Only where both the information poor feel that there is 'outside' information worthy of receipt, and the socio-political elite consider that the effort is worth putting in, will there be any reduction in the 'digital divide', 'knowledge gap' or relative information poverty .

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Conceptualising the Information Poor

An assessment of the contribution of Elfreda Chatman towards an understanding of behaviour within the context of information poverty.

Neil Pollock May 2002

1. Objectives

Information poverty and the information poor are inadequately researched within information science (IS). Elfreda Chatman has been the conspicuous single leader in the field. She has:

  • painted vivid word pictures of the worlds of the disadvantaged,
  • introduced ethnographic research methodologies to extend the scope and possibilities of IS observation,
  • taken up Brenda Dervin’s challenge to make the user the focus - with powerful results, and
  • brought important perspectives from American sociological traditions into the field.

In doing this Chatman has developed valuable new theories to aid the understanding of information behaviour within the full context of a life. Above all she has been an advocate for respect of the poor and has provided IS with a new way of perceiving their world and understanding their voices.

My task is to assess her contribution. Also relevant is the (limited) work of others testing the efficacy of Chatman’s theories. I will also briefly consider perspectives from other fields - as IS research is but a very small part of efforts to understand a particularly complex problem, which accommodates perspectives from communications, economics, psychology, sociology, and politics.

The objectives of this assessment are to determine:

  1. how close we are to drawing a reasonable picture of the information behaviour of a group or a number of different groups that may be typed as information poor; and
  2. in what way and to what extent the studies to date provide models and strategies for the development of professional practices more inclusive of the information poor.

2. The Need to Know

The starting point for librarians in categorising people is usually as users or non-users. According to Pendleton and Chatman:

Very little is known about nonusers, but they are known as a ‘social type.’ They, too, share a world view about us and the manner in which they may or may not approach us for needed information (Pendleton & Chatman 1998, p748).

Heidi Julien has shown that most information behaviour studies have been of users of professional information services (Julien 1999). There has been relatively little interest in studying the behaviour and needs of people located outside the institution- and occupation-centred information environments. However clearly most of the world’s population (and probably also most people in advanced capitalist countries) are non-users. Some non-users are ‘information rich’, but most are not.

While there has been a recent shift to the study of information behaviour within the course of everyday life, most of this research has not explicitly sought to identify issues related to information poverty. Rather the studies tend to show that people in their daily informational activities lead quite information-rich lives (e.g. Savolainen 1995; LISR Special Edition 2001).

Post-industrial society is characterised by the rapidly growing importance of media, communications, documents and other types of information at work and in daily life. Economic well-being is increasingly tied to effective access to, and use of, documents and other forms of relevant information. There seems to be a widening gap in the amount of information available for use by different sections of society within nations, as well as between the rich and poor nations.

The literature of information behaviour within IS has to date significantly failed to take a global view. Concern about globalisation, the effects of advanced capitalist modes of production on other models, and the impact of unequal access to information technology has driven a plethora of research in various disciplines outside of IS. This discourse is usually framed by terms such as ‘digital divide’ and ‘knowledge gap’, rather than information poverty. Cecilie Gaziano points to the rapid rise in the number of studies of ‘knowledge gap’ in the 1990s and sees these paralleling increased socioeconomic division. (Gaziano 1997, p253).

As well as concern that increasing ‘information inequality’ is increasing socio-political tensions both within and between nations, there is fear that this may lead, not just to large pockets of extremely alienated and economically dysfunctional citizens, but also to a threat to internal and international peace and stability. I thus posit that this issue is for information science a fundamental and critical one, much more important than, for example other current research focuses such as refining information retrieval systems or developing a more granular understanding of the information behaviour of knowledge experts.

3. Who are the Information Poor?

What are we to investigate? What really is poverty as related to information? Poverty, even in its most common use of being related to economic conditions, has proven difficult to define.

How are we to define information? Is there a direct relationship between information poverty and a poverty of knowledge?

Most discussions of ‘information poverty’ assume that we understand information in the context of being about just any type of information. This is particular information. It is information that can ‘value-add’, that can replace less useful localised knowledge structures and bring the information poor economically and culturally closer to the ideals of advanced capitalist society.

