No. Wp-96-04



Structure and action:
Towards a new concept of the information use environment

ASIS 1996 Annual Conference:
Contributed Paper

Howard Rosenbaum
(To whom correspondence should be sent)
Main Library 012
Indiana University
Phone: 812.855.3250
Fax: 812.855.6166

Center for Social Informatics

Table of Contents:

1. Abstract | 2. Introduction | 3. The information use environment |
4. The information use environment reconsidered |
5. The information use environment of managers | 6. Conclusion | 7. Bibliography

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Structure and action: Towards a new concept of the information use environment

1. Abstract

One pressing concern in library and information science is to understand the social context within which the generation and dissemination of information takes place in organizational settings. This paper examines the problems involved in the attempt to account for, in theoretical and empirical terms, the social context within which information is generated, sought for, acquired, evaluated, organized, disseminated, and used in complex formal organizations. It describes the findings of research based on innovative theoretical approach that focuses on one important element of the social context of information, called the information use environment. Based on the work of Taylor [1, 2] and Giddens [3, 4] this approach represents a conceptual advance in the field that allows us to improve our understanding of the complexities of the working world of information professionals.

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2. Introduction

The determination of the relationship between structure and action is a fundamental issue in any discipline that seeks to understand something about the social world [5] and library and information science [LIS] is no exception. Recent literature indicates that debate over structure and action in LIS is far from being resolved [6, 7, 8, 9]. Echoing the debates that are continuing in other social sciences including sociology, political science, organizational science, and human geography, [10, 11, 12, 13], researchers in LIS are examining structure and action in the domain of information seeking and use and are taking diverging approaches to the explanation of these phenomena. There are some who argue that the key to understanding information seeking and use lies in a structural or systems-oriented approach, where the users?actions are largely determined by features of the information systems with which they interact and can be conceptualized as predictable responses to system outputs [14 , 15, 16, 17]. Others use an action-oriented or user-centered approach to explain how information seeking and use activities are generated by people who come to systems with information problems and needs [18, 19]. As has been the case in other disciplines, proponents of both approaches have produced findings which indicate that there is little consensus about the phenomena of interest, either theoretically or empirically. Reflecting on this situation, Taylor [20] comments that:

It is disheartening ... to see the number of studies on information use (in the thousands) and to realize that they have had little effect on the design and operation of information-providing systems. Nor have they - and this is even more disheartening - really told us very much about the actual use of information.
One reason for this situation is that system- and user-based approaches have been working at a disadvantage because each is saddled with an inability to account for the basic and necessary concept central to the other; system-based or structural approaches cannot adequately account for action and user-based approaches cannot account for structure. A system-based approach to the relationship between structure and action invokes a "top down" strategy to explain the fundamental organization of the social world. Structure has ontological primacy and all else, including action, is either subsumed within or is dependent upon it. Structure exists and has a discoverable order analogous to that of the natural world [21]; this is clearly stated by Wallace [22], who argues that:
Astrophysicists assume that the same processes (whether these processes are known or not) that prevail now and here on Earth prevail across the cosmos and throughout all past and future time,...similarly [social scientists] assume that the same processes (again, whether known or not) prevail across all societies, past, present, and future.
The concept of structure, however it is conceived, cannot be reduced to the level of individual actions and social interactions and, as a consequence, tends to "appear in social science discourse as impervious to human agency, to exist apart from, but nevertheless to determine the essential shape of ... social life" [23]. Within this world, users' information needs are described primarily in terms of "system definitions of what 'needs' are," so that "the needs of interest are system needs not user needs" [24]. The information that is being sought is stable, possessed of inherently meaningful content, and isomorphic with the reality it describes [25].

In the user-based or action-oriented approach, a "bottom-up" strategy is used to explain the relationship between structure and action. Social interaction is the basis out of which all else social "emerges;" institutions, social structures and macro social orders only exist though and because of the social interactions of individuals. By shifting the focus of theoretical and research attention from systems to users [26], information is no longer seen as an objective entity; it is "something constructed by human beings" [27]. The world within information is sought, constructed, and used no longer has objectivity, stability, continuity, and order. Information needs have their origins in incongruities, discontinuities, anomalous states of knowledge, or problems that arise as users attempt to construct sense in specific, concrete, and dynamic situations. Information uses are actions and interactions in which individuals construct sense and resolve problems as they move through situations.

