Communicating Information Across Cultures, Deborah Lines Andersen

Deborah Lines Andersen

Assistant Professor

School of Information Science and Policy

University at Albany

State University of New York

September 2002



There are specific communications differences between scientists and humanists that are created by their information-seeking behaviors, the types of information they use, their patterns of mentoring and collaborative research, their funding, and their use of vocabularies and paradigms specific to their disciplines.  Communication across disciplines requires that groups understand each other’s respective behaviors and cultures, adjusting for differences in style, and translating information into language that is familiar to both groups.  Electronic mail and the World Wide Web have narrowed the gap between these two disciplines, but not enough to eliminate differences between them.



Speaking Across Academic Disciplines

In the daily working of a university, one would expect that scientists speak to scientists, and humanists speak to humanists.  Physical configurations of departments and usual departmental business segregate academics by subject specialization.  There are instances, however, in which cross-disciplinary communications and understanding are critical to the workings of a university.  Tenure, promotion and review committees are interdisciplinary and evaluate members from all parts of the academic community. Their members must understand the cultures of all individuals who come up for review.  Similarly, resource allocation in universities requires an understanding of the various needs of researchers and teachers within that community.  When academics understand the requirements of others it is easier to see why specific resources, perhaps library or computer budgets, have been distributed in a certain way.  Furthermore, the very basics of liberal arts education demand that everyone sees what makes a well-rounded, well-educated student.  In these instances the community requires that its members communicate with and understand each other, that they become academic ethnographers.



Ethnographic research requires observation of a target culture, understanding the vocabulary, traditions, and habits of a group of individuals who are different from the researcher. [1]  An interesting exercise in ethnography is attending a worship service of a religion that is decidedly different from one’s own.  Within the context of religions there are prayers, music, rituals, and language that are known to those who worship each week, but that are complicated and perhaps confusing to the uninitiated.  A wonderful example is the sitting-standing-kneeling pattern of many Christian churches.  These conventions are steeped in tradition and history but not easily parsed by one who has lived within an entirely different faith.


Not so differently, humanists, social scientists, and scientists have their own methods of conducting research, of engaging their colleagues, of seeking information, and of disseminating information in their respective fields.  Differences in tradition and history play an important role in how all three groups function.  Understanding the inner workings of any of these disciplines in academe is really an exercise in ethnographic methodology.


At the same time, these differences present potential communications challenges when academics are asked to speak and think cross-culturally—across different disciplines.  Are the differences so large that communications are hampered?  Are behaviors so different that humanists really do not, in general, have the vocabulary and experience to understand scientists?  or vice versa?  One cannot generalize to all humanists or all scientists when discussing these issues. Physicists study Shakespeare. Some historians embraced digital communications media.  Nonetheless, past research has shown that there are seemingly generalizable differences between individuals who work in the university or college setting.


Theories of Information Seeking and Use

An excellent example of academic cultural differences is in the field of information seeking and use.  Information-seeking research looks at how individuals go about finding the materials that they need in order to satisfy informational needs both professional and recreational.  In the ethnographic experience of an unfamiliar worship service, an individual might gather clues about standing-sitting-kneeling through watching others, through listening for directions from an authority, or through written materials available somewhere in the place of worship.  In the university, academics usually follow the patterns established by their peers, relying upon mentors in their fields to guide them in graduate school and early professional development.  Differences of style come from both the individual—his or her own personal traits, predispositions, and biases, and from the training that he or she has received in a particular discipline.  Thus, culture, including the ways individuals seek information, is passed on through apprenticeship and practice.


When an individual in any discipline says that he “needs” information, the dimensions of that need are varied and complicated.  The need might be immediate and fairly simple, such as the need to know a bank balance or telephone number.  Alternately, the need might be long-range and complicated, such as the need to know the history of conflicting literary criticism on the work of Jane Austen, the biochemical mechanisms in the spread of disease, or the progression of the theory of evolution through its present-day state.  In the first examples, the desired information would fill a short-range, crisis or non-crisis need, answering a straightforward question with a very specific response (and a response that is probably open to little if any interpretation).  On the other hand, the second examples would require long-range, in-depth research, would be open to interpretation, and would lead to the fulfilling of a potential need for information (in response to perhaps a research interest or term paper assignment).  All academics engage in this second form of information seeking, looking for complex information sources that take months or years to analyze.