Patrick Wilson has made a useful distinction between first and second level knowledge. First level knowledge is ‘knowledge of things’ that exist within the local sphere, while second level knowledge is ‘knowledge about that which does not yet exist in one’s immediate awareness of things’ (Wilson 1983, quoted in Chatman 1991, p440). The first is within one’s experience, the other outside it . If we find that a group of people are rich in the informal exchange of local and relevant information, perhaps transmitted as gossip and stories, are they necessarily poor in information, simply because they are relatively unconnected to the second level knowledge fostered by socio-political elites and the social conventions within the mainstream society?

Do the information poor need to recognise they suffer what only we may recognise as a form of poverty? Is their condition something we can objectify and measure? Do we treat information poverty as a local issue, a national issue or a world issue? What are the differences in framing the problem in nations or communities where information poverty is the norm as opposed to nations where it is perceived to be the exception?

I don’t have ready answers, but I do believe that if we listen to the voices of the poor we will learn more than listening to our own views and then claim to be speaking on their behalf.

4. Attempts toward a Definition

Definitions tend to be contextual. Information scientist JJ Britz and economist JN Blignaut, after reviewing a range of perspectives, have suggested the following definition of information poverty:

..as a condition of life where the majority of people in a specific context do not possess the skills and abilities to access, interpret and use information effectively for development. Such a condition is worsened when there is lack of an effective ‘infostructure’. As such, information poverty can be seen as an instrumental form of poverty effecting all other spheres of life (Britz & Blignaut 2002, p3)

The authors are South African, and the specific context of post-apartheid development is apparent.

In 1975 information scientist Thomas Childers wrote 'The Information-Poor in America'. Again context is fundamental to his definition. The information poor are described as facing at least one of three major barriers.

  • They possess a low level of processing skill. This will include those with low reading and/or communication abilities, the blind, the deaf, and those using a first language other than English.
  • They were outside the mainstream and locked within their own subculture. ‘Their information universe is a closed system, harboring an inordinate amount of unawareness (myth, rumor, folk lore)’. ‘While the group may be very rich in certain kinds of internally generated information, it is deficient in the information shared by the larger society’.
  • They have a ‘predisposition’ towards despair, fatalism and a ‘pervasive sense of helplessness’.

Childers considers the least disadvantaged to be those who face ‘only’ economic poverty, while the most disadvantaged are those both suffering from multiple indicators and were ‘resigned to those conditions of life’.

He is explicit in who the information poor are: Spanish speaking Americans, Indians and Eskimos, poor blacks and whites, Appalachians (who having a ‘strongly fatalistic’ culture are seen as distinct from poor whites generally), poor farmers, migrant workers, the aged, prisoners, the blind and the deaf (Childers 1975, p32-34).

The following elements of his definition seem appropriate:

  • Economic poverty in itself is not necessary the most important factor in information poverty.
  • Information poverty can be seen as a continuum from the somewhat information poor to intensely information poor.

However his definition is problematic because it is couched in the concept that people simply need to process information being streamed as one way traffic from some centres of quality information. The problem is the failure of the poor to connect. It is to do with the failure of the individual to have the abilities, skills, or belief system appropriate for information development.

Childers introduces the ‘Culture of Information Poverty’ (p32). It is open to the same criticism earlier directed at Oscar Lewis for his concept of ‘Culture of Poverty’ (Lewis 1964). Such conceptualisations easily lead to blaming the victim, as well as leading policy-makers to conclude that because the problem relates to deeply internalised behaviours within an individual or group, nothing at the government level can meaningfully be done to solve the situation.

A further issue is whether the mainstream culture necessarily has something useful to inform those who are not receiving communications from it. I am often haunted by images of the destructive impact of television on the culture of the small Pacific island of Yap (O’Rourke 1980). A corollary is the trivialisation by the dominant culture of any information generated internally by other cultures and groups.

Although his work is fundamentally calling for more research, Childers’ solution is about pumping authoritative messages from mainstream America, ‘remedying information problems’ by ‘the flow of information through the formal and informal channels’ (p.93). In 1975 that meant television, public libraries and local opinion leaders.

The glaring omission in Childers’ definition is a total failure to identify lack of opportunities for access as an element within information poverty. By the late 1990s the focus in the literature had changed dramatically so that access became the fundamental issue. Information acquisition was being seen as active and individual (at the same time as Elfreda Chatman was constructing theories identifying it as intrinsically social). The salient construct became the ‘digital divide’. It was about possessing personal computers and being networked. Information was no longer free and its cost was increasing.