It is clear that these approaches stand in contrast and opposition to each other. System-centered thinking is criticized for its inability to account for the dynamism of users and, consequently, for results that are limited, neither theoretically useful nor which inform practice [28]. Savolainen [29] states that "For one reason or another, LIS researchers being classified as sympathizers of the system-centered approach have not replied to the critique addressed to them, although it has formulated rather unambiguously." The user-based approach is criticized for lapsing into methodological individualism, where all "social phenomena must be explainable in terms of particular acts of individual persons" [30]. This leads to an inability to adequately account for the existence of such structural phenomena as institutions, because of the difficulty of establishing the existence of a structural phenomena on the basis of individual actions, especially when the focus of a user based approach is on patterns of cognitive behaviors. The importance of the issue and the difficulties inherent in these positions is clearly summarized by Thompson [31]:

The problem of the relationship between ... action and social structure, lies at the heart of social theory ... In the writings of most major theorists ... this problem is raised and allegedly resolved in one way or another. Such resolutions generally amount to the accentuation of one term at the expense of the other: either social structure is taken as the principle object of analysis and the agent is effectively eclipsed ... or individuals are regarded as the only constituents of the social world... In both cases the problem is not so much resolved as dissolved, that is, disposed of beneath a philosophical and methodological platform that is already located in one of the camps. Few questions in social theory remain as refractory to cogent analysis as the question of how, and in what ways, the action of individual agents is related to the structural features of the societies of which they are part.
Taylor's work (32, 33)provides an intriguing attempt to move the debate over the relationship between action and structure to different ground by working with these assumptions in a way which may allow researchers in LIS to sidestep the problems that have bedeviled other disciplines that have grappled with the issue. The particular concept of interest here is the "information use environment." [34]

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3. The information use environment

Taylor's [35] recent discussion of the information use environment [IUE] seeks to bridge the gap between structural and action- oriented approaches within a single conceptual framework. It focuses on the study of information in its social contexts and explicitly places the user at the center of its conceptual framework, a move which has been long called for in information science [36, 37, 38, 39, 40]. According to Taylor [41], the IUE is:

The set of those elements that (a) affect the flow and use of information messages into, within, and out of any defined entity; and (b) determine the criteria by which the value of information messages will be judged.
These generic elements fall out into four categories: sets of people, the structure and thrust of problems typically experienced by sets of people, mutually held assumptions about the nature of typical problem resolutions, and characteristics of the setting [42]. Sets of people are defined in demographic terms and include shared social characteristics based on "pre-determined" social positions in the economic, political, and cultural structures of industrial society [43]. Problems are generated within IUEs, and must be recognized and defined as such by users. Once defined, they determine information needs, out of which evolve information behaviors. They are dynamic and a user's understandings of problems change over time "in response to new information and in relation to the actor's position and perceptions" [44]. Problems are important in the IUE, in part because a problem is defined as "a compression of the user situation with all of the important elements intact" [45] and as a surrogate for the user's situation and IUE [46, 47].

The third category includes the set of assumptions which defines an acceptable range of resolutions for typical problems. Problem resolutions are important because they help to define the acceptable range of information uses. They also are dynamic; different types of information are perceived to be useful at different times, and the same information may be used differently at different stages of problem resolutions. The fourth category includes the material and social contexts of the setting or environment within which people live and work and which affect information behavior. In an organization, these contexts may be described in terms of goals, demographic characteristics, clientele, styles, formal and informal information flows, and social structure. All impose constraints on and provide opportunities for the enactment of information behaviors of users because the organization "sets the context for the use of information" [48]. For example, the actions of management establish, explicitly or tacitly, a corporate attitude towards information which pervades the organization.

