Dervin, Brenda. 1976. Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information of Communication? (Part One of Information: An Answer for Every Question? A Solution for Every Problem?). Journal of Broadcasting 20, no. 3 (Summer): 324-333.
I quite enjoyed this Dervin article. But what I did not enjoy was not having access to any of the 30 citations! [A rant on this head is in the works as a separate post.] This is a mid-70s critique of the influx and impingement of the concept of ‘information’ on the field of communications, the misplaced overemphasis on it in everyday life, and the assumptions behind this which redirects research to the wrong questions. Also addresses why so many of the things seen in communications research contradict what they assume or are even told is important by subjects.
The main article focuses on 10 assumptions and their ramifications “which have unwittingly hindered efforts focusing on the information “needs” of average citizens” (326). These are:
- Objective information is the only valuable information.
- If a little information is good, a lot must be better.
- Objective information can be transmitted out of context.
- Information is acquired only through formal information systems.
- Information is relevant to every urban need.
- Every need situation has a solution.
- Information that is not now available or accessible can be made so.
- The functional units of our information systems equal the functional units of users of those systems.
- Time and space can be ignored.
- The connections between external information and internal information can be assumed (326, direct quote).
Again, not really a review. I pulled out some choice bits, for my purposes anyway, and added some commentary. My goal in these article commentaries is to give you enough that might entice you into reading them for yourself if they fit your research or interests and not to make it so you do not need to.
“Directly or indirectly, each of these scholars has begun to take the scientist’s dilemma of “creation versus discovery” and pull it out for review. Does humankind discover reality (and, therefore, simply collect information about it)? or does it create and invent reality?
The question is not answerable. But, we behave as if it is. Despite the relativistic nature of our empirical findings, we continue to assume that objective information about reality is obtainable. We assume that only if we work hard enough, long enough, we can have complete knowledge and that knowledge is orderable.3 We assume there is a given order and we are but discovering and confirming it. …
… This view of knowledge essentially posits homosapiens as a totally adaptive creature, using information about reality to adapt to reality. Yet, the history of humankind is marked … by creation, invention, and control of surroundings. Humankind at least in part, creates its own reality” (325) [some formatting issues left in].
The above addresses a fundamental disconnect between communication theory and reality-as-observed.
A “three-type formulation of information is suggested as potentially more useful than our current cybernetic denotation of the term10” (326).
“Information1 – the innate structure or pattern of reality; adaptive information; objective information; data” (326). [Only included as this kind comes under critique below. If you want to know all 3 read the article.]
The following will address bits and pieces from the sections on the 10 assumptions.
A1 : Misses a “great deal of information-relevant behavior because it appears in unexpected places” (327).
Exactly! Information science (IS) is just as guilty of this. Well, truthfully, IS is guilty of all of these, or certainly was in 1976. We, as well as Comm, have made some progress I would like to believe. Our theories are beginning to back away from these seriously limiting assumptions but I see little evidence of that theoretical progress informing the design of our systems.
A1 : “Instead of positing the use of advice, rules, and interpersonal help as an informing function (information3), we label this high use of informal sources as a “law of least effort” that operates in the acquisition of information” (327).
Reading this was like the hard slap in the face that I needed. Besides the (seeming) general insider superiority of one uttering the “law of least effort” I was also bothered by it for reasons I could not put my finger on. But this so-called law has simply been a smoke screen for our (and Comm’s) unwillingness to tackle the complexities of behavior and situations “covered” by this law. It is not a law; it is simply laziness on our part. And damaging laziness at that. Please realize that I am not saying that no one takes the road of least effort on occasion, myself included, but that much of what is covered by this “law” is not that. It only looks that way to us as we, as researchers, have taken the same road and have not adequately theorized the divergent behaviors we have lumped together under this “law.”
A2 : “Yet, if individual knowing is some unknown combination of objective reality plus personal reality, then being informed is not the same thing as having information1. We have focused on the “information” and not the “informing”” (328).
We are so utterly guilty as charged here. As is much of society, popular and scientific, which seems to think that having or supplying information is the same as being informed/informing.
A3 : The assumption of objective information mapping to reality and that this is orderable leads to certain approaches to education and the mass media. “We are bombarded with isolated facts. Because each fact is assumed to have a proper place, each fact is assumed to have informing utility” (328). But this approach leads to much information being “rejected and ignored as being irrelevant and meaningless” (329).
There is also a tie-in to information literacy (IL) instruction here due to the fact that “our education system is geared primarily for the transmission of information1 rather than instruction and practice on how to become informed” (329). If our educational system did focus on these important areas of becoming/being informed then there would be less need for IL at the college-level, or perhaps it could focus primarily on library-related systems instead of the ridiculous breadth of topics IL instruction is trying to undertake today; particularly ridiculous given the extremely limited amount of time instruction librarians have with students.
A6 : “We equate having solutions [which is “(after all, the raison d’être of the the system …)”] with being informed, being able to construct one’s own reality, being able to develop personal answers20” (330).
But see work on medical communication and seriously ill patients frustration with the system.
A8 : “As citizen’s begin to use information1 systems “designed for them,” they collide with those systems. The citizens, on the one hand, are asking for functional units that are meaningful to them. The systems, on the other, are protecting the functional units in which they have vested units” (331). Kapitzke also had a critique on this head as it relates to IL, although I did not address it in my post.
A9 : While we have acknowledged that people are embedded in social situations, we have been on a quest for situation-free generalizations. … Yet, we continue to search for enduring personally traits, enduring information processing strategies” (331-2).
A10 : We assume the connections between external reality and internal reality must exist based on the assumption of an ordered universe. But we do not study them. “Thus, we know little about how people do inform themselves and make connections30” (332).
I apologize for not being able to tell you what those superscripts refer to. Keep watch for a rant on that topic. Soon.
Dervin, Brenda. 1977. Useful theory for librarianship: Communication, not information. Drexel Library Quarterly 13: 16-32.