5. Dervin’s Contribution

Prior to Childers’ work another information scientist was researching the information poor - the young Brenda Dervin. For Dervin it was clear that to understand information poverty we must look at information needs and information behaviour from the perspective of the message receivers, not the message senders.

Dervin’s work with Greenberg among urban blacks, as well as her sense-making approach, seemed inspirational to Elfreda Chatman (Chatman 1991, p438, Chatman 1996, p203, Burnett 2001, p536). What Dervin and Greenberg found was deeply disturbing. The tight-knit and cohesive black communities that may have existed in some previous time were no longer extant in the inner city. The information context within the ghettos was crime, emergencies, mistrust and extreme alienation (Dervin 1972).

6. Elfreda Chatman

Chatman’s research has focused on some of the groups identified by Childers, namely economically poor blacks, the aged and prisoners. While Chatman may have been influenced from within information science by Dervin’s work and her concept as peoples as actors within the context of information seeking and behavior, her intellectual frames of reference largely came from sociology. Key sources include Robert Merton and W.F. Whyte.

From Merton, Chatman took the concept of insiders and outsiders (Merton 1972). From Whyte came the world of social norms as well as the observation that two groups who may inhabit the same social society may exhibit a distinctly separate group of norms (Whyte 1981, quoted in Chatman 1996, p197). During the twenty year period of her research these two concepts remained core to all her analyses.

The other key import from sociology were immersive ethnographic research methods. Chatman’s studies were conducted over long periods and involved close observation of the full context of participants' lives. She researched the daily activities of janitorial workers at a Southern university for two years. The research design also consisted of large numbers of in-depth interviews but also observation and the extensive recording of field notes (Chatman 1990, p359). In her study of women prisoners she stayed late into the day when the other outsiders had long gone (Chatman 1999). This was laborious, painstaking work - but perhaps the only method which can provide holistic evidence within the full scope of how people live their lives. Such a picture would seem to me necessary for a full understanding of information behaviour.

Her body of work includes three key theories or concepts:

  • the Theory of Information Poverty;
  • the concept of the Small World; and
  • the Theory of Life in the Round which is closely related to her Theory of Normative Behaviour.

It may be useful to take the development of these theories chronologically.

Her mid-80s observation of poor black janitors led her to test a theory of alienation drawn from the work of Merton, Durkheim, Weber and others. She found behaviour consistent with concepts of powerlessness, meaningless, isolation and self-estrangement, but significantly not normlessness (Chatman 1990). Subsequent research reinforced her finding that social norms were very important factors governing information behaviour.

She again looked at the janitors to test ‘gratification theory’, to determine why they seemed only interested in information which had a direct and current application in their lives. Her conclusion was that ‘an underlying explanation for this present-day mentality is that financial and psychological resources are consumed in meeting current problems and needs’ (Chatman 1991, p447). These were people who didn’t have surplus resources to apply to that which resides in the world of intangibles and ideas.

The outcome of this study was the concept of the ‘small world’ where people have:

….little contact with people outside their immediate social milieu and are only interested in the information that is perceived as useful, that which has a firm footing in everyday reality, and responds to some practical concern.(Chatman 1991, p447)

The janitorial study also found that there were few social networks for these people:

As a result, poor people are characterized as existing in a social world in which they are skeptical of others, fearful of being exploited, and unwilling to engage in interpersonal communication with anyone other than immediate family members (Chatman 1990, p358)

Chatman next researched the aged in a retirement village, and single mothers undergoing work experience training. In "The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders" (Chatman 1996) she incorporated the findings of all three studies. Here the information poor are characterised as secretive, deceptive, adverse to risk taking and only seeking information which is of immediate (‘situational’) relevance. The picture is one of an inside world where information exchange can be precarious and an outside world where the level of risk is even higher.

The worst case of information poverty in Chatman’s studies is reported in that work. She found that occupants of a retirement village did not share the most critical information - information about their health situation. The reason being that exposing the true precarious state of their health, by the asking of questions or chit-chat about such matters, risked their banishment from the community. Those who could not look after themselves would be removed to a nursing home. This depressing scenario lead Chatman to conclude that these folk (who were not necessarily economically poor) suffered an extreme form of information poverty. Their small world consisted only of themselves. Each person was an insider alone - everyone else was an outsider (Chatman 1996, p204-205).

