Sunday, February 27, 2005

What's in a Word?

6.1 Cool, C. (2001). The concept of situation in information science. ARIST 35, 5-42.

This article serves as a basic primer, if you will, on the published writings, both theoretical and empirical, of researchers in the field of Information Science [IS], and others in related disciplines, where the concept of situation or to use another, related term, context, is applicable. From the start, Cool observes that the terms, in spite of being used (one could justifiably say over-used) repeatedly for upward of twenty years, no one in IS to date has attempted to define what is meant by either term. In many of the IS writings, the two terms are often used interchangeably, and this, in addition to the lack of precise definitions for each term, has led to misunderstandings and unnecessary confusion. This article, in the attempt to rectify what the author acknowledges as a basic oversight, is therefore long overdue. As a laundry list of the writings useful to IS researchers interested in the varied applications and varieties of situation studies it is invaluable; as a clarification of the two terms, the article comes up short. It appears that the unraveling of the relationship of situation and context as it occurs in the literature proved to be more daunting than the author expected and she abandons the evaluation and concentrates on the role of situation, alone.

The article serves up six basic perspectives on what situation means in IS research. Breaking the issues down into Problematic Situation (essentially a phenomenological approach), Social Interaction Theory, The Situated Action Model, The Theory of Situation Awareness, the Person-In-Situation Model and the Situation as Information Environment, Cool presents the leading articles associated with each theoretical approach, and in those instances where she is heavily invested in the theory, she gives an extensive analytic investigation, providing probing insights and explanations. Theories of situation in IS that Cool does not warm to are less aggressively discussed, often presented as a running list of titles with no additional insights offered. As an example, it appears that Cool, in spite of her own contribution to the discussion of Social Interaction Theory (an application I am particularly interested in due to the curious questions suggested by the personal associative contexts between say, a “school library clerk” and a school child, or the social interaction required between an researcher and an impersonal data base) she only devotes a scant three pages, while her assessment of the Problematic Situation, the lead off discussion, is given four and a half. I must admit, that the phenomenological approach represented here by the work of Schutz & Luckmann, Taylor, Dervin, Kuhlthau, and heavily on the investigations of Belkin and his colleagues whose definition of the concept of the anomalous state of knowledge (discussed in reading 3.2) is key to an understanding of IS in general, are some of the more original theoretical writings in the field. (In the interest of avoiding redundancy I am not going to discuss the various points presented in each of the six theoretical approaches outlined by Cool as the purpose of the article itself is to do that. In many cases, moreover, the writings Cool presents here are the subjects of other readings in this journal exercise.)

There are a few things that kept grating on me while reading the review list. Cool consistently refers to “the IS literature” and that certain concepts “(have) a long tradition in IS” as if IS is a pedagogical field with a pedigree equivalent to history, geology, philosophy or any of the other disciplines. This in spite of the disclaimer in the introduction that “the theoretical literature reviewed spans several disciplines, including sociology, psychology, anthropology, and communication.” A head count of Cool’s bibliography bears this disclaimer out. All the entries relating to IS date from the late 80s to 2000, with the exception of Belkin’s contributions from the early 80s. All bibliographic entries dated earlier (one can safely assume the seminality of these) come from other disciplines including the ones cited by Cool. I am reminded of Bates’s concept of “berry-picking” here, in the tendency of “new sciences” like IS to play hopscotch through existing disciplines for ideas. (Have you ever spoken to someone with a PhD in History from Harvard about how they feel about Yale’s American Studies program? If you have, then you know what I mean.)

For the record:
According to Webster's:

context is defined as "the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning" (think New York Times here, they way they "surround a story".)
situation is defined as " the way in which something is placed in relation to its surroundings"

Take the sentence "The fish is in the frying pan."

The frying pan is context.

The fish is in the situation.

No comments: