Knowledge Creation Through Social Interaction and Whether “Information” Really Exists (by Kathleen Green)

On February 6th, we had a conversation during our bi-weekly BILD meeting about terminology – using the kind of terminology that is in line with our understandings of the world and knowledge and what we want our research to be all about. Among other things, we went back and forth about the words “triangulation,” “data,” and “information.” As I walked down to the library, after the meeting, I tried to work through, in my head, what it is that I think about all of this. I had the feeling that I hadn’t articulated my thoughts very well, because my thoughts on the matter aren’t very organized in my own mind. It seems to me that I’ll have to articulate it at some point in an effort to explain why I’ve done, what I plan to do, and what I think doing this will allow me to know and why that knowledge is useful. I decided that I needed to write it out.

Writing is something that I’ve recognized for some time now as a tool for figuring out what I think, or maybe more accurately, for working through scattered ideas and impressions in a way that creates an organized thought. I think that’s what I’ve done here, though it might still be somewhat scattered.

The word that I got caught on and thought needed more fleshing out was “information.” It was suggested at one point in our conversation that what we might really be after as we interview or otherwise interact with the participants in our research is “information.” My immediate response was that, no, “information” is not what I’m after. I have an impression of this word that says something about the nature of knowledge and research that I don’t want to say. But I couldn’t quite pinpoint or articulate what that something was. And I couldn’t tell if this was my own misinterpretation of the word “information” or something else.

The OED definition of “information” that seems closest to the understanding of the word that I don’t want to associate my research with is: “Separated from, or without the implication of, reference to a person informed: that which inheres in one of two or more alternative sequences, arrangements, etc., that produce different responses in something, and which is capable of being stored in, transmitted by, and communicated to inanimate things.”[1] This seems to be “information” in the sense that it’s used in, for example, “information technology.” I think that what I am trying to disassociate from in this concept of “information” is that it seems to be stripped of the personal and social aspects of the generation and sharing of interpretations and ideas (indeed, it’s not about “interpretations” or “ideas” at all). Of course, this is not the only definition of “information” given by the OED. There are many, in fact. Two others are: “Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event; that of which one is apprised or told; intelligence, news.” And: “The action or fact of imparting the knowledge of a fact or occurrence; communication of news; notification.”

These last two definitions leave a bit more room for the idea that human interpretation is a part of the concept of “information.” Each of them involve the act of communicating something, but then people think all kinds of different things about the nature of communication, so they still leave me somewhat fuzzy about what this word means. If I were to use the term “information” to describe what I am hoping to get from my participants, then I would want to be sure that this term includes an understanding of “information” as being socially generated, context dependent and continually open to (re)interpretation.

Let me use this very text as an example of what I mean. As I wrote at the beginning, I’m not writing about ideas that were there, in my head, organized, ready to be converted into written text. What I’m writing is very clearly a response to the texts (in this case, oral texts) of my fellow BILD members in a conversation that we had in early February. What I mean is that what I’m writing now, if we can think of it as “information,” is not an information that existed before its being written – the writing does not record or transmit what already was; it creates it. It is that concept that I think might be lost by the use of the word “information.” I’d like to use a word that inherently includes this idea, rather than a word that might leave room for misunderstanding. I think that the word “information” leaves lots of room for misunderstanding.

Just as the people who were at the BILD meeting on February 6th, as well as the people who are readers on our blog, have helped me to think about terminology in a way that I otherwise may not have done, I would like to help to create opportunities for the participants in my research to make new connections and create new ways of seeing and articulating their thoughts and experiences. In my research, I don’t want to gain access to something that my participants already have. I want to talk through some questions with them, and in being participants in this conversation, they will have to figure out how to articulate their understandings anew. What will be generated in that interaction will be something that is influenced by my participants, me, and any number of other people in our lives who have contributed to our development of these thoughts, interpretations and ideas. It will be unique to, and generated from, the context.

And maybe what I am describing here is “information.” But if it is, then it’s a way of looking at “information” that is not the only (and probably not the most common) way. It’s a way of looking at information that might require the use of a word other than “information.”

The understanding that I have of the word “information” is that it is (as is suggested by the first OED definition I shared, above) somehow pre-interpretation. Whether such a thing exists or not is a question I’ll leave untouched. But I can say this – whether it does or does not exist, I don’t have access to it. So I’m not going to set out on a research journey in which I’m trying to “get” something that I don’t believe I can ever have access to. Instead, I’ll go after this thing that I know I can have access to: an articulation; an interpretation; a co-construction of an idea that wasn’t there before and might not stay just the way it is forever, but is useful nonetheless.

[1] Information. (2009). In Oxford English Dictionary Online. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/95568?result=1&rskey=izzDmW&

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2 thoughts on “Knowledge Creation Through Social Interaction and Whether “Information” Really Exists (by Kathleen Green)

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Apple! I like that you referred to the process you’ll engage in as generating, rather than collecting or gathering, “interpretations or co-constructions”. Collecting and gathering are words that invoke (at least for me) an image of things (information?) already out there, waiting to be picked by the researcher. Generating reflects a more engaged, situated, and dialogical process.

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