This paper also contains the six propositions of her Theory of Information Poverty:

  1. People who are defined as information poor perceive themselves to be devoid of any sources that might help them.
  2. Information poverty is partially associated with class distinction. That is, the condition of information poverty in influenced by outsiders who withhold privileged access to information.
  3. Information poverty is determined by self-protective behaviors which are used in response to social norms.
  4. Both secrecy and self-deception are self-protecting mechanisms due to a sense of mistrust regarding the interest or ability of others to provide useful information.
  5. A decision to risk exposure about our true problems is often not taken due to a perception that negative consequences outweigh benefits.
  6. New knowledge will be selectively introduced into the information world of poor people. A condition that influences this process is the relevance of that information in response to everyday problems and concerns.’ (Chatman 1996, p197-198)

Further the information must be useful in a current situation.

The small world concept was further developed through a study of black female prison inmates and published in "Small World Lives: implications for the public library" ( Pendleton & Chatman, 1998).

The small world is characterised by

  • Social norms with constitute shared meanings within a world view. A world view is a comprehensive philosophy or belief system which is also socially constructed. The world view of the small world defines the group and is thus different from that of outsiders
  • Another social construct in the small world is social types. Different groups (e.g. ethnic groups and occupations) are identified as particular types. ‘They are used to classify people along a continuum from accepted members of one’s world, to persons viewed as having no or minimal merit in that world, to persons viewed even as irrelevant to one’s world’ (Pendleton and Chatman 1998, p740).
  • Information behavior is then governed by social norms of how to act within a small world where there is a shared philosophy of life. Certain social types frame what information is shared. Most information that is shared inside the group is first-level knowledge which can be easily verified with trusted social types.

The above conception of people’s small world is a powerful one. Is it a theoretical framework that can inform public library approaches when they undertake reachout programs to specific non-user groups.

Her last ethnographic study was also based on the extreme insider/outsider environment of long-serving prisoners. Chapman in 1997 developed the Theory of Life in the Round. She found significant behavioural change and an intense informational environment within the circle of inmates. Forced to make a new life within a prison meant that the outside world was beyond their control. Thus they purposively cut off contact with even family and friends, as bad news from outside would just cause distress. As well there was extremely heavy reliance on other insiders in order to obtain the information and skills to effectively cope and build a meaningful life within prison (Chatman 1999).

This research again reinforced the concept of social norms. Life in the Round is small world life with a preoccupation with ‘normative’ behaviour and characterised by overarching intersubjective social control. Peoples actions in relation to information are governed by what ‘beliefs are necessary to support ‘a normative way of life’ and information that may disrupt that normative life will be ignored. (quoted in Pettigrew 2001, p55-56). ‘This is a life taken for granted. It works most of the time with enough predictability that unless a critical problem arises, there is no point in seeking information’ (Chatman 1999, p214).

Finally Chatman developed the Theory of Normative Behaviour. There is largely a reworking of Life in the Road emphasising the importance of ‘a shared cultural space characterised by common or routine events’ (Pettigew 2001, p55). At this point Chatman had gone behind theorising about the specific information behaviour of the information poor (she didn’t classify the prisoners as such) and introduced her final theory as a general theory of information behaviour:

Information behaviour is an construct through which to approach everyday reality and its effect on actions to gain or avoid the possession of information. The choice of an appropriate course of action is driven by members’ beliefs concerning what is necessary to support a normative way of life (Burnett 2001 p.538)

Her colleagues at Florida State University (Gary Burnett and Michele Besant) have undertaken preliminary work on the testing of this theory - not amongst marginalised poor blacks, but with online communities and feminist book sellers (Burnett 2001).

In a previous essay I posited that there seems to be an emerging consensus between conceptual viewpoints regarding information behaviour within information science. We can see above that although the American social science tradition was her starting point, Chatman’s theories fit well within a social constructivist viewpoint. We also see convergence with Brenda Dervin’s sense-making concept of people’s preoccupation with eliminating discontinuities.