The IUE is dynamic, and changes in response to the appearance of new information and as people act and interact within it. It is the setting within which information [49]:

Tasks and problems are generated...The structure of the environment, in many complex ways, determines what information is acceptable (i.e., has value) for clarification, solution, or alteration of a problem, or for the accomplishment of a task. A message is then given value by a 'user' who sees its potential 'usefulness' because he or she is in a particular environment and can relate the message to the problems and tasks of the environment. This is called the information use environment.
The study of an IUEs must be able to "describe [its] contours and dynamics in information terms," focusing on "organizations, people, and problems in ways that are useful to the design of information systems and to the understanding of the interface between system and human user" [50]. The IUEs of different sets or groups of people can be described in terms that "approximate the reality of the context, and not that description dictated by the information service or system" [51].

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4. The information use environment reconsidered

The IUE is constituted of elements which can be social, technical, or material and will have their most profound effects at group rather than at individual levels [52]. The concept is worth considering because it is described in such a way as to suggest that an accommodation between structure and action is possible, although the argument needed to reach this accommodation is not fully developed in Taylor's formulation of the concept. However, a resolution to this problem and a detailed explanation of one way to further develop this argument has recently been suggested which integrated Taylor's concept of the IUE into the structuration approach of Giddens [53, 54]. This version of the IUE is defined as follows:

It has the following components: The research reported below takes this version of the concept and employs it in the domain of information seeking and use to examine the phenomena of the social context of managers and information in organizations.

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5. The information use environment of managers

A qualitative study of managers in a public sector organization was conducted during 1995 which provided an empirically grounded description of the information use environment of managers in a public sector organization. Using interviews and the collection of documents from the site, a content analytic scheme was used to inductively derive the elements of the IUE of the managers in a data processing department. The data were rich, and only the findings which illuminate the concept of the IUE will be discussed below; further, in the interests of space, these findings are summarized and described at a high level of abstraction [55]. For a graphic depiction of the IUE of managers in a public sector organization, see Figure 1: The managerial information use environment.

Managerial information use environment

Analysis of the data indicated that the managerial IUE in the research site is composed of four major elements. There is a set of rules, which affects information behaviors, resources, which are used by managers as they carry out these behaviors, typical problems with which managers must deal, and typical problem resolutions. The rules of the IUE can be partitioned into those covering the organization and those covering information. The rules of interest in this research were those which were used by managers when they engaged in information behaviors, a subset of social practices. These rules affected the production, seeking, gathering, filtering, and sharing of information within and outside of the organization and were a subset of the much larger set of rules that constituted the managers' organizational environment.

The rules about work were broken down further into those which described the organizational setting, and those concerned with the job. Rules about the organization were further partitioned into five subcategories: those about work, business groups, technical groups, managers, and customers. The second major type of rules concern information in the organization, and was partitioned into two categories. The first included general perceptions and descriptions of general rules about information in the organization and the second included perceptions of criteria used to evaluate the relative utility or worth of organizational information. Taken together, this set ofrules provides a coherent view of the symbolic core of the organization, as it has been created and maintained by managers. While the claim is not made that these rules exhaust the subset of rules that constitute the first component of the managerial IUE, it can be said that these are rules that are firmly grounded in the data.

A second component, resources, is partitioned into three categories, allocative, or those material and social objects used by managers to gain control over things, authoritative, or those material and social objects used to gain control over people, and administrative, which are used to gain control over both. Resources are drawn upon and used by knowledgeable individuals during the course of interaction thereby becoming a mode through which power is exercised the social world [56].

A third component of the IUE includes the typical problems described by managers, which were partitioned into two categories, those problems that were internal to the organization, those that were external. This category was initially partitioned into internal and external problems. The category of internal problems was further divided into four subcategories, general problems in the organization, problems in business and technical groups, and problems attributed to organizational change. Categories for problems with information technology and problems with information were separated out because of their importance to the research questions. There were two types of information technology problems, those which were general in nature and those which dealt with legacy systems. There was also a category for managers?perceptions of the sources of problems. There were two types of external problems, those originating with customers, and within the external environment.

The fourth component was problem resolutions, which were partitioned into those that were general, internal to the organization, or external. A typical problem resolution was an outcome of an information behavior or behaviors considered by managers to have allowed them to move beyond or set aside their problematic situation. It was some form of closure brought to the portion of the manager's experience previously labeled as a problem requiring attention and possible action. A problem resolution represents an outcome which either maintains and reinforces some part of the information use environment or changes it. In this case, problem resolutions were partitioned into those which were applicable to internal problems and external problems.

