Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct

Allen Foster (Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, United Kingdom)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 6 September 2011




Foster, A. (2011), "Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 No. 5, pp. 893-895.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Published by Springer this compact nine chapter, 84 page text introduces Professor Spink's approach to the challenge of information behaviour. The preface sets forward the challenge of raising new questions, drawing together multiple disciplines that might contribute to the study of information behaviour, and embraces the challenge of bringing Information Science into the wider body of sciences and social sciences. The chapters are as follows: Preface, Chapter 1: Introduction, Chapter 2: Information Behaviour Framework, Chapter 3: Evolutionary Foundation, Chapter 4: Instinct versus Environment, Chapter 5: Human Cognitive and Social Behaviour, Chapter 6: Lifetime Development, Chapter 7: Information Behaviour Sub‐Processes, Chapter 8: Information Behaviour Over the Ages and Chapter 9: Key Propositions and Future Directions. Each chapter builds a separate component of the framework, and follows up on the challenges set out in the preface.

The preface begins to set the scene with an overview of the challenge facing us in seeking to understand information behaviour. A number of examples are used to tease out the inherent and ubiquitous nature of information behaviour and relationship to instinct and intelligence. Professor Spink raises some questions: “Where does our information behaviour ability come from and how does it develop within us as an instinctive socio‐cognitive ability? How did our information behaviour originate, evolve and develop in early humans?” The book sets out to answer these questions, and perhaps more fundamentally, begin to raise them as questions to which we currently have no real understanding. We currently have studies of process and of specific behaviour, and a growing vocabulary to describe much of what we understand; but we do not know how the current state of human information behaviour came to be shaped and exist and how it evolved. In identifying this as a potential problem, Professor Spink perceives a need to describe and understand the evolution of behaviour demands: to seek understanding of “how … information behaviour emerge[d] in early humans as an instinctive socio‐cognitive predisposition for information finding, gathering, organizing and using?” This is quite a departure from studies in the last 50 years of information science. Largely information scientists have focused on the contemporaneous and conveniently viewed information behaviour as a modern phenomenon. In drawing together a theoretical framework for information behaviour that reflects a wide spectrum of evolutionary and behavioural fields Professor Spink anticipates that we have a good basis upon which to draw together a more complete idea of information behaviour across human lifetimes.

Chapter 1 “the introduction”. The Introduction brings the subject to light as the beginning of a journey, and indeed the text is a journey through a number of literatures and some key ideas. There are some elements of the review in the Introduction that deliberately and clearly state that information behaviour has not fully exploited all of the opportunities available to it and rightly (though perhaps a little harshly) points to a tendency to look to information behaviour from a limited point of view: the relative insularity of the field has prevented a full view of information behaviour being developed. To quote Professor Spink, “Information behaviour is one dimension of human behaviour.” From this perspective the cognitive and behavioural sciences offer a significant body of work to structure, study and contextualise information behaviour, and in turn to begin to more fully contribute to that wider disciplinary dialogue. It is a real challenge to information science: to survive and prosper long term researchers must develop cross‐disciplinary connections and engage fully with the methods and perspectives that shape the cognitive, evolutionary, social, and behavioural sciences. The book offers a theoretical framework with which Professor Spink maps out literatures, ideas, and questions. The challenge that the book strives towards is the expression of a framework to stimulate and guide further thought, and as Professor Spink says “forge a deeper theoretical and evolutionary grounding for the field”.