Chatman has gone well beyond the information poor (and to some extent even beyond information behaviour) to attempt to develop an understanding of how people build and maintain a sense of community and a sense of self within that community. It may lead to a broadening of the concept of the ‘small word-view’ beyond the context of the information poor to more general societal application. For example Finnish social constructivist Maija-Leena Huotari teamed up with Chatman to apply normative theory (relabelled as ‘small world theory’ and ‘social network theory’) to behaviour within workplace organisations (Huotari & Chatman 2001).

Drawing on Chatman’s work, Karen Pettigrew in "Waiting for Chiropody" has provided a valuable paper providing an incite for librarians and other information professionals on how to enter the inside of the small world of potential clients. While Pettigrew’s research subjects were people attending a centre for the purpose of receiving chiropodic care, she found the event to be social in nature. Conservations are about ‘life in general’, …’their needs for information emerge through casual social interaction’, and…’information about local resources is shared serendipitously without anyone expressing (or necessarily having) a need for that information’ (Pettigrew 1999, p810).

The key point that Pettigrew makes, and this strongly reflects the theoretic work of Dervin and Chatman, is that an effective information service should provide ‘a rich information ground’ where ‘information is shared in multiple directions’ (Pettigrew 1999, p812). It’s all simply about mutual respect, reaching out, blending in, as well as understanding that to some extent we are all focused on our own small worlds of information and matters of immediate concern.

However for those groups of information poor who exhibit characteristics of Chatman’s Theory of Information Poverty the prospects for information professionals to make contact and create meaningful engagement may be daunting.

7. Evaluating Chapman’s Theory of Information Poverty

How has the Theory of Information Poverty and its six propositions stood up against testing in other contexts? Our problem is that few people have conducted explicit and robust research around the theory.

My own reservations about her approach are as follows:

  1. She seems to have pulled back from observing socio-political relationships and social hierarchy in her studies, thus reducing social communications to issues of relevance and social networks within world-views, rather than the issue being also about power.
  2. Although her research has been detailed and extensive, her projects have been micro-studies of very specific groups in precarious situations, often characterised by extreme social isolation. Most of the information poor in the world are unlikely to live such lonely lives. Further it is probable that a sense of social cohesion and shared word views is developed for the purpose of protecting against the effects of both economic and information poverty.
  3. Following from (2) her emphasis is on information poverty as a sociological or psychosocial matter, thus de-emphasising other factors such as lack of material resources, lack of language (or discourse) skills and economic barriers to information access.
  4. Chatman’s later research into normative behaviour indicates that people reinforce social connectedness and shared viewpoints in order to overcome problems related to information processing. I suspect that both the very different problems of information overload and information poverty could both result in development and reinforcement of the need for trusted others to verify information and define the information limits of the world.
  5. The application of small world theory to the information environments of virtual communities and feminist booksellers seems inappropriate. Like the information poor, the people in these information rich environments may live in somewhat of a limited world of information behaviour, but, unlike the poor they have the power and option to go readily beyond their small worlds if they choose too. This is quite different to how Chatman initially defined a small world - as a world characterised by barriers, limited opportunities and high risk.
  6. In research done after she constructed the Theory of Information Poverty Chatman concluded that women prisoners did not suffer from information poverty.
    Leaving the haunting atmosphere of Garden Towers [the retirement village] , I started a study at a maximum-security prison for women. My purpose was to explore aspects of women’s lives that might add another level to my understanding of information poverty. But what I found was a information world that was functioning quite well (Chatman 1999, p207).
    I suspect that the issue is not that the prisoners have an information rich environment, but that her concept of secrecy and deception within a group of insiders does not necessarily need to apply in order for a group to be defined as information poor. Their circumstances were not that they didn’t want access to outside information but their powerlessness (see (1) above) meant that such information potentially would result in unacceptable levels of grief, or risk.
  7. Finally, I don’t believe that some indicators found by Chapman would reproduce well outside the US because:
    • The US exhibits more income and socioeconomic status disparity than most other advanced capitalist countries (Gaziano 1997, p237)
    • Crime (and the community tensions which are inter-related) is a highly significant factor in the environment of the American blacks studied.
    • We may be observing the results of centuries of racism rather than universal conditions for information poverty
    • There is a tendency of the US historically to develop a self-blame psychology within the disadvantaged rather than class consciousness.

8. Testing the Theory


The only explicit tests of Chatman’s Theory of Information Poverty in social science literature has been two New Zealand studies conducted by Frank Sligo.