Cognitive research into information need focuses both on recognition of need by individuals and on how differences in individual style can affect patterns of information need, seeking, and use. [2]  Taylor suggests, nonetheless, that there are four more or less distinct steps in the cognitive process concerned with information need and seeking that are common to most information-gathering situations.  At first, need for information is at a visceral, almost subconscious level.  Individuals move from a visceral sense to a conscious need for information in the second step.  Third, information seekers formalize their need for information, verbalizing the specific sorts of information products that would ideally answer their need.  Finally, the individual seeking information finds himself in a state of compromise between the ideal information product and actual information products available to him.  This compromise can be necessitated because of informational constraints (the information does not exist), because of the nature of the information need (non perfect information is sufficient to answer the need), or because of time constraints (the information exists but the searcher is unwilling to expend more resources—time and/or money—in locating it). [3]  In this last case the penalty for non-use of potential information is not great enough to warrant further expenditure of resources.  This compromise position, other wise termed “satisficing” [4] pits potential availability against potential accessibility and the transaction costs necessary to create access.  A humanist might stop collecting resources when there are enough to satisfy a particular information need, even if there might be more diaries, or military records available if one only searched long or hard enough.


Information-seeking and use patterns vary between the sciences and the humanities.  It is worth noting for the discussion that follows that the bulk of research done into these differences was conducted pre World Wide Web.  This paper ends with a discussion of how the web might change future patterns of cross-disciplinary communication.


Comparative Work Patterns

Literature that looks at academic scholars, and their information-seeking patterns and use, is wide-ranging and diverse.  Summary articles have compared various academic populations, looking for notable differences. [5]  Elbert noted differences in journal use.


Scientists generally require current material and use information obtained in specific projects; engineers and applied scientists employed for duties other than research read journals more for general information and stimulation.  Historians and anthropologists want currents material, but they also need documents and journals dating back many years. [6]


Ellis, Cox and Hall conducted comparative research into the information-seeking behaviors of scientists and social scientists.  In particular, they noted the differences between these two user groups were primarily in terms of emphasis and time placed upon various aspects of the research process, rather than in terms of totally different methodology. [7]  They noted that both groups went through a process of information-seeking activities that included starting, chaining (following connections from one source to the next), browsing, differentiating (filtering appropriate materials), monitoring developments in the field, and extracting (locating materials of interest in particular sources).  Scientists used two additional information-seeking steps, verifying and ending, which were more pronounced than they were in the social sciences. [8]  These steps are consistent with the nature of the scientific process.  Testing hypotheses requires verifying that conclusions are appropriate and then ending the testing phase.  These processes tend to be quantitative in nature—counting or measuring certain values to determine results.  Humanities are far more open to qualitative interpretation.  Ending is less certain—one might find more documents at a late date, and verifying is often a matter of personal investigation.


Furthermore, scientists have a distinct advantage over humanists in their communication of information and findings with each other.  Wiberley has noted that scientists “share paradigms” and therefore do not have to explain at length why a topic is important, or “how their treatment supplants basic understanding of what has heretofore been believed….The general agreement among scientists helps them to understand sections of publications that are taken out of context.  In contrast, humanists usually must grasp the context in which it appears and how the entire work differs from previous treatment.” [9]


An Example: System Dynamicists

An example of individuals from the scientific/social scientific community exists in the form of system dynamicists—individuals who engage in modeling of systems over time through computer simulation.  System dynamicists share a very specific set of paradigms that need explanation in the outside world.  They work with computer software specifically designed to look for feedback in systems.  A simple example would be the population cycles of a predator and its prey.  Lynxes that have access to an abundant rabbit population start to grow in number.  These numbers of lynxes eventually overwhelm their food source—there are not enough rabbits.  As the lynx population declines the rabbits are less in demand as a food sources and their numbers begin to again swell.  Thus the two populations are in a balancing rhythm with each other over time, creating a feedback system that can be drawn as a series of looping diagrams. [11]  System dynamics is extremely complex in its use of mathematics and multiple, interconnected feedback loops.  It is highly mathematical in that it requires numeric specification of all parameters in order to model the systems it studies.