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6. Conclusions

The research found that the information use environment of managers in a public sector organization is composed of sets of rules, resources, problems, and problem resolutions. The rules of an IUE are structural properties which enter into the ordering of the information activities that form one important segment of managers' daily lives in the organization. The rules provide considerable insight into that part of the organizational structure that focuses on information and into the patterns of information behaviors that managers are expected to carry out in the workplace.

In an IUE, resources are "media through which power is exercised, as a routine element of the instantiation" of action and interaction [57]. Resources both enable and constrain the information behaviors of the people who use them, and those who control them can exercise power over other people and resources. Resources cannot be conceptualized apart from rules because people must understand the generalized procedures that prescribe or proscribe the use of resources before they can have any value to those who would exercise power through them [58].

Managers described a set of problems that they thought were persistent and intrinsic to their IUE; they were handled, but would periodically reappear, adding empirical evidence supporting Taylor's [56] claim that problems are linked to specific IUEs and are "defined by the people in the settings." Problems are an important component of an IUE because they form one type of situated setting within which managers engage in information behaviors; some problems are also useful because they can throw the rules of an IUE into sharp relief by challenging them.

Problem resolutions are the final component of the IUE. Problems stopped motion and problem resolutions enabled forward motion to resume. The resolution of a problem, then, is indicated by the resumption of motion and the cessation or diminution in effect of the obstacle blocking the motion. The problem is the starting point of the situated interaction within which information behaviors occur and the IUE is reproduced and changed, and the problem resolution is a state bringing perhaps temporary, perhaps permanent, closure to the interaction.

This paper has addressed a fundamental issue that is currently receiving attention in LIS; this is the way in which the relationship between structure and action should be treated theoretically and methodologically. Taylor's concept of the IUE,placed within a structurational perspective [59, 60], was used as a basis for an investigation of managers in a public sector organization. The findings of this research indicate the utility of pursuing this path through the thickets of the debate over the relationship between structure and action. This paper outlined the elements of the IUE; subsequent research reports will detail the information behaviors of managers and describe the bidirectional relationship between the IUE and information behaviors in a complex organization. In doing so, the new concept of the IUE will be fully worked out in a theoretical context and deeply grounded in empirical data from one organizational setting.

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7. Bibliography

[1] Taylor, R.S. (1991). Information use environments. In Dervin, B. and M.J. Voight (Eds.). Progress in Communication Sciences, Vol. 10. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp. 217-255.

[2] Taylor, R.S. (1986). Value-Added Processes in Information Systems. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing.

[3] Giddens, A. (1979). Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[4] Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[5] Giddens (1984; p. 219) op cit.

[6] Savolainen, R. (1993). The sense-making theory: Reviewing the interests of a user-centered approach to information seeking and use. Information Processing and Management. 29(1).

[7] Taylor (1991) op cit.

[8] Hewins, E.T. (1990). Information need and use studies. In Williams. M. (ed.) Annual Review of Information Science and Technology. 25. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier. p. 145-172.

[9] Dervin, B. and Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. In Williams, M. (ed.). Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21. White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications. p. 3-33.

[10] Baber, Z. (1991). Beyond the structure/agency dualism: An evaluation of Giddens' theory of structuration. Sociological Inquiry. 61(2). p. 29-230.

[11] Stones, R. (1991). Strategic context analysis: A new research strategy for structuration theory. Sociology. 25(4). p. 673-695.

[12] Thompson, J. (1989). The theory of structuration . In Held, D. and Thompson, J. (Eds.). Social Theory of Modern Societies: Anthony Giddens and His Critics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 56-76.

[13] Fielding, N.G. (1988). Between micro and macro. In Fielding, N.G. (Ed.). Actions and Structure: Research Methods and Social Theory. London, UK: Sage Publications. p. 1-19.

[14] Taylor (1986) op cit.

[15] Dervin and Nilan (1986) op cit.

[16] Cole, C. (1994). Operationalizing the notion of information as a subjective construct. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 45(7). p. 465.

[17] Savolainen (1993; p. 14) op cit.

[18] Hewins (1990) op cit.