The first study (Sligo and Jameson 2000) was of 20 women of Pacific Islander background and of their awareness of and attitudes towards cervical screening. Cervical cancer is disproportionately prevalent amongst this population.

The study did not support most of Chatman’s theory. The Pacific Islanders did not have a sense of personal isolation. In contrast they experienced a well-connected community life, with the church as a social centre and clergy as key opinion leaders. They were quite prepared to receive information from outsiders ‘so long as that information was first filtered through their cultural channels and thus sanctioned’ (Sligo and Williams 2000, p867).

The second study (Sligo and Williams 2001) was structured in-depth qualitative interviews with the questions designed specifically to test the six propositions of Chatman’s theory. Three propositions were not supported; (1) being devoid of sources of help, (2) withholding information because of class distinctions; and (6) selective introduction of information. Only one of the six factors was strongly supported; (5) secrecy, the reluctance to expose true problems.

There are some apparent limitations in the studies.

  • Both used an ‘insider’ to conduct the interviews and also selected the sample from people known to that insider. Thus participants by definition needed to be part of a social network to be included.
  • In the first study a number of participants were from low socio-economic backgrounds but were university students, and thus in my opinion not a reasonable sample to be studied in relation to information poverty.
  • In the report of the second study Sligo doesn’t expose the socio-cultural characteristics of his sample.

However this work does seem to provide reasonable evidence that in New Zealand people who may be information poor may not be isolated either within the community or from government agencies and information sources. Sligo makes a number of points which tend to weaken the viability of Chatman’s theory in a different socio-political environment:

  • Participants in the second study reflect demonstrated characteristics stereotypical of New Zealanders, being ‘egalitarian, self-reliant, and stoical’.
  • Society was seen generally as being honest and helpful. There seems to be a high level of trust within the group and a reasonable level outside the group.
  • Neighbours are seen as being there to be helpful in a crisis.
  • There was a belief that one should work out difficulties alone and not to rely on others who may have their own problems. This may be a reason why the secretiveness indicator was confirmed. (Sligo & Williams 2001, p9-10)

Sligo and Williams conclude that:

Chatman found certain characteristics of behaviour that were not discovered in the current research. While these behaviour and attitudes may have been typical of her participants, they are not necessarily characteristic of information poor elsewhere. We surmise that these behaviours [Chatman’s] may be characteristic more of people under threat…rather than people who are information poor but not otherwise feeling themselves at risk’ (p11);
Chatman also seems to be arguing that people who are information poor are also inherently marginalised… We think instead that it is more helpful to assess the issue in terms of degrees of marginalisation’. (p11)

These results leads one to consider that Chatman may have been perhaps too quick to develop substantive theories from single case studies as well as suffering from an American-centric myopia.

9. Other US Studies

While the following studies all deal with low-income black communities, and reference Chatman, none were specifically designed to test Chatman’s theories.

Spink et al

Spink and others in 1997 researched the information needs of a new, planned, low-income and largely black community (Spink & Cole 2001). One of the few interesting results is that information which provided security from crime came after local news events as the most important identified information need. While the residents seemed economically poor there was not evidence of the type of dysfunction which Chatman had found amongst the janitors. Living in this community was in itself a result of an aspirational word-view emphasising a desire for ‘self-improvement’ and upward mobility. The respondents seemed open to second-level knowledge although largely concerned with local and immediate matters. While purporting to take a methodological lead from Dervin this was basically a quantitative survey with an viewpoint close to Childers. The purpose was to identify what sort of information channels would be most appropriate to provide the community with, not to provide a holistic study of information and social behaviour.


John Agada, also in 1997, studied the information needs of ‘gatekeepers’ to a black community. (Agada 1999). The most mentioned need was to information related to race relations and crime. He found that the gatekeepers often lack awareness of the most appropriate source for information and tended to look inward to their social networks to resolve questions. When they dealt with formal agencies they often sought to locate an ‘insider’ that they could trust within that agency.

This is yet another study reinforcing both the impact of race and crime in the US context. These factors increase the premium of finding trusted sources within a clearly defined insider/outsider world view. It is generally supportive of Chatman’s small world view, but being about gatekeepers who are aware of the need for outside information it is not a direct study of information poverty.

Gatekeepers have also been researched by Cheryl Metoyer-Duran in a variety of ethnic communities (Metoyer-Duran 1993).

