Critical ethnography for information research in diverse contexts

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Poster abstract

Most research in Library and Information Science (LIS) is concerned with the design of information systems and the access and use of information in diverse contexts. These studies usually involve the understanding of the relationships among user, system, and context, for example, how identity of meaning is achieved, on the one hand, and the analysis of cultural forms and social situations, on the other. Cultural forms and social situations, however, cannot be viewed as some kind of background or container where activities and interactions occur, nor are they causes that effect certain kinds of information behavior. Rather, they are ‘affordances’ that bring forth, for example, user needs and technology uses (Day and Ma, 2009). The search for affordances and the analyses of the interrelationship between interactions (human-human and human-computer) and cultural forms and social situations beg for a methodological framework that allows critical and conceptual analyses and is empirical in which the understanding of the cultural and the social are central concerns. Critical ethnography is a critical and empirical research methodology that encompasses these two criteria.

Ethnographic methods are not new in information research. Researchers who investigate human-human and human-computer interactions are well aware of the importance of qualitative research methodologies and have adopted some ethnographic methods such as observation, interview, focus group study, and so on, in their research projects. How can critical ethnography supplement these methods and how is critical ethnography different from more traditional qualitative social research, then?

Theoretically, critical ethnography is based upon the works of critical social theorists such as Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas. The very strength of critical ethnography is its capability in explicating ideology and power relations by reconstruction of meaning and conceptualization of social systems. In his book, Critical Ethnography in Educational Research (1996), Carspecken has provided a practical guide for doing critical ethnography, with easy-to-understand explanations of philosophical and theoretical backgrounds throughout the text. His approach includes an application of Habermas's differentiation of three formal-ontological categories: subjective, objective, and normative-evaluative for the analysis of meaning and human interactions, on the one hand, and the differentiation of sites, settings, locales, and social systems, on the other. The theory of meaning core to this approach makes it possible to reconstruct meanings at various levels, from meanings that are obvious and discursively expressible for the members of a cultural group (e.g., producers and users of information) to levels that have significant effects but escape explicit awareness. The theory of social sites and systems makes it possible to find explanations for the prevalence of certain cultural and social forms of, for example, information production and use, and to discover both overt and latent functions served by these cultural and social forms.

Methodologically, critical ethnography uses a form of hermeneutic-reconstructive analysis: researchers make use of the hermeneutic circle to attain intersubjective insider views for their analyses of observational and interview data; at the same time, researchers take into account their pre-understanding and pre-judgment during the interpretative and reconstructive process. The circular feature of the process leads to alterations in initial interpretative frameworks so that they encompass those of the culture, subculture of interest.

Thus, from a more theoretical perspective, critical ethnography opens up ways of reconceptualizing ‘information.’ For example, critical researchers can look at information in the sense of ‘information as thing’ (Buckland, 1991), such as books, journals, cataloged objects (such as the antelope described in Suzanne Briet's What is documentation?) and so on. ‘Information as thing’ is not an objective entity (e.g., ‘facts,’ raw data, etc.) in the empiricist sense; rather, they are cultural products resulting from a process of objectivation and decontextualization. These processes are associated with social practices of different cultural and professional groups. As such, the production of information is seen as part of the modern social system that serves certain economic and political functions. The use of information, on the other hand, may be viewed as the recontextualization of information corresponding to the forms of life of different cultural and professional groups of users. In sum, both the production and use of information may be located within a theory of social system and are related to the economic, political, and cultural features of that system. The manner in which information is produced, the type of information produced, as well as the possible types of information that are not produced, can be studied in terms of the cultures of producers and the relation of these cultures to the economic and social locations of production. This means, among other things, that information production must be studied with a critical perspective. Similarly, information use can be studied in terms of socially constructed needs, in terms of ‘overt use’ and ‘covert/latent’ uses that escape the awareness of users, but serve various system functions. A critical-ethnographic framework makes it possible to study such things.

From a practical perspective, critical ethnography is potentially useful in many research areas in library and information science, particularly those involving human-human interactions and human-computer interactions. For example, we can gain a much deeper understanding of ‘information seeking and behavior’ and its relations to users, institutions, and economic and political systems because critical ethnography provides the framework for the analyses of the interactive dynamic of information systems and their users, on the one hand, and the conceptualization of social systems, on the other. In other words, a critical ethnographic study is capable of clarifying concepts such as ‘information needs,’ ‘information behavior,’ ‘contexts,’ and so on. Further, the conceptual framework of critical ethnography can be used to research other areas of information science, such as scholarly communication, human-computer interaction (HCI), and social informatics.

To summarize, the design of information systems involves an understanding of users and their relationship with contexts. Context, in turn, needs to be addressed in terms of cultural affordances, including an examination of the cultural horizons and social situations by which certain material forms and expressions are considered to be ‘information.’ In this poster, I will illustrate major features of critical ethnography and an example of a research design using the critical-ethnographic framework.

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