Behind the Paywall: Re-Situating Information Poverty

Citation

Link to preprint at the Carolina Digital Repository

Amelia N. Gibson & John D. Martin III.  Re-Situating Information Poverty: Information Marginalization and Parents of Individuals with Disabilities.  JASIST. Preprint. February 11, 2019.  https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.24128

Access Issues

Paywall: Wiley, accessed via Interlibrary Loan

ETA: There is a copy now available at the Carolina Digital Repository. Yay for authors’ rights!

Hoo boy.  So.  First, I couldn’t find this article in our discovery layer, most likely because it’s is an “early view” article and not yet in an official issue.  So I had to search on the journal and browse. But I hit a paywall even though my institutional credentials were showing up, and everything looked like I should have access.  Since I have been around long enough to remember the time when we cut our library science journals to keep from having to cut other fields’ journals, I suspected that that access was pretend, but you never know, things change in journal packages.  I reported the issue to the wonderful people in our E-resources department, who responded within the hour to let me know the real deal, and I placed an ILL request manually. I had the article in my possession within a half of a working day.

Stuff I needed to know to make this work: 1) multiple ways to query the discovery layer; 2) that the volume field in the ILL form will accept any info; 3) to use the Notes field on the ILL form to explain the access issue.

NOW. I feel like it is important to say here that I am not listing these access issues as evidence that we are not doing our jobs in my library.  These are all issues that are inherent to a landscape where you’re dealing with a bunch of different contracts, a bunch of different publishers with their own paywalls and platforms, bundles, consortial partnerships, and those are just one part of the complexity.  No library is going to be playing error-free ball in this information world; what matters is how quickly we are set up to help when these barriers emerge.

TL;DR

I loved loved this article. It applies a critical lens to the information practices of an important population with important needs (moms of children with Downs Syndrome or autism), and the additional theoretical work that the authors have done is sparking thinking about my practice that is super useful, both in an immediate and an extended sense.  Basically, this article uses Chatman’s 1996 model of information poverty, with a particular focus on the intentional, defensive behaviors (including secrecy and deception) that people experiencing information poverty use in risky information-seeking situations. The researchers identify both individual and community-based defensive behaviors and use this data to theorize beyond existing models, which keep their focus on individual behaviors. The authors present a theory of information marginalization, which considers the structural factors and context that create information poverty.

And here we go…

So, one thing off the top – there’s some really useful, clear, definitions in this piece:

  • Information inequity: “the idea that some people have greater difficulty finding, accessing, accepting or using information than others” (1)
  • Information poverty: “a persistent lack of information access as experienced by a group or individual, usually as a result of social factors, embodied by various types of information-related inequalities” (1) (Haider & Bawden, 2007; Yu, 2006)
  • Information marginalization: “the systematic, interactive socio-technical processes that can push and hold certain groups of people at social “margins,” where their needs are persistently ignored or overlooked.” (1)

We start by situating the argument, and this time – it’s within the research discourse on information behavior. Specifically, a reason people point to as moral justification for doing information behavior research in the first place is the existence of information inequity and information poverty.  Most of this research focuses on the behavior(s) of the individual experiencing that inequity or poverty. It doesn’t look at the institutional context, or the structures that create poverty.  “This article pivots away from a focus on the individual toward development of a theory of information marginalization.” (1)

Literature Review

The authors spend some time situating and summarizing a specific article  — Chatman (1996) — which is a key to understanding how information poverty works, and which pushed the existing discourse in its day to deal with the fact that information poverty reflects something deeper than that which can be fixed by simply adding more resources.

Six characteristics that people experiencing information poverty perceive (Chatman 1996):

  1. I lack information sources or access to them.
  2. I am at the lower end of existing class systems.
  3. I need to defensively protect myself when I have to seek info from potentially unsafe people.
  4. Secrecy or deception about my information need is fine if I need it to feel safe.
  5. I have to  weigh the risks of seeking info against the benefits of having it.
  6. I will selectively integrate new information to their info worldview

Now, as important as this particular article was, it didn’t really get into (and the literature it inspired didn’t get into) the structural factors in play.  Neither has the information science literature around disability.

And with that, we’re ready to more specifically name the problem(s) and questions. 

Themes: information access, information poverty, and structures of information marginalization.

Research focus: Mothers of people with Down syndrome and autism

Theoretical model and method: Critical Disability: approaching disability as something made up of individual differences AND socially constructed barriers. This study is built out of a “critical, constructivist grounded theory perspective”

“…we acknowledge that we ourselves (as researchers, educators, and in the case of the first author, as the mother of a child with a disability) are positioned within the social contexts described in this article. From the interview through the data analysis process, we acknowledge the research as being co-constructed between the researchers and the participants (Charmaz, 2014).” 

Research Questions:

  • How do participants describe their information practices and information seeking experiences? Do they fit Chatman’s theory?
  • “What contextual factors contribute to defensive info behaviors and knowledge practices as described by participants.? How can we theorize the relationship between contextual factors and information practices customarily described as indications of information poverty?”
  • “What are the implications of focusing primarily on improving contextual factors, rather than changing individual or community information practices?”

The information needs of this particular group of people are big and important, and also quite specific.  These needs differentiate them from other parents, and they also change situationally – as children age, from place to place, etc. 

A note on language: The authors also take a moment to discuss their use of language (people first language to refer to individuals, and identity-first language to refer to communities), and acknowledge that the language around disability is contested. They have chosen to use the language used by study participants, even when that doesn’t reflect current trends. 

So, let’s dig into the concept of information poverty

Overall, the literature in this area continues to reflect an “cultural deficit model” that compares what people deemed information poor DO against mainstream, institutional cultural standards that reflect mainstream, dominant assumptions and standards — white, male, heterosexual, U.S. based, English speaking, etc.

