10 April 2009

The behaviour/practice debate - Reijo's reply

Tom´s reply to my comment is very sophisticated and it elaborates well the complex relationships between behaviour and practice, as well as their constituents. Given the complexity of these issues, my comment below should not be seen as ”a final word” about this theme. I hope that our dialogue will serve as an introduction to a broader discussion about the key concepts used in our field.

As our dialogue indicates, we emphasize the need to clarify the meaning of the concepts of information behaviour and information practice. Studies focusing on the definition of the above concepts would scrutinize their semantic similarities and differences. Conceptual analyses are helpful in that they can indicate how the concepts overlap or converge, for example.

On the other hand, purely semantic analyses or the scrutiny of definitions may not lead us very far, after all. Therefore, it is equally important to reflect the discursive nature of concepts by investigating their origin and legitimacy. I have discussed this topic in more detail in an article entitled ”Information behaviour and information practice: reviewing the 'umbrella concepts' of information-seeking studies” (Library Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2007). I concluded that the above ”umbrella concepts” cannot be conceived of as semantically neutral constructs because ultimately, the definition of concepts draws on various discourses. Discourses are ideological in that they win over the speaking subjects by formulating a positive associative content for concepts so that they can legitimize themselves. From this perspective, information behaviour and information practice are not ”ideologically innocent”; both concepts incorporate the discursive power to name and legitimize.

Interestingly, one of Tom´s comments is very indicative of this issue. He suggests that ”the generic concept is behaviour – hence, for example, the ‘behavioural sciences’ – we do not speak of the ‘action sciences’ or the ‘practice sciences’: the others are elements of behaviour – actions, activities – or a mode of behaviour – practice”. Later on, Tom writes: ”In my understanding the common phenomenon is human behaviour which is composed of cognitive, physical and social actions, which constitute activities”. Obviously, the assumption that behaviour is a more generic (or common) category than action or practice suggests the existence of a discursive formation that legitimizes behaviour as generic. However, this may not be a value-neutral postulate because all classifications imply values of some kinds. Therefore, classifications tend to be sites of discursive struggles. In the above case, the relationship between generic (behaviour) and specific (practice) is constructed and legitimized within the discourse on behaviour. We may think that in a similar vein, information practice can be constructed as a more specific category than information behavior. Tom´s comment provides support to this assumption: (information) practice is conceived of as an element or mode of (information) behaviour. The power to name of this kind may reflect the view that the concept of information behaviour is fairly well established in information studies, while the concept of information practice is perceived as its challenger.

Tom provides useful clarifications to the issue of behaviourism. I will not comment on it here because as a whole, behaviourism seems to be a secondary theme with regard to the characterization of information behaviour. Instead of behaviourism, it might be more fruitful to shift attention to behavioural sciences and reflect in greater depth on how to characterize the attribute ”behavioural” related to information. However, thinking Tom´s reply, I found more interesting his critique towards the practice theories. Tom writes: ”The difficulty that practice theorists have is that by deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour, they lose all possibility of developing a distinctive, coherent theory”. Again, we may identify a site of discursive struggle here. However, as to the development of the theory projects of Bourdieu and Giddens, for example, it seems to me that they have not primarily been driven by the motive of ”deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour”. Rather, Bourdieu and Giddens were interested in renewing sociological theory by proposing conceptions such as habitus and structuration.

I agree with Tom´s view that the current practice theories are far from coherent. On the other hand, this criticism may be applicable to the theories of behaviour as well. Which of them would be most relevant for the development of the models of information behaviour? There may be no obvious candidates. Tom asks a similar question: ”if we are to adopt ‘practice’ in place of ‘behaviour’ – which theory of practice will we use, and how will we use it to explore what I call ‘information behaviour?

I employed Schatzki´s practice theory and in my view it provides a useful framework for the conceptualization of everyday information practices. However, in my view, we should not substitute practice for behaviour in the above context. Both information behaviour and information practice can be constructed as equally legitimate, without attempting to reduce one to another. In fact, Tom provides constructive examples of how to define practice in its own right as customary or habitual activity. On the other hand, he writes: ”I do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition, but neither do I view them as having equal theoretical status”. This suggests that in the end, behaviour should be given a privileged status over practice because the former is the generic and common phenomenon. Interestingly, in this way we are back with questions of power to name.

Tom concludes his reply with a request: ”if we are to use practice as an analytical concept we need to define it rigorously – not for all time, of course, but at least for the purposes of any given investigation”. This suggestion is highly relevant and it might be broadened to include information behaviour, too. Thus, researchers should not take any umbrella concepts as given. To this end, they should generate a self-reflexive and critical attitude to the definition and justification of concepts. This attitude is highly desirable, independent whether researchers prefer information behaviour or information practice as an umbrella concept that reflects best their meta-theoretical and methodological commitments.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating debate :)

    I was interested in Reojo's last statement that researchers should:

    "...prefer information behaviour or information practice as an umbrella concept that reflects best their meta-theoretical and methodological commitments."

    My tentative view is that in practice much of the research conducted within the two different concepts doesn't differ in any significant way (ontologically, epistemologically or methodologically). Indeed, I thought that Practice Theory in its home discipline of sociology is in it’s nature a ‘broad church’ encompassing a wide range of meta-theoretical and methodological perspectives?