Individuals who are system dynamics modelers spend years learning the process of identifying and modeling dynamic systems.  Not only must they understand the computer programs they use, but they must also have an understanding of collecting the appropriate quantitative data that are used in their models.  It is usual for system dynamicists to have an apprenticeship in the field, learning from other modelers and developing their abilities to seek and use information appropriately.


Individuals who seek and use information in scientific and mathematical arenas must be well versed in their discipline’s literature, in its information use, and in the basics of the mathematical and scientific processes that allow one to do research.  Information seeking and use is extremely specific to these fields.  Although system dynamicists often find themselves looking for historical data in order to model systems, they rely primarily upon data sources that they control—using surveys and qualitative measurement techniques to seek and create pertinent data.  Scientific fields depend upon the newest information in their fields in order to continue building where others have left off. [10]


Work Patterns among Humanists

There are a variety of work characteristics that have been attributed to humanities scholars, but it must be taken into consideration that humanists are a heterogeneous group, individuals differing depending upon area of research and teaching.  In general, it has been noted that humanities scholars work alone.[12]  Work is solitary because of its interpretive nature and therefore some researchers have found that humanists have little need to communicate about research, and thus have low use of e-mail. [13]  Clarifying this characteristic of low e-mail use, DeLoughry reported on the results of a 1993 Modern Language Association survey of humanists [14] which found that it was difficult to get more professors interested in communicating via electronic mail until they were persuaded that a large number of their colleagues were on the system. [15]  The solitary nature of humanities scholars and the state of their use of electronic mail for communications was apparently in a state of flux in the mid 1990s.


Although the use of a computer for word processing has become nearly ubiquitous in academe, there are work patterns that are unique of humanists in creation of manuscripts.  Humanists primarily write monographs. [16]  They tend to upgrade their computer software and hardware at the end of a project, but since monographs can typically take four to nine years to complete, there are few chances for upgrades. [17]  The pressure scientists feel to advance the field, to use preprints, and be the first in a developing area is certainly not felt by most humanists.


Despite the heterogeneity of humanists, “What is common across the humanities is the diversity and complexity of textual, graphic, aural and artifactual sources used and produced by scholars in their research.” [18]  When dimensions of time and geography are added to this diversity of information sources, there is an explanation not only for the breadth and depth of humanistic studies, but also for the complexity of locating materials that are used by these individuals. Since older primary and secondary sources for humanistic research are often not available on computerized systems, humanists often must use non-electronic sources to find their retrospective research materials, often browsing library stacks or archival collections for potentially useful materials.  Information is not superseded the way it is in science. [19]  Taking older texts or infrequently used texts off the library’s shelves might be reasonable in the sciences, but disastrous in the humanities.  Despite the fact that personal collections are a major source of information for humanists because of their convenience factor [20], the volume of materials that humanists will consult in their research makes ownership nearly impossible and library- or archivally-based information sources crucial.


Wiberley and Jones believe that there is a continuum in which, moving from physical sciences to the humanities, “the scholar exercises decreasing control over the primary evidence that is being analyzed.  The less control over primary evidence the scholar has, the harder it is to utilize information technology.” [21]  One needs to question this statement from 1994 in the light of eight years of technology upgrades that now allow humanists digitally to scan and analyze texts.  Nevertheless, they still must work with primary materials created by others, and they must learn to use scanning and data analysis software if they are to make use of new information technologies.


With the richness of language inherent in their primary source materials, humanists find themselves, given the breadth of years they are working with, and the changes that words can undergo in meaning, dealing with concepts that mean different things to different researchers, creating what has been termed “semantic ambiguity,” a concept not found in the precise world of the sciences. [22]  Furthermore, humanists, because of the diversity of sources that they required for their research, might find themselves, as Tibbo describes, using a multiplicity of bibliographic tools to locate their sources.


