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.


  1. Diane Sonnenwald31 March 2009 at 10:13

    And then there's the term, human information interaction, to add to the mix....

    Great discussion.


  2. Well... "interaction" implies a response from those with whom we interact. I can't see information interacting with me :-)

  3. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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