Bishop et al

In 1998 Bishop and others surveyed the information behaviour of low-income earners, predominately black women in a small US city (Bishop 1999). The purpose was to determine the best policy approach to ‘bridge the digital divide’. The subjects indicated substantial community connectedness and eagerness to position themselves for access to the type of information that can be considered second level knowledge. The women were curious to surf the web, to introduce their children into using the internet and to participate in email and web communications. About 90% were members of some local organisations (usually a church), and 82% has visited the library in the past month.

The sample was skewed by a number of factors, especially that most participants were recruited via a computer training program and thus would have been socially connected and active information seekers in the first place. Thus these people could be considered low income but not information poor. Again fear of crime was a factor that drove the recommendation for the development of private versus publicly-accessible location for internet access.

10. Other Non-US Studies

The evidence from Britain and Australia is scant.

Marcella and Baxter

English behavioural perspectives on information poverty are particularly hard to unearth. Marcella and Baxter (2000) have reported on a government backed large-scale citizenship information research project, conducted in 1997 as part of the strategy to reduce social exclusion within public information services. One characteristic of the British infrastructure that appears to be lacking in the US is the apparently ubiquitous Citizens’ Advice Bureaus (CABx) which act as a clearing-house for government related information.

While the authors expressed fear of increasingly information divide: ‘..it is clear that certain groups, such as those running a home and jobseekers, are not exploiting public library information resources as effectively as they might…..’ (p.253), these results seem trivial next to Chatman’s.


Kirsty Williamson’s Australian research into the information behaviour of the ‘over sixties’ in regard to telephone use is only marginally related to this paper but it is included for comment because the telephone would seem to be a very important tool in mitigating information poverty (Williamson 1998). With over 95% of Australian households having such a resource this is an area of substantial information equality, and most people possess skills in its effective use. I suggest that the provision of an inexpensive (digital) telephone service, to enable the poor to communicate cheaply over distance, may be more effective in reducing the digital divide than the networking of homes of the poor with computer equipment. Aboriginal communities could be a case in point.

11. Other Perspectives

Britz and Blignaut

Britz and Blignaut in a broad ranging recent paper argue that one of the causes of information poverty is the ‘underplaying or exploitation of indigenous knowledge’ (Britz & Blignaut 2002, p5) This relates particularly to imperialistic information solutions to development problems, rather than the strengthening or adaptation of existing knowledge bases - especially in areas such as medicine and agriculture. IS could learn that local information sources within small worlds are best valued and built upon, not subjugated and replaced.


Communications scientist Cecilie Gaziano in 1997 compiled an analysis of 39 ‘knowledge gap’ studies conducted in the US since 1983. An edited list of her points are:

  • Wealth inequality in the US sharply increased in the 1970s and could be considered to be more unequal than northwestern Europe.
  • Socioeconomic and knowledge gaps tend to feed off each other, worsening the problem.
  • ‘Social power’ is related to knowledge of public affairs
  • Knowledge gaps are greater than information gaps, because those with greater knowledge have greater skills in converting new information into knowledge.
  • Mass media information campaigns are most effectively received by the higher socioeconomic classes.
  • When topics are controversial or have personal or local impact then the gap in interest is much reduced.
  • Greater community size and complexity (e.g. presence of many ethnic groups) hinders information dissemination.
  • Participation in community activities often reduces knowledge gaps.
  • Motivation and interest can partly make up for lack of economic or educational resources.
  • Television news seems to impart more information to the less educated, but the information is largely superficial.
  • Attachments within families influences knowledge acquisition. Within low socioeconomic status families insecure attachments are more common.

12. Towards an Understanding of the Information Behaviour of the Information Poor

From the work of Chatman (as well as Sligo and Childers) and from perspectives outside of IS my conclusion is that the following are the substantial and often inter-related factors leading to conditions of information poverty.

  • Economic poverty - a precarious existence.
  • Threats to physical well-being.
  • Cultural isolation - membership of a clearly defined group with minority status whose messages are outside the word views of the mainstream.
  • Lack of training and skills in the language and methods of discovering mainstream information.
  • Cognitive disabilities, such a poor intellectual skills, blindness or deafness.
  • Access disabilities, such as being ‘housebound’
  • Government policy - which may deny access to resources or purposely isolate particular groups and types in society.
  • Social isolation - such as often experienced by the aged.
  • Cultural imperialism - where the values of a culture are subjugated by a politically stronger one.

