B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology         Vol. 30, No. 3        February/March  2004

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Anthropological Approaches to Information Systems and Behavior
by Pamela Effrein Sandstrom

Pamela Effrein Sandstrom is head of reference and information services at the Walter E. Helmke Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, 2101 Coliseum Blvd. East, Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499; phone: 260-481-5404; e-mail: sandstrp@ipfw.edu.

    Editor's note: The following article is an abbreviated version of the author's talk given on October 20, 2003, at the ASIS&T 2003 Annual Meeting for the second Plenary Session: Humanizing Information Technology: New Theoretical Approaches in Play.

I am about to take you on a risky foray by connecting two apparently separate approaches to studying human behavior and its artifacts. One approach and set of methods derives from the field of anthropology. The other comes from information science. Anthropological approaches have lately grown in importance for some information science professionals and those in such practice-oriented fields as nursing, social work, counseling therapy, educational research or business administration. As ethnographic and participant observation research designs become more accepted and commonplace, I find it problematic that many people equate anthropological approaches with largely nonscientific, descriptive research aims, overlooking or outright denying their potential for generating social-scientific explanation and prediction.

I think that for many people anthropology connotes exotic travel, archaeological excavations or long sojourns among people living in jungle settings. It also connotes something unpalatable-sounding but fashionable called "thick description." Information science, to the uninitiated outsider, probably connotes computers and data files, a conception of infrastructure having to do with wires, plugs and protocols and unflattering objects of study called uses and users. Pairing anthropology's key informants with information science's users suggests an undercover drug operation, but what I have in mind is a fruitful research synthesis Bill Gates, meet Indiana Jones.

Exploring Common Ground

I believe that anthropology and the information disciplines share logical connections, although their literatures remain largely non-interactive and not all that useful to one another. What information science takes from anthropology, in my view, is but a small, generally nonscientific, portion of the corpus of research. Anthropology to a large extent ignores information science. Why is it always the weakest, attenuated versions of core concepts and methodologies that end up imported from one tradition to another, and not a more coherent world view? This seems especially true for ethnographic research strategies.

I would like to discuss some of the scientifically oriented approaches in anthropology. The idea of a scientific anthropology may surprise those who associate anthropology primarily with meaning-based investigations of local settings (what those familiar with the philosophical and social science jargon might label hermeneutical or phenomenological approaches). Despite the effort required to develop and maintain an expertise in multiple fields, bridging these two distinguished research traditions would be well worth our while. Researchers interested in pursuing such a synthesis might begin with the resources in For Further Reading. One patch of common ground that immediately comes to mind is the anthropological insight that culture is an information system or system of communication. Conversely, many technologists are beginning to look at information as a cultural construct. My purpose here is to show how anthropological approaches may literally humanize information technology and research practice in our field.

These are deep waters. Research paradigms and methodology involve issues best left to the philosophers of science. I claim no specialized training in epistemology, nor do I consider myself an anthropologist. I am, however, a longtime and durable field assistant. Working in Mexico and India over three decades with my anthropologist-husband, I have had the privilege to experience firsthand what it is like to try to bridge a cultural divide that is sometimes profound. Through painstaking participant observation and sometimes painful feelings of estrangement I believe that it is possible to understand people whose history, cultural traditions and productive systems are entirely different from one's own. I would like to share some observations from this fortunate marriage of anthropology and information science.

This presentation focuses on four issues that need to be addressed in adapting anthropological methods to study information systems and behavior. First, I examine culture as an information system. Second, I highlight some of the advantages and limitations of empirical ethnographic methods. Among them, I focus on one of the most important aspects of ethnographic research the matter of perspective, or what some anthropologists term the emic-etic distinction. Third, I make the case for paying greater attention to cross-cultural, cross-temporal generalization in information science research. Fourth, I focus on the importance of including material factors in the analysis. By way of synthesizing these points, I highlight a research strategy called "optimal foraging theory" from the anthropological specialty of human behavioral ecology, which takes into account all of these issues. I argue that optimal foraging theory promises both to humanize and increase our scientific understanding of scholars' information seeking and communication behavior.