Because humanists use materials that may be hundreds or even thousands of years old, change in terminology can also be a problem.  Not only may contemporary indexes use terms that do not match those used in the works themselves, but also researchers may be faced with using indexes from several periods to access materials.  The changes in indexing terminology can be confusing and complicated, particularly when a term is still in use but with a different meaning from an earlier period. [23]


These search patterns, multiple sources with ambiguous vocabularies, are very different from those in the sciences.


Vocabulary categories used by humanities scholars were found to differ markedly from those used in the sciences, a fact that imposes distinctive demands on thesaurus development and the design of on-line information systems.  Humanities scholars searched far more named individuals, geographical terms, chronological terms, and discipline terms than was the case in a comparative science sample. [24]


Looking at these characteristics presents a wide-ranging distinction between scientific and humanistic fields of endeavor.  A specific example of humanities exists in the field of history.


An Example: Academic Historians

Academic historians fall within the ranks of the humanities.  Their information-seeking behaviors are necessarily broad in terms of place and time.  Historians deal with different geographic locations over all of history.  They are thus faced with a need to find information that already exists, understand that information, and then analyze it to support historic arguments.


Because of the breadth of this field, historians face a variety of barriers in their information-seeking processes.  In 1995, 30 historians from the four State University of New York university centers (Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook), in interviews that were conducted in their individual offices, expressed concern about electronic access to information.  In particular, were the following:


Amounts of information.  Information technology created access to so much information that some historians believed that it was impossible to sort it out.  Other historians were drawing historical conclusions without adequate analysis.  In a less-is-more argument, there was a feeling that the old index-card based system, with less information, was still better in the world of historical scholarship.


Access to technologies.  Several historians had dated computing equipment.  When asked why they did not move to newer systems that said two things.  Either they were working on a project and did not want to transition to a new computer until the project was complete, or they were happy with the older computer and did not want to take the time to learn newer technologies.  Given that historians’ research projects can take years to finish, their computers could be old by a factor of three or four by the time they upgrade.


Research and publication.  There were two issues associated with information and subsequent publication of findings.  First, historians were concerned about their subject matter and its potential for being of interest to a wide enough audience so that it could be published.  A truly esoteric topic might be of interest to the historian, or a small group of historians, and thus publishable as a journal article, but monograph publication required more universal appeal.  Second, with a move toward publishing in non-print sources, historians worried about how these publications would be accepted.  Would CD ROMs or video be appropriate evidence in peer-reviewed tenure and promotion decisions?  Should future faculty hires look for individuals who had published their work in non-print media?


Funding.  A major difference between the humanities and the sciences is access to funding for research.  Whereas there are research grants available to do scientific research for the government and the private sector, humanities grants are few and far between.  Funds tend to be awarded to academics with practical, profitable products.  Historians have a hard time finding money and as a result will save small grant monies until there is enough for a research project, or take their families on vacations that are also data gathering trips.


Working alone.  Historians are hired into academic departments to teach and do research in a particular area, be it American 19th century cultural or medieval European history. It is rare to find a department where there are many historians who specialize in the same area.  History departments work on hiring for breadth.  Couple this fact with another—that humanists tend to work alone, and there emerges a picture of individuals who do not collaborate on writing grants for doing research. [25]


Thus, unlike the scientist whose workplace is the laboratory and whose language is the often universal language of his or her field (e.g., chemical formulas or mathematical equations), historians’ definitions of their laboratory could be as varied as a military library in Paris, France or a historical photograph collection housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  Language could be 13th century English or 19th century Japanese.


Differences and Understanding

Apparently, there exist distinct differences between humanists and scientists, in how they do their work, how they seek information, and what information they seek.  The question for this paper thus becomes how these differences affect communication across these disciplines.  Surfacing from the previous discussion are a set of cultural issues that make it hard for scientists and humanists to understand each other in their work and research.  Alternately, they provide a set of cultural checkpoints that each discipline should pay attention to when speaking with the other.