[19] Dervin and Nilan (1986) op cit.

[20] Taylor (1986; p. ix-x) op cit.

[21] Morris, R.C.T. (1994). Toward a user-centered information service. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 45(1). p. 21.

[22] Wallace, W. (1983). Principles of a Scientific Sociology. New York, NY: Aldine. p. 461.

[23] Sewell, W.H. (1992). A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology. 98(1). p. 2.

[24] Dervin and Nilan (1986; 11) op cit.

[25] Dervin, B. (1981). Mass communicating: Changing conceptions of the audience. In Rice, R.E. and Paisley, W.J. (Eds.). Public Communication Campaigns. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications. p. 74.

[26] Katzer, J. (1987). User studies, information science, and communication. The Canadian Journal of Information Science. 12(3/4). p. 17.

[27] Dervin and Nilan (1986; p. 16) op cit.

[28] Dervin and Nilan (1986) op cit.

[29] Savolainen (1993; p. 26) op cit.

[30] Knorr-Cetina, K. (1988). The micro-social order: Toward a reconception. In Fielding, N. Actions and Structure: Research Methods and Social Theory. London, UK: Sage Publications. p. 23.

[31] Thompson, J. (1989). The theory of structuration. In Held, D. and Thompson, J. (Eds.). Social Theory of Modern Societies: Anthony Giddens and His Critics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 56.

[32] Taylor (1991) op cit.

[33] Taylor (1986) op cit.

[34] There is an argument made elsewhere that the concept of the information use environment cannot adequately be considered without also considering the concept of information behaviors (Rosenbaum, 1993). Space prohibits the full explication and defense of this assertion in this paper, but the argument is fully worked out in Rosenbaum (1996).

[35] Taylor (1991) op cit.

[36] Kuhlthau, C.C. (1993). A principle of uncertainty for information seeking. Journal of Documentation. 49(4). 339-355.

[37] Hewins (1990) op cit.

[38] Dervin and Nilan (1986) op cit.

[39] Wersig, G. and Windel, G. (1985). Information science needs a theory of 'information actions.' Social Science Information Studies (England). 5(1). 11-23.

[40] Mick, C.K., Lindsey, G.N., and Callahan, D. (1980). Toward usable user studies. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 35(1). 347-356.

[41] Taylor (1991; p. 218) op cit.

[42] Ibid., p. 221.

[43] Ibid., p. 222.

[44] Ibid., p. 225.

[45] MacMullin, S.E. and Taylor. R.S. (1984). Problem dimensions and information traits. The Information Society. 3(1). p. 94.

[46] Taylor (1991; p. 224) op cit.

[47] MacMullin and Taylor (1984; p. 95) op cit.

[48] Taylor (1986; p. 36) op cit.

[49] Taylor (1986; p. 15) op cit.

[50] Ibid., p. 220, 24

[51] Taylor (1991; p. 24) op cit.

[52] Rosenbaum, H. (1993). Information use environments and structuration: Towards an integration of Taylor and Giddens. In Bonzi, S. (Ed.). Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science (ASIS) 56th Annual Meeting: V. 30. Medford, NJ: Learned Information. p. 235-245.

[53] Rosenbaum, H. (1996). Managers and Information in Organizations: Towards a Structurational Concept of the Information Use Environment of Managers. Unpublished dissertation.

[54] The evidence used to support the general findings presented here is detailed and extensive. The transcripts used in the research amounted to more that 450 pages, and this paper would be much more lengthy if the representative excerpts were included here. This evidence is reported in great detail in Rosenbaum (1996) and will be published in a forthcoming monograph.

[55] Giddens (1984; p. 218) op cit.

[56] Ibid., p. 16

[57] Ibid., p. 15

[58] Taylor (1991; p. 224) op cit.

[59] Rosenbaum, H. (1996) op cit.

[60] Rosenbaum, H. (1993) op cit.

(C) 1996, American Society for Information Science. Permission to copy and distribute this document is hereby granted provided that this copyright notice is retained on all copies and that copies are not altered.

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This document was prepared by Howard Rosenbaum. Comments are welcome. Obligatory disclaimer: At the time this paper was marked up [9.30.96], all links used in the bibliography were working.

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