Viewing Culture as Information

My first point is to acknowledge that anthropologists have long regarded culture as a kind of information system. This affinity among our central objects of study should make some of the methods and findings of anthropological studies useful to designers and analysts of information systems. The signature American four-field, holistic brand of anthropology is an approach that uniquely aims to integrate sociocultural anthropology, bioanthropology, linguistics and archaeology. Although the ideals of holism may be difficult to achieve by one investigator, this goal leads anthropologists today to work in collaborative teams or undertake systematic comparisons of their various findings. Anthropologists themselves are often broad in their interests. Many early founders of the discipline came to the study of the customs, language and history of preliterate peoples from such diverse traditions as law, philosophy, economics, medicine or field biology and geology. The holistic aims of anthropology have been greatly enhanced by this disciplinary and methodological pluralism.

Franz Boas, who founded the American school of anthropology in the early 20th century, was a strong proponent of the four-field approach. Trained in Germany as a geographer and physicist, Boas' early research led him into investigations of perception and, ultimately, the importance of the impact of the observer on the observed. The Boasian approach significantly influenced generations of American anthropologists and fostered an intellectual lineage that has always hotly debated research strategies, appropriate units of analysis and nomothetic versus idiographic aims (discussed below). Despite differences of epistemology and political allegiance, I would say that scientific-minded scholarship within American anthropology today offers the greatest potential for a unified social science.

Just 100 years ago Emile Durkheim and his nephew, Marcel Mauss, wrote a short treatise on the ways that people in different cultures classify things. Their essay concludes that the categories of people's thought derive from the structure of the society in which they live. Their aim was to show how the sociological or anthropological method surpasses psychology and metaphysics as a way of understanding the commonalities underlying logical constructs and shared systems of belief. Whether we regard information as a thing or as a process for analytical purposes, I think many of us can agree that information is part of an ongoing, organic cultural system, not a commodity that can easily be divorced from its meaningful context or content.

This fact ties the information disciplines to the wider social-scientific enterprise. Many interpretive anthropologists, among them Clifford Geertz and others who invoke Talcott Parson's philosophical idealism, define culture as a communication, symbolic or semiotic system and a source of "extrasomatic" information, that is, part of the shared patterns of meaning that lie outside an individual's knowledge system. In interpretive anthropology, social scenes and "cultural processes must be read, translated, and interpreted" (Kuper, p. 98) through a process that Geertz, following philosopher Gilbert Ryle, termed thick description. Other anthropologists have opted for a distinctively cybernetics model of culture as communication like that propounded by Norbert Wiener. As Roy Rappaport articulated in Pigs for the Ancestors a superb ethnographic analysis of the ritual life and ecology of the Tsembaga people of New Guinea culture is a negative-feedback system for regulating relations between the human realm and critical factors in the natural environment. Models of culture that incorporate a systems view of information are expounded; for example, in social exchange theory, French structuralism, evolutionary culture theory and other formulations.

Understanding Ethnography's Advantages and Limitations

Culture can be seen as information, and ethnography that defining anthropological product and method adds a richness and dimensionality to research on culture. The second point I would like to emphasize is that ethnography and the case-study approach should not be thought of as an alternative to science and quantification. In the first place, ethnography is not a single technique but is instead a general strategy for approaching research problems. It is a time-tested approach that has the capacity to produce a valid, contextual understanding of human behavior. While sometimes ethnography is regarded as a synonym for qualitative research, the most useful ethnographic accounts often yield significant quantifiable data based on a range of methods, for example, census taking, interviewing, content analysis, unobtrusive measures of behavior and diary or talk-aloud techniques. The qualitative-quantitative distinction is a false one. Good ethnography always yields quantifiable data.

One clear advantage of ethnography is that it lends itself to systematic observations of what people actually do in their local environments rather than reflecting idealized, highly theorized models. Ethnographic research looks for the system underlying observable reality and is responsive to changes in context. Ethnography improves the design of survey research and should be used more widely to validate research results. It is utterly engaging, requires long-term residence and face-to-face interaction within a community and sometimes the direct involvement by the researcher in the activities of the people under study (that is, participant observation). The downside of ethnography is its large investment of time and training and the difficulty of generalizing results from a single intensive study. Naive adopters of ethnographic methods fail to realize that success depends upon the systematic sampling of time and place and often significant prior knowledge of the context. In addition, ethnographic methods can present serious ethical challenges. A complicating characteristic of research among human beings is that they have a consciousness of their own along with ideas about the causes and consequences of their own thoughts and behavior. It thus is critical to differentiate the researcher's viewpoint from the viewpoints of people being studied. Research that confuses them is doomed to failure.

