What categories are significant? Do you choose your information sources because they are (non)-digital?

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Fri, 10/30/2020 - 14:27

0100100101010101000In information studies like in all social research, there is plethora conventional categories that researchers and non-researchers alike have a tendency to consider -- and many more that are typically not addressed. Such categories might include gender, education, work and leisure (or, non-work), nationality, and spoken languages, that are rather often at least fairly simple to work with. Further categories like cultures, identities, specific practices, contexts and situations tend to be more tricky both to describe and identify.

There is obviously plenty of evidence that in many cases these categories are significant and it is a good practice to see if they have impact also in new settings and in relation to new research questions. Still, I cannot help to have found myself thinking more and more often whether many of the standard categories are that often very relevant. I can't remember hearing, or to be fair, thinking myself that often if the demographic 'variables' described in various studies really make any obvious sense in the context what is being studied. Do people really choose their information sources on the basis where they are living or what is their gender or gender identity, what is their nationality, or what languages they happen to speak ? Yes, of course, in some cases they (or, we) do --  but not always. Or, to what degree I choose my information channels and sources because they happen to be digital or non-digital? Again in some cases, yes, and in many others no.

The category of digital, non-digital, online, offline, mediation and face-to-face has become especially interesting questions during the past few months. Why certain things are easier and more convenient if they can be done face to face -- kind of really -- and what aren't? What (different things) make someone more prone to be anxious online? What categories could explain why some people find it difficult to seek and use online information for particular purposes or in general, and especially during lately, why some informational habits have been more resilient and why some others have changed rapidly for some of us -- but not for others.

The underlying question that remains is when and why it is feasible to assume that the conventional categories are relevant, and how everyone from researchers to managers, policy makers and systems developers alike should try to be more creative and think beyond them. To think about other possible categories and to make an effort to explain why the chosen categories really are expected to be significant. As elementary as this might sound, it happens conspicuously seldom in practice. The bottom line is if we are always taking note of relevant phenomena and categories -- and as we aren't, to consciously try to stay alert and think about ways how to think about possible categories, explanations and motivating factors beyond the conventional ones.