A hunter-gatherer in the stacks

For one of my library school assignments I had to bring something new to the class. I chose to report on an article out of The Library Quarterly, “An Optimal Foraging Approach to Information Seeking and Use,” (Vol. 64, No. 4, Oct. 1994, pp.414-449) by Pamela Sandstrom. Since I teach hunter-gatherer food foraging behavior in my Introduction to Anthropology class I was interested to see whether the application of evolutionary ecology to information seeking behavior was warranted. Was this a genuinely productive application of the model or if it was merely an interesting metaphor?

Prior to grad school I never had an interest in human ecology, but through my studies with Brian Billman and Bruce Winterhalder (and via being married to biologist) this has become one of the defining attributes of my anthropological worldview. In fact I remember Old Man Winterhalder mentioning in class that his work modeling forager behavior had been cited in research on how people find information on the Internet. It was a treat to finally get around to reading something that had been recommended to me about twelve years ago!

In a nutshell optimal foraging theory (OFT) describes animal/ resource relationships such as predator-prey, mate seeking, or how tribal peoples living in small-scale societies acquire wild foods. The basic components of the theory include an actor who is making choices, a currency that measures costs and benefits, any constraints that limit or otherwise shape behavior, and a strategy that specifies a range of possible options for the actor.

Imagine you are a woman who feeds her family by collecting nuts and berries. You walk to your favorite nut grove but some wild boars have beaten you there and they’ve already eaten most of the ground fall. Which course of action would be a better use of your time: carefully picking through the remaining nuts or walking out of your way to the next grove? Or say you are a man with a spear out hunting free roaming wild animals. You come across the tracks of an antelope: should you invest your energy in following this fast moving animal or look for something that’s easier to catch? We are all descended from ancestors who successfully answered similar questions.

As scholars our time and energy are also limited. OFT can help explain why information seekers choose certain information resources over others in terms of a cost/ benefit analysis. In terms of feeding, the measure of benefit is usually calories or fecundity. Sandstrom argues that the analog in an information environment should be novelty. Although she gives a spirited defense of the choice, information after all cannot be exhausted like nuts or antelopes, it is problematic swapping out concepts like this. The issue of risk does not translate especially well either. Choices are supposed to be made in response to the actor’s tolerance for risk, but what is risk in the context of scholarship? There are some other shortcomings but I won’t go into great detail here. If folks want to talk about it more I can elaborate in the comments.

Sandstrom organizes her application of OFT in an information context into three types of decisions that information seekers make in the course of navigating their environment. The first decision type is “prey choice and diet breadth.”

Foragers may be described as generalists who eat many different kinds of things or specialists who eat fewer types of things but in greater quantity. Moreover they may live in environments where resources are homogenously distributed or, what is more common, in environments where resources are found irregularly. Foragers invest their time by searching for food but also handling it once it is acquired. The resource must be captured, consumed, and digested – so handling takes energy too. This means there is a trade-off. The more time you spend searching the less time you have for handling. When resources are abundant you can afford to be more specialized and pass over those that require more handling. Conversely, in times of scarcity you have to search more extensively becoming a generalist and handling things that are less optimal. Thus, OFT predicts that scholars will tend to decrease the breadth of their information resources when high quality sources of novel information are abundant and increase the breadth of their resources when high quality information is scarce.

The second decision type is “time allocation and patch choice.” In the information context different patches of resources include a scholar’s personal library, the university library, remote access databases, and one’s colleagues. Decisions about how much time and energy to invest in a given patch are made depending on the rate of return. Adding more patches of resources increases the time spent switching among them. This takes away from time that could be spent thoroughly exploiting any single patch, like the example above about the woman gathering nuts. In order to maximize efficiency the forager must calculate when the point of diminishing returns has been met. Or as Sandstrom puts it, “as overall habitat productivity increases, foragers should spend less time in a given patch and as productivity decreases they should increase their within patch foraging time… For the scholar, less value accrues to the nth source cited in support of a given point” (1994, 434).

The third decision type concerns “group formation and settlement” (and here is where the Winterhalder citations turned up). This refers to weighing the costs and benefits of foraging alone versus with others. Hunting within a group can permit taking down larger prey or flushing prey into a trap making it more productive than going solo. However group members will be expected to share in the bounty of their hunt with their companions. In environments where resources are evenly dispersed and stable, exploitation can be optimized via dispersed individuals or small groups. But in the case of environments where resources are clumped and unpredictable larger aggregated groups are favored. Therefore different resource distributions favor different kinds of group formations.

This implies that conditions within the information environment itself help to develop the shared set of values and a system of roles and statuses within disciplines and subdisciplines. Given your information environment it might be wise to pursue coauthored projects or work in a team in order to accomplish larger goals even if that means gaining only a share of the prestige resulting from the final product.

Overall I was impressed by the application of evolutionary ecology to information retrieval behavior. The author definitely knows her hunter-gatherer models! However, I feel that ultimately the information seeker as food forager analogy is more of a metaphor rather than yielding useful predicitions. There certainly remain many compelling reasons to apply economic, ecological, or game theory concepts within information science and much to be gained by reflecting on OFT as metaphor. But in my analysis there are