Collaboration.  Since humanists do not generally collaborate it is hard for them to assign ownership to multiply authored projects.  This becomes particularly bothersome in tenure and promotion reviews when humanists sit on these committees.  How does one know who has done what?  This is never an issue in a singly authored history article or monograph—the standard for scholarship in the humanities.


Use of computers and other information technologies. Whereas scientific research has come to more and more rely upon technologies for measurement and analysis, it is still possible to be a humanist and only use a computer for word processing.  When scientists speak to humanists it is important that they understand that their audience may have no background whatsoever in the information technologies that they take for granted on a daily basis.


Use of statistics, mathematics, and mathematical notation. Furthermore, many humanists have gone into their chosen field hoping to never again deal with mathematics or statistics.  They are very comfortable in a qualitative research environment but freeze up in front of mathematical notation.  In order to create effective cross-cultural dialog, scientists are challenged to develop language that communicates findings without relying upon paradigms and notation primarily familiar in their own culture of science.


Definitions of terms versus standard paradigms.  One might expect that a humanist would look to a scientist for careful definitions of terms and methods.  Humanists expect this of each other since they work in a world where time and place can change the meanings of words and the language that one uses.  There are few normalized conventions in the humanities and no standard paradigms.  A scientist speaking to humanists necessarily must define the realm of his or her work, even though this would be unnecessary in the inner circle of the scientific community.


Age of information. As previously discussed, humanists consider information of any age to be within their research domains, and require that libraries keep materials of all ages for their research.  The World Wide Web cannot presently provide appropriate information because it is too new.  More and more humanities-related information is now scanned and available full-text, on-line, but the realm of the humanist will continue to be primarily print and paper.  Conversely, in the scientific community where research is based upon previous research the truly old often is unimportant unless one is a historian of a particular technology or field.


Methods of research dissemination. Since humanists deal with information from all times and places, timely dissemination of information is less important than creating strong arguments based upon careful qualitative analysis of existing sources or new ones as they are discovered.  Journal articles and monographs are the center of the humanist’s publication plan.  Compare this to the scientist who is interested in getting materials out to the scientific community in a truly timely fashion, often because of the need to be first with a discovery or patent.  Preprints and electronic dissemination of findings are becoming the norm in the scientific community.  A monograph can take ten years to publish.  A preprint sent out electronically can be disseminated in a matter of days.  These cultures are philosophically miles apart in the way that they work, in their funding mechanisms, in the speed within which they work, and in the methods they use for dissemination of findings.


The Role of the World Wide Web in Changing Culture

The World Wide Web and electronic mail before it have changed the way that academics communicate, access, and disseminate information.  Electronic mail started out primarily in the scientific community as a means to keep scientists in touch with each other.  Humanists were much slower to make use of e-mail (they are not collaborators), and have been equally slow to use the WWW for their research and teaching (information is often not old enough or not available online).  Humanities materials have not easily lent themselves to electronic dissemination.  Humanists like to see the original document or artifact, the original artwork or musical score, and have not trusted electronic media to do an adequate job of making information available.  As electronic information access technologies improve it is possible that humanists will slowly become more willing to learn these technologies and disseminate their work in digital formats.  Until that time there will remain a large informational and cultural gap between scientists and humanists.


Speaking Across Disciplines

Neither of these cultures is going to appreciably change no matter what happens to electronic dissemination of information.  Scientists will continue to work collaboratively in language that is specific to their fields of endeavor.  Their dissertations and publications will be terse, building upon the work that came directly before them.  Humanists will be generally distrustful of electronic dissemination of information and will continue to spend years studying materials and creating lengthy works that examine the nuances of language and meaning.

Can these groups speak to each other?  Of course they can.  In 1994, Drucker stated that “…people with knowledge [must] take responsibility for making themselves understood by people who do not have the same knowledge base.” [26]  It seems that the best communication would be facilitated by an understanding of how different various academic disciplines are in their methods of work, in their scope of work, in their dissemination of new ideas, and in their communication with each other.  This paper addresses some of those differences.  Ethnographic research requires observation of a target culture, understanding the vocabulary, traditions, and habits of a group of individuals who are different from the researcher.  Even if one decides not to follow the conventions of sitting, kneeling, or standing, it is really helpful to know why others are.