Moving on to Chapter 2, the “Information Behaviour Framework”, Spink introduces two diagrams that bring together first an idea of human evolution from four million years ago to the present day, and in a second view a rather elegant theoretical framework which relates evolution, human cognition, human lifetimes, information grounds and sub‐processes of information behaviour. The lowest level of the diagram focuses on evolution and works upwards to aspects of information behaviour. A clear logical progression for information behaviour to be an evolved behaviour is presented and related to the literature. Evolution is explored and different species of Homo human species discussed. Discussion of some evidence is put forward, though it is noted that evidence is “not yet extensive”; it would be useful to see more indication of what contrary evidence might exist as well, just for balance. Yet throughout there is a subtle, but ever present, underpinning of literature and concepts drawn from a variety of respected authors to support the exploration of a theoretical framework for information behaviour. The reference lists alone represent a serious amount of intellectual effort, and should provide a useful starting point for many further studies. Chapter 3 develops an “Evolutionary Foundation” explores the cognitive origins of information behaviour in early humans, and though extensive in discussion it is nice to see the link to the differences observable in languages compared with the relative similarity of information behaviour. Chapter 3, of all the chapters, adds the least towards the intellectual content of the book, but even so it raises interesting areas for further exploration. Chapter 4 moves on to explore “Instinct versus Environment” and Spink makes some good connections with writers such as Blumberg (2005) and Lorenz (1965) on instinct and environmental aspects. The approach to the literature is sound, but as I read the text there are sections that I felt could be presented in a more complex and substantial fashion. That said, a simplified approach is necessary given the breadth of literature brought together to build the framework. As a reader I always want more from a text, and I have to remember the aims of the book are to raise questions. Chapter 5 continues with a “Human Cognition and Social Behaviour” and draws together further literatures on aspects including socio‐cognitive abilities and information processing. Throughout the text there are places that as a reader I was nodding in agreement, disagreeing and asking what and why, and what does this add: exactly what I want from a new text. In inspiring the reader to debate Professor Spink has approached the problem appropriately: a fixed single answer at this point would be impossible, and to claim it would be spurious. But the book does achieve a mapping of areas for exploration and there are multiple areas related to instinct, habit and evolution that are capable of inspiring new directions for investigation.

As we pass the mid‐point of the text Chapter 6 takes a different approach and consider the patterns of behaviour that develop during human lifetimes. Educational and cognitive development theorists are drawn upon to build details on this aspect of the framework, and interesting aspects exploring lifetime histories nicely open up dimensions of work that will interest even casual readers: there are not many books that draw on Darwin, Casanova, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Here information behaviour is brought out of the research lab and into a wider forum, and highlights the value of histories in building a view of human behaviour. The focus on lifetime information behaviour is followed up in Chapter 7 which takes on an outline of Information Behaviour sub‐processes (the top levels of the diagram introduced in chapter 1) and relates the work to Information Grounds, Everyday Life Information Seeking, Foraging, Searching, Organising and Using information. The nature of the information artefact is introduced in Chapter 8 and this chapter draws things together a portrayal of artefacts that support (and have supported) information behaviour through the ages: paleoart, ideographs, scrolls and digital libraries are all accounted for here. This is a brief chapter, and is clearly an area for further development in support of the wider aspects put forward in the framework. Finally, Chapter 9 draws together key propositions and conclusions: a series of sub‐headings detail the specifics, for which you should read the full text.

In summary, it is clear that some of the chapters are clearly outlines onto which we might hope to build further theory and detail from a library and information science perspective, some point to areas that we may realistically never be able to address. Throughout there may be areas of controversy and debate, and readers don not need to agree with all of the propositions; but to raise debate, and to consider possible directions this book is a milestone for the field; it begins a process of thinking differently that as students of human process all researchers looking at information behaviour ought to consider. The work is based on wide reading, novel thinking, and a developing view of behaviour from a usefully cross‐disciplinary approach. I anticipate that this book will make almost all readers think, and may lead some to ask new questions and begin to build upon this initial framework. Professor Spink has undertaken the tricky task of putting forward a framework, the rest is up to the research, which follows and takes inspiration from this book, and from the links to other disciplines that it presents. The best advice for a potential reader it to take the book with an open mind that accepts first of all that information behaviour within information science does not hold all of the answers, it holds but one part of a larger puzzle. This text should find a home in the library of anyone interested in positioning information behaviour within the wider study of human behaviour.

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