Paying Attention to Emics and Etics

Some anthropologists address the problem of determining from whose perspective an observation is meaningful and against which set of standards it should be validated by calling attention to the emic or etic status of data. These concepts were first proposed by linguist Kenneth Pike and elaborated over the past 40 years by sociocultural anthropologist Marvin Harris. Harris' research strategy of cultural materialism exemplifies the power of these analytical distinctions in practice and greatly extends our understanding of the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity. "Emic" derives from phonemic, a linguistic term that refers to the categories of sounds used by native speakers to understand and create meaningful utterances. "Etic" is from the linguistic term phonetic, referring to the acoustical properties of sounds discernible through linguistic analysis. If the different perspectives characterized as emics or etics are ignored or conflated, the theoretical aims and empirical data of the study will be rendered worthless.

Emics and etics are central to cultural materialism, a research strategy that aims to explain the differences and similarities in the world's inventory of cultures by focusing on the material conditions that provide the context for individual cultures. The approach is illustrated in popular treatises such as Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches or Cannibals and Kings or Harris' technical treatise entitled Cultural Materialism. Harris addresses cultural puzzles in our own service-and-information economy in his book America Now, which explains why technology fails and why the help won't help you. Some social scientists attempt to deal with the emic-etic problem but eschew the terminology, avoiding too close an association with cultural materialism. This avoidance is unfortunate and a detriment to theory building. I sincerely hope that information science researchers will pick up and run with Harris' formulations. Marvin Harris was a brilliant, formidable critic of everyone who flirted with neo-Kantian philosophical idealism and mentalist definitions of social phenomena, from Hegel to Weber and Parsons. I'll say more about philosophical materialism shortly.

Social researchers who believe they substitute synonymous concepts for emics and etics in fact settle for less precision by distinguishing between subjective and objective perspectives. The distinction obscures the problem of data sources because both the researcher and the people being studied have subjective and objective views of their thoughts and behavior. Indeed, both subjective and objective data can be gathered subjectively or objectively. Other contrasts in the literature such as insider vs. outsider, cognized vs. operational models, mental vs. behavioral frames, or the postmodern self vs. the other are equally inadequate analytical distinctions.

This issue of data sources and validation procedures is critical, whether we aim to achieve nomothetic goals and thereby produce generalizing theories and general laws or aim for idiographic goals of understanding particular local scenes from strictly local perspectives. The contrast between nomothetic and idiographic aims may be grasped intuitively by comparing a social scientist who analyzes systematic changes or patterns across time and place (producing, in simplified terms, a science of history) to a humanities scholar who documents phenomena or events situated in a particular time and place (undertaking a history of science, for example).

In emic operations, the researcher records information from the viewpoint of people engaged in the behavior under investigation, with the aim of producing analyses that the participants find meaningful or appropriate. As Harris puts it in Cultural Materialism, "the observer attempts to acquire a knowledge of the categories and rules one must know in order to think and act as a native" (p. 79). Emic data sources may include ideological or linguistic discourse, mental and emotional states, cognitive categories, symbols, beliefs, attitudes and values. In our field, good examples of research in the emic mode would be the cognitive mapping of libraries or online communities, user satisfaction research based on perceptions of service effectiveness, or studies of information needs analyzed, for instance, in the framework of Brenda Dervin's sense-making or Carol Kuhlthau's cognitive-affective models.

By contrast, etic operations require information recorded from the perspective of those versed in the data language and consensus judgment of science. Trained observers thus are the "ultimate judges of the categories and concepts used in descriptions and analyses" (p. 32). Etic data sources and measurements, which may or may not be meaningful to native participants, include census counts and other inventories, event or network analyses, time-motion studies, traces caused by erosion or accretion, kinesic data on body language and proxemic data on cultural use of space, and so on. Examples of information science research designed in the etic mode include reference-accuracy studies, question-negotiation analysis, unobtrusive or structured observation of browsing, monitoring and other information behaviors, protocol analysis of human-computer interactions, queuing at public-service points or server transactions and the range of bibliometric analyses that regard citations as a proxy for information use.