Basically, there are unexamined, uncritical assumptions embedded within this discourse — that there is a “right” way to access information, that there are “right” amounts and types of information, etc.   The value and effectiveness of those existing systems aren’t questioned — neither in general, nor for the specific population being examined.  This orientation extends to disability.

“This narrow focus on individual behaviors, rather than contextual preconditions for those behaviors also frees information science researchers from the obligation to understand how marginalization works. This, in turn, limits our ability to develop information systems (human, and machine) that reflect and respond to the needs of communities at the margins.”

Methods

Population: a “purposive, theoretically driven sample” (Charmaz, 2014) – 24 moms of individuals with Down Syndrome or autism.

Semi-structured interviews, based on the information horizons protocol (Sonnewald, Wildemuth & Harmon, 2001).

Data was coded individually. Researchers met weekly to compare codes, discuss emerging themes and discuss their way through coding conflicts.

Themes were identified using constant comparative analysis, but the researchers didn’t claim or try to start from a tabula rasa point.  Instead, Chatman’s theory provided a starting point for coding. Later rounds of coding focused on “identification of defensive, proactive, or coping behaviors and contextual factors that contributed to those behaviors” (4).

Results

Information marginalization factors were identified and grouped — four main clusters emerged.  For each of these clusters, the authors present a table that includes: 

  • The factor they have identified and named, broken down into specific dimensions.
  • The individual knowledge behaviors and/or defensive behaviors associated with that factor.
  • The community-level practices and/or defensive behaviors associated with that factor.
  • Examples of data that the researchers associated with that factor.

I’m not going to give you all of that information for each one, but if you’re interested and can track down the article, there is way more in here.

First cluster: Perceived information deficits

This included the perception that info couldn’t be trusted or was being withheld. This was especially important when it came to information about rights.

Defensive behaviors include (but are not limited to):

  • Individual behaviors like: seeking info from other parents instead of professionals; intentionally seeking information from inside or outside of the local community, depending on the situation; fighting or advocating; building strategic professional relationships; being visible and present.
  • Community behaviors like: Social media group development or participation; information seeking/distribution by organizations; being visible & active in the local non-disability community.

Second cluster: Class distinctions

This included a lack of access to info or resources because of the level of disability, information that requires a high level of reading skills or education to navigate; barriers put up by racial bias, economic factors, etc.

Defensive behaviors include:

  • Individual behaviors like: waiting/ hoping/ expressing disappointment; making judgments about personal infolit relative to other parents; uncertainty about paying for services; actively seeking racially diverse settings; hiring private consultants.
  • Community behaviors like: pooling resources; perceived variations in access to information (e.g. subject saying “things are okay for me, but wouldn’t be for others”)

Third cluster: Situational relevance assessment. 

Inadequate support for age (particularly the age of the child),  racial and gender subgroups. 

Defensive behaviors include: 

  • Individual behaviors like choosing friend/support group based on these same factors (e.g. age of child). 
  • Community behaviors: development of cliques or micro-communities.

Fourth cluster: Risk assessment/ Selective introduction of information

This section describes the behaviors parents engaged in to protect themselves from perceived threats (direct threats to children, or threats to the parents’ ability to find information) in their environment, and to increase their agency.

Defensive behaviors include:

  • Individual behaviors like: avoiding seeking info from institutions, or using their own, secret, rubric to evaluate what they hear. Emotions like feeling overloaded, feeling bullied.
  • Community behaviors like establishing a social norm of person to person info sharing.

Discussion

Basically, the specific things experienced by these specific individuals navigating these specific situations matter. And the behaviors they feel they need to engage in to navigate these situations safely also matter — to them, and to those of us who share a mission to get them the information they need to do that navigation.

Gibson and Martin, though, are making an argument that theorizes beyond these specifics to name a broader phenomenon: information marginalization. They look at the information behaviors that they observe and explain them not as errors but as rational responses (developed by individuals and by communities) to injustice.  This is really important. Re-framing these behaviors in this way reveals a whole different set of solutions to the problems that these mothers face:

“Although some time, energy, and resources should clearly be dedicated to ensuring that these mothers have the information seeking and literacy skills to successfully find desired information and make quality judgments, equal, if not more, emphasis should be placed on ensuring that the information systems they use are intentionally and thoughtfully designed so they do not prompt mothers to engage in defensive information practices in the first place.” (10)

And a whole different way of looking at our practice:

“If we acknowledge that what we call information poverty is often a result of systemic failure of information systems to meet the needs of marginalized groups of people, we must also acknowledge that the solution lies in the development and improvement of those systems, rather than existentialist statements about those groups of people. This might also demand reassessment of the field’s own constructions of relevance, quality, and authority, and centering of a diverse range of information values, rather than imposition of those currently embraced by the field.” (11)

Selected References

To contextualize information poverty:

(The first two here are paywalled, but try searching and you might get lucky)

To contextualize the sampling method: Charmaz, 2014

I’m not going to say that there are copies of this online, but I’m not not going to say that either. There’s also this interview with Dr. Charmaz that digs into concepts from the book.

  • Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

To contextualize  the interviewing method: 

 

One thought on “Behind the Paywall: Re-Situating Information Poverty

  1. FWIW, I am a student of Dr. Gibson’s at UNC SILS. I thought you might like to know that she had us read your synopsis of the scholarly article (in place of reading the full work). This, to me, is a testament to the job you did of laying it out clearly and accurately.

    Your writing is highly accessible, concise, and clear (which, I guess is kind of the point of this research). Thank you.

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