[1] See Clifford Geertz.  1973. The Interpretation of Cultures.  NY: Harper Collins Publishers; Gideon Kunda. 1992.  Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press; and James P. Spradley.1979. The Ethnographic Interview.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers for overviews of ethnographic research and cultural studies.


[2] Donald O. Case 1991.  “Conceptual Organization and Retrieval of Text by Historians: the Role of Memory and Metaphor.”  Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42 (9): 657-668; and Peter Lyman. 1995. “Computing as Performance.”  Educom Review 30 (4): 28-31.


[3] Robert S. Taylor.  1968.  “Question Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.”  College & Research Libraries 29 (3): 178-194.


[4] Herbert A. Simon.  1955.  “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 69 (1):99-118, p. 118.


[5] J.M. Budd. 1987. “”Research in the Two Cultures: the Nature of Scholarship in Science and in the Humanities.”  Collection Management 11 (3/4): 1-21; David Ellis, Deborah Cox & Katherine Hall. 1993. “A Comparison of the Information Seeking Patterns of Researchers in the Physical and Social Sciences.” Journal of Documentation 49 (4): 356-369; and Carole L. Palmer & Laura J. Neumann.  2002.  “The Information Work of Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholars: Exploration and Translation.”  Library Quarterly 72 (1): 85-117.


[6] Mary-Hilda Ebert.1971. “Contrasting Patterns of Specialized Library Use.”  Drexel Library Quarterly 7 (1): 13-27, p. 25


[7] Ellis et al. Op. cit., p. 365.


[8] Ibid. P. 359.


[9] Stephen S. Wiberley. 1991. “Habits of Humanists: Scholarly Behavior and New Information Technologies.” Library Hi Tech 9 (1): 17-21, p. 19.


[10] Jay W. Forrester.  1968.  Principles of Systems.  Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press.


[11] John Sterman. 2000.  Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World.  Boston, MA: Irwin/McGraw Hill.


[12] Susan S. Guest. 1987.  “The Use of Bibliographic Tools by Humanities Faculty at the State University of New York at Albany.” The Reference Librarian 18: 157-172; and Stephen E. Wiberley. 1991. Op. cit.


[13] Stephen E. Wiberley & William G. Jones. 1994.  “Humanists Revisited: A Longitudinal Look at the Adoption of Information Technology.” College & Research Libraries 55 (6): 499-509.


[14] Bettina J. Huber. 1993. Computer Use Among MLA Members: Selected Findings from the 1990 Membership Survey.  New York: Modern Language Association of America.


[15] Thomas J. DeLoughry. 1993. “Survey of Language Professors finds Extensive Use of Computers.”  Chronicle of Higher Education 39 (33): A27, A32.


[16] Helen Ruth Tibbo. 1994. “Indexing for Humanities.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (8): 607-619.


[17] Wiberley & Jones. Op. cit.


[18] Tibbo. 1994. Op. cit., p. 608


[19] Mara R. Saule.1992.  “User Instruction Issues for Databases in the Humanities.”  Library Trends 40 (4): 596-613.


[20] S. Stone. 1982. “”Humanities Scholars: Information Needs and Uses.”  Journal of Documentation 38 (4): 292-313.


[21] Wiberley & Jones. Op. cit., pp. 503-504.


[22] Claire-Lise Benaud & Sever Bordeianu. 1995. “Electronic Resources in the Humanities.” Reference Services Review 23 (2): 41-50, p. 42


[23] Tibbo. 1994. Op. cit., p. 609.


[24] Bates et al., 1993, p. 1.


[25] Deborah Lines Andersen.  1998.  “Academic Historians.” Journal of the American Association for History and Computing 1 (1).


[26] Peter Drucker. 1994. “The Age of Social Transformation.” The Atlantic Monthly 274 (5): 53-71, p. 61.