I emphasize this point about the epistemological status of research data to clarify what is so easily confounded in social analysis. Without more time to demonstrate these principles in action let me merely assert that information scientists should distinguish among emic and etic data sources and design research that does not privilege one over the other and takes both into account. Both perspectives often coincide. But where emic and etic accounts differ lies the potential for insights into, and explanations for, puzzling human behavior.

Making Systematic Comparisons Across Time and Place

If culture can be understood as information and ethnography is a fruitful approach to understanding culture, my third point is that ethnographic knowledge should lead some analysts to undertake cross-cultural, cross-temporal ethnological research. Ethnology is the systematic comparison of ethnographic descriptions a special kind of meta-analysis and the primary strategy for theory building in anthropology. Comparisons made across place and time avoid over-reliance on evanescent cultural norms and a shallow presence. I think that the vast workforce of our global information economy and those at the research front of information science and technology are especially vulnerable to time-bound and ethnocentric assumptions about people and their interactions with technology. To truly humanize the face of technology, we must see things from a more diverse, worldwide vantage.

National boundaries and power structures everywhere today are giving way to social movements based on ethnic identity and internecine conflict. This fact alone must increase our urgency in designing effective computational infrastructures and information-supply systems based on the ways that real people actually use them and need to use them in their day-to-day lives.

The unintended consequences of poorly designed information systems are painfully apparent. We are in the midst of an unprecedented concentration of ownership within scholarly systems of external memory and information supply to the point that libraries are being held hostage by rising costs. The broadcasting and media monopoly traced for years by journalist Ben Bagdikian continues unchecked by international law. Herbert Schiller has presented compelling evidence for massive disinformation campaigns in the communication industries. And the unrelenting absorption of our scarce human attention by high-tech gadgetry strikes me as symptomatic of an escape from reason and from theoretical formulations that ground us in reality. In committing to long-term studies of particular communities and asking research questions that allow for synchronic and diachronic comparison, we make the corollary commitment to valid, cross-cultural generalization, comparing problems across different communities and within communities over time.

Focusing on Material Factors

My fourth point about the importance of material factors follows this universalizing of our research programs. To achieve scientific, nomothetic goals in the information disciplines, we should focus on the technological, demographic, environmental and economic conditions that motivate and constrain people operating in social groups. And, I would argue, we especially cannot fail to take material factors into account when our research aims to discover people's cognitive categories, meaning systems or values. Making a case for or against philosophical materialism is outside the scope of this presentation. I would like, however, to conclude by suggesting how a materialist-oriented theoretical stance improves the study of behavioral variation by pointing the causal arrow from the infrastructural, material factors nested in a political economy and away from the almost instinctive sense that peoples' ideas must generate their behavior. The question for me is "What factors condition people's intentions?" The connection between intentions and behavior is weak, to say the least. The anthropological approach that I believe holds most promise for the information disciplines that is, cultural materialism firmly opposes the prevailing view that meaning drives behavior or that culture is the domain of ideology and values, not behavior. A materialist approach based not on a dialectical logic but on the epistemology of science offers a corrective to the supposition that science is dehumanizing. To create systems on a human scale what is needed is empirical analysis and more, not less, science.

A Cultural Materialist, Behavioral Ecology Framework for Information Behavior

I would like to present, in conclusion, a short synopsis of how I applied these principles in a study of scholars' information behavior, using the conceptual framework of optimal foraging theory. Developed by biologists and anthropologists, optimal foraging is a good example of a microeconomic, deductive modeling strategy, and not, like some ethnographic enterprises, an inductive fishing expedition. Optimal foraging models focus on the repertoire of human subsistence strategies, on decision making, game-theoretic constructs, methodological individualism and forecasting measurable outcomes, for example, predicting under what conditions food foragers will be specialists or generalists. I mention some of these features of the optimal foraging framework to pique your interest in learning more, as we have time for only a brief look at the method and findings of my study.

My idea is that scholars in an information environment are analogous to hunters and gatherers in a natural environment. I studied how anthropologists in the specialty of human behavioral ecology searched for and handled information resources belonging to literatures that I defined as core or peripheral to their research interests. I depicted this information environment empirically, using the bibliometric toolkit of author co-citation analysis. Without going into details of the analysis or illustrating this multidimensional space here, let me simply characterize human behavioral ecology as an active research specialty located at the boundaries of anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and biological evolutionary theory. Please see my other papers for more about the mapping techniques and features of human behavioral ecology.

