Living in a city of villages

The theory of “living in a city of villages” is based on insights from the transliteracy study and Chatman’s theories. It explains how disciplines and academic institutions determine social norms, group practices, and individual information behaviors in the process of academic boundary-crossing.

Academic small worlds

Chatman’s theories were based on studies of the information behavior of groups of people usually considered as information-poor. Taken at face value, it is difficult to relate their information practices to those of academics, who constitute one of the most sophisticated groups of information users. However, Chatman’s theory defines general principles applicable to any group whose life is defined by living in a small world. The strength of different disciplinary norms and traditions within academia is the reason for choosing the plural form in the expression “academic small worlds.”

For scholars, their work is an integral part of their life. They spend long hours working from both home and office, and feel committed to their job. For academics, work occupies a significant part of their life and often defines who they are. This sense of belonging and identity is one of the defining elements of a small world (Chatman, 1999). Scholars’ “life in the round” is about work “as usual” when novelties such as new technology are gradually integrated into the way their small world operates.

Social types are central to the normative behavior of a social group (Chatman, 2000). “Legitimized others” are comparable with “big guns,” described by Participant 5/2 as academics in positions of power. They need to be convinced that a piece of research can and should enter the academic circle. Like scholars’ peers, Chatman’s “insiders” are people who are in command of norms and they judge what is trivial or useless: “They are the quintessential frame of reference for observing and controlling not only behavior, but also the information flow into a social world” (Chatman, 1999, p. 212). When the study participants talked about “students,” “young generation,” “traditional historians,” “big guns,” and “people who work in out there fields,” they described academic social types that play a part in shaping information processes.

Secrecy and self-protective behaviors are part of living in a small world. Scholars choose to make their private information behaviors, such as the use of electronic sources, public in relation to the norms, worldviews and possible reactions of their peers who have roles of “insiders” and “legitimized others.” An impoverished life’s world is often related to self-protective behaviors. It does not relate to an absolute amount of information that has been shared but rather to an undisclosed information need. Self-protective behavior is apparent in situations when the need for information is recognized as potentially helpful but is ignored, often because of the desire to “appear normal” (Chatman, 2000, p. 7). The lack of discussion about uncertainties related to the use of electronic resources and the unexpressed need for training are signs of an impoverished life’s world. The dismissive attitude of peers to the use of electronic resources is evident in scholars’ public discourse, summarized in “all that crap from the net” as a conversation topic (U Participant 7/1). This discourse is quite likely to make an individual researcher reluctant to ask questions that would reveal the extent of her or his own use, which may be seen as unscholarly or unauthoritative. The majority of participants talked about an area where information about the use of e-texts was needed, but that information had not been sought.

Theories of a “small world” and “a life in the round” are interlinked, and Chatman’s propositional statements that define the theory of a “life in the round” are related to the theory of a “small world.” According to Chatman, the “result of establishing appropriate behavior is the creation of a worldview” (Chatman, 1999, p. 214). For academics, the discipline is the main arena that determines a worldview. Although academics may use different paradigms in their work and may exhibit different levels of unity in establishing common views and practices, there are worldviews shared within a disciplinary community.

Discussions in the study about perceived values of speed in research, for example, demonstrate the influence of disciplinary worldviews and attitudes. Traditional and electronic research were compared in developing hand-made products, and preparing slow- and fast-cooked food. Although the speed of electronic research, enabled by online interactions, was convenient and beneficial, there was an uneasy feeling that fast research was less valued. Participant 14/1 said that peers would not appreciate research based on e-resources, and Participant 2/1 thought that it might be viewed as “Mickey Mouse” or lazy. Participant 9/1 did not question the value of a fast study, but added: “I wouldn’t like to say this too loudly because I think a lot of the scholars would consider that it was a shallow attitude.” On the other hand, none of the scholars who worked in less traditional disciplines, such as media and communication studies, mentioned concerns about the speed of research and peers’ perception of citations of e-texts. It seemed that this way of working was in line with dominant views in their fields.

Chatman’s propositional statements of a “life in the round” say that participants who live in the round will not normally cross boundaries of a “small world” to seek information. When they do, it is because information is perceived as critical, there is a collective expectation that it is relevant, and there is a perception that a life in the round is no longer functioning (Chatman, 1999, p. 214). While these statements are still applicable to academics, they need to be elaborated and interpreted for academic contexts. Crossing boundaries will be considered in the framework of a “small world.”

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