding the changing role of information (both tacit and explicit)– its creation, management, dissemination and use – in scholarly research, higher education and business practice.

"Knowledge & Library Services" eh? I wonder if they realise how pretentious that sounds? :-) But of course not, Harvard's stock in trade is pretension. At least the Copenhagen Business School is more honest, simply acknowledging that it has a library! Do either of them understand the impossibility of "exchanging" tacit knowledge, which is fundamentally unknowable? See Polanyi for an extensive treatment of the subject.

What this boils down to, presumably, is an attempt to exchange information - and the topics chosen are "Scholarly Communications and Open Access, Research Metrics, Cyberinfrastructure and Information Behavior". Well, that's fine - but yeas of observation of discussion lists leads me to conclude that the venture is doomed to failure. Outside of a very limited number of fields, however noble the intentions, discussion lists degrade to forums for the exchange of conference announcements, publication announcements and job opportunities - so good luck, guys!