By tracing the individual resource mixes of salient authors, colleagues and specialties that each informant in the study actually discovered, consumed and cited, I created a series of personalized co-cited author maps that were idiosyncratic but similar to the map of human behavioral ecology at large. To clarify the core-periphery structure of each person's bibliographic microhabitat, I divided each map into zones that included the informant's own cluster, the other mapped clusters and the names omitted from the map altogether due to their low co-citation with the authors in this particular configuration. Keep in mind that one's own cognitive perspective on a field of study is often isomorphic with bibliometric maps like these, although usually it is incomplete that is, the emic construction may or may not adequately match the etic formulation. Clearly, what is peripheral to one person's research career is the core business of another scholar's concerns.

My assumption is that the mix of names and specialties in these individualized renderings represents the optimal solution to the information problem at hand. This is not a tautological exercise, but a principle of deductive logic in optimal foraging analysis, akin to reconciling voting patterns with attitudes about candidates. I have set aside motivations for citing, which may vary enormously, and focused on the techno-environmental and economic constraints that underlie the decision to pursue particular information resources among all other potential prey. In a cost-benefit calculation common to all subsistence foragers, the value of a single information item for a busy scholar is measured as a net rate of return per unit handling time. That is, scholars discern the tradeoffs between the investment of time, effort and the opportunity costs of alternate activities, measured in some empirical currency against the energy or fitness gained by taking the resource. Calories are a typical proxy currency for energy in the food-foraging context, but I have proposed novelty both emic and etic definitions as the currency maximized by information foragers.

Scholars as Optimal Foragers

By pairing author co-citation methods with an optimal foraging approach, I was able to establish that these scholars indeed behaved as the theory would predict. I found that the resources classed as core were strongly associated with searching behaviors in which a social contact of some sort brought cited works to the scholar's attention, either a paper or book that had been reviewed before publication, received later as a reprint, or recommended by a colleague. In contrast, I found that peripheral items in the omitted clusters were dominated by deliberate, active searches for information. Such solitary hunting strategies were rarely observed within the core resources. The finding confirms what we suspect about scholars and supports Patrick Wilson's argument that even the studious prefer to get by with a gathering-style approach and passive information-supply and advisory arrangements. Productive scholars rarely undertake an extensive, active hunting-style search for information if it can be avoided.

The value of the optimal foraging approach, however, is confirmed by examining how handling, not searching, behaviors varied by zone. As predicted I found that the core clusters were associated with low-cost information handling, containing items retrieved from personal collections right at hand and items that had been referenced previously. Authors at the core were more often personally known to informants as collaborators or acquaintances, whereas most of the names at the periphery were not personally known nor had they been referenced before (that is, they were novel). The emic status of novelty can be contrasted with its etic status, predicting through mean author co-citation rates and other co-occurrence measures the likelihood of encountering a given pair of resources in a particular microhabitat. Peripheral clusters entailed temporary, rather than permanent, access by being obtained from local libraries or through interlibrary loan. These relatively high-cost handling practices were rarely observed at the core.

In summary, tracking scholarly microhabitats and scholars in the wild make good subjects of study for the anthropologically inclined among us. I hope I have clarified what, for me, are some of the main considerations in adapting research strategies and methodology from one community of practice to another. I have argued for a wider reading of scientific approaches from anthropology, especially from the cultural materialist and behavioral ecology perspectives. Attempts, such as this ASIS&T symposium, to humanize information technology through cross-disciplinary fertilization will, I hope, accelerate a fruitful synthesis within the information disciplines and anthropology.

For Further Reading

  • Harris, M. (1979). Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture. New York: Random House.
  • Kuper, A. (1999). Culture: The anthropologists' account. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sandstrom, P. E. (1999). Scholars as subsistence foragers. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3), 17-20. Available at http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Feb-99/sandstrom.html
  • Sandstrom, P. E. (2001). Scholarly communication as a socioecological system. Scientometrics, 51, 573-605.
  • Sandstrom, A. R., & Sandstrom, P. E. (1995). The use and misuse of anthropological methods in library and information science research. Library Quarterly, 65, 161-199.

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