Most of these are related to what Chatman has observed - viz; people devoid of any sources that might help them, lack of access to privileged information, self-protective behaviors, secrecy and self-deception, mistrust of outsiders and avoidance of risk of exposure of true problems - but the possible combination of factors is much greater than observed by Chatman. As well, some of Chatman participants behavioural responses to conditions need not be present for the situation to be still be characterised as information poverty.

In large parts of the world the socio-political mainstream is ill-equipped or unwilling to provide the infrastructure to support inclusive information policy and practice. Many third world societies seem dominated by elites using information monopolies in a struggle to retain the hierarchical order in the face of an increasingly desperate economic and information-poor majority. The use of information as second-level knowledge here is more about distraction, misinformation and manipulation of opinion. An argument could be raised that sections of the socio-cultural elite within the west act similarly if more subtly.

Sligo makes the point that the more government privatises responsibility to the individual the greater the likelihood of ‘relative deprivation and injustice’. The failure of people to succeed in the information-based economy will only reinforce feelings of inadequacy which will lead inevitably to further failure. (Sligo & Williams 2001, p3). He is concerned that reduction in trust caused by a less caring government will lead to the US experience as characterised by Chatman’s studies.

My conclusion is that the problem of information poverty can be seen from two key directions. Firstly from the perspective of people who feel outside the mainstream information environment and who want to be included. The second is from the perspective of a socio-political elite which recognises a need to deal with information poverty for purposes such as the interest of national cohesion, or the maximisation of the potential of the citizenry, or a reduction is ongoing costs for social support. Only where there is a coming together of the two, where the information poor feel that there is ‘outside’ information worthy of receipt and the socio-political elite consider that the effort is worth putting in, will there be any reduction in the ‘digital divide’, ‘knowledge gap’ or relative information poverty.

The cognitive-rationalist perspective of information poverty is framed in terms of information flow and skills development, focusing on one way communication channels. Chapman’s work clearly shows that such context is inappropriate. What Chatman and the social constructivists have contributed to our understanding, is that information behaviour is about constructing meaning, not receiving messages. Her sociological conception of this activity as creating a narrow world view, intersubjectively constructing and reinforcing rigorous social conventions and the authentication of meaning according to socio-cultural proximity to others, is a very valuable one for information service providers.

Public librarians have long understood the need to reach out to the information poor; e.g., home library and nursing home services, large print and talking books, bookmobiles, community information services, oral histories, collections for ethnic communities and close links with all sorts of community and referral agencies. In my ten years working with an inner-city public library system we enjoyed great success with promoting library activities to the major local ethnic communities. A key strategy was the pro-active employment of librarians who reflected the community, thus creating our own internal ‘gatekeepers’. However the link to the information poor was usually through their children as it was they who first connected an immediate need to the library institution.

Chatman’s work indicates that libraries could become increasingly effective by establishing more informal environments and demonstrating a respect for, and an interest in, the small worlds of others. However above all it is probably the inculcation of an inclusive attitude within the word-view of the librarian and the development of a perception that first-level knowledge is not inferior knowledge, that will make the difference.

For Australian Aboriginal communities living in fringe or remote communities I strongly suspect that the six propositions of Chatman’s theory of information poverty would hold true. The solution to questions of information poverty within such communities are thus unlikely to be resolved simply by a change in our attitude, the identification of gatekeepers, and fine-tuning of top-down information flows. The larger and more intractable problem rests in the socio-cultural gap between the insiders and outsiders. For marginalised Aborigines this will be only corrected when mainstream Australia has an accurate understanding of the story of what has happened to lead to the current situation where many lead precarious lives. Nothing substantial is likely to occur until the world view of middle-class Australians incorporates knowledge of Aboriginal perspectives - and that being internalised social perspectives and not just a facile appreciation of cultural artifacts.

Information poverty then is a complex and relative condition shared by most of the world’s population. The varieties of groups within this realm are as limitless as one’s inclination to create types. Although Elfreda Chatman’s theories may not travel to every context of information poverty, there is much insight and understanding to gain from her ideas. Above all she has humanised the problem.


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This page modified 01 July 2002; corrections made 09 February 2003