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Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication
(Ronald A. Rice, Maureen McCreadie, and Shan-Ju L. Chang)

Research Report by Nowell Marshall
(created 6/13/06; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Browsing Practices

Original Object for Study description

Summary:
Rice, Ronald A., Maureen McCreadie, and Shan-Ju L. Chang, Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication. Cambridge: MIT, 2001. This book synthesizes literature in relevant fields of information and communication studies to articulate an interdisciplinary framework for understanding the way users access and browse. Specific fields included in the study are described below.

Description:
The United States and other developed countries have become information societies that create, process, communicate, use, and evaluate information. This development has prompted questions about information inequity and the digital divide. Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication accounts this problem to an incomplete conceptualization of the information-seeking process: “processes of accessing and browsing information and communication are fundamental and very general human behaviors, not limited solely to the arena of seeking print or computer information” (3). The book rethinks the issues by synthesizing relevant research to offer interdisciplinary definitions of access and browsing in relation to information and communication systems. The authors then employ these definitions to construct, test, and revise frameworks for accessing and browsing information and communication.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I first surveys the literature on access, which “can be understood from the perspective of privileged, as well as excluded, access” (4). To establish a coherent definition of access, the authors examine the concept of access across six fields (library studies, information science, information society, mass communication, organizational communication, and economics of information). They consider access in these areas in terms of common issues and concerns implied in discussions of accessibility, influences and constraints on access to information, and assumptions and primary issues in each area that cause differences among their views of access. Subsequent chapters formulate, test, and refine an initial framework of access.

This part of the study ends with a summary of the implications of this initial framework. Information is generally conceived as “a thing (resource/commodity) that can be produced, purchased, replicated, distributed, manipulated, passed along, controlled, traded, and sold” (157). Access is most commonly conceptualized in terms of access to knowledge (158). Facets of access include context, situation, and outcome (159). Access is mediated by a variety of factors, including physical, cognitive, affective, economic, social, political, and technological constraints (160-161). Causes of differing conceptions of access are explored, and the initial framework is evaluated—its chief limitation being “the difficulty of observing or interviewing nonusers of information systems” (166).

Part II of the book surveys the literature on browsing, a term that the authors argue “has been used by different groups of researchers often without a clear description or definition, or with specific but different meanings assigned to it” (9). As result, the term browsing remains vague and is often conflated with searching. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive definition of browsing, this part of the study situates its topic in six different research fields (library user studies, end-user computing and information science, consumer research, audience research, organizational research, and environmental planning and architectural design). Research questions include: the nature of browsing, why people do it, its underlying dimensions, existing types of browsing, what influences browsing habits, and the consequences of browsing. Subsequent chapters construct, test, and refine an initial framework of browsing.

This part of the study ends with a summary of the implications of this initial framework. The initial browsing model accounted for four dimensions: behavior, motivation, cognition, and resource. Key drawbacks of browsing include its potential for “considerable negative outcomes (or intervening limitations): (1) high demands on attention, (2) low efficacy for specific retrieval, (3) exposure to distractions, (4) information overload, (5) vulnerable to personal biases cognitive reinforcement, (6) subject to limitations on browsing by most current systems, and (7) diminishing returns” (292). Thus, browsing may be defined as successful, unsuccessful, or partially successful. In defining browsing in this way, the study presumes an ideal user whose goals coincide with rational production and utility. Although difficult to implement in a study of this type, a more critical consideration of the term user in relation to issues such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, education, and other factors would augment the study’s interdisciplinary appeal and use value.

A brief conclusion suggests the study’s implications for accessing information and communication: “The framework for accessing information has the potential to serve as the basis for development of a diagnostic evaluation tool for systems designers, implementers and managers, and users” (300). Furthermore, “Consideration of access to information with sensitivity to non-elite users or non-users of information systems carries implications for theory and research as well as for policy and practice” (300). Regarding browsing information and communication, the authors conclude that browsing “is an examination of unknown items of potential interest by scanning or moving through an information space” (302). Thus, “the nature of browsing is fundamentally evaluative and inclusive…browsing is a situated learning process, allowing people to acquire information or engage in communication of interest at their convenience” (302-303).

Research Context:
This study should interest scholars from the various fields it surveys, especially since it provides a much-needed interdisciplinary approach to the key terms, “access” and “browsing,” which are often used in vague and unsatisfying ways within discrete but related fields. To be useful in an interdisciplinary cultural studies context such as Transliteracies, the study would need to move beyond binary concepts of user versus nonuser by more critically defining and situating the term user within the realm of identity politics.

Technical Analysis:
The authors employ a three-step methodology: ”(1) developing—analyzing and synthesizing the research literatures of related areas to propose a preliminary framework; (2) testing—conducting a main case study to check the framework and content coding, revising the framework and content coding accordingly, and for the access framework only, conducting a follow-up case study to ensure theoretical variance; and (3) refining—evaluating and assessing the revised framework to arrive at a refined framework (12). Regarding access, six literatures are reviewed: library studies, information science, information society, mass communication, organizational communication, and economics of information. Six literatures are also reviewed for browsing: library user studies, end-user computing and information science, consumer research, audience research, organizational research, and environmental planning and architectural design (14).

Regarding methodology, the authors acknowledge the difficulty of differentiating among various literatures, particularly within interdisciplinary fields, but they argue that the categories themselves are less important within their overarching goal of providing a comprehensive picture of current, interdisciplinary scholarship. They also note that even though their study is not exhaustive, “the reviews here are more complete within the traditional literatures of information science, library studies, and information society than any prior study of access or browsing” (14). Concerning framework testing and refining, the authors employed “in-depth case studies, involving observations, computer research logs, interviews, and surveys) to test the validity and scope of the particular framework and its theoretical propositions” (15).

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
To be effective, online reading technologies require interfaces that maximize the user’s ability to access and browse information and communication in a variety of institutional, business, and entertainment settings. Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication offers interdisciplinary definitions of access and browsing and proposes ground-level frameworks that provide an excellent starting point for projects such as Transliteracies. As the authors note, their attempt to provide a comprehensive framework invites reduction, but it also offers connections among disparate disciplines. A possible drawback of this study is what appears to be a focus on institutional applications versus some of the more popular or entertainment-based applications of online reading that are also inherent in the Transliteracies working definition of online reading. An important area of expansion for Transliteracies is a more critical definition of the term user. Texts focusing on the intersection of identity and cybercultural theory and/or technoliteracy might prove complimentary.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Case, Sue-Ellen. Domain-Matrix: Performing Lesbian at the End of Print Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
  • Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
  • Hills, Matthew. Fan Culture. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Kearney, Mary. Girls Make Media. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Morse, Margaret. Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Rice, Ronald A., Maureen McCreadie, and Shan-Ju L. Chang Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication. Cambridge: MIT, 2001.
  • Samsel, Jon and Darryl Wimberley. Writing for Interactive Media: The Complete Guide. New York: Allworth, 1998.

  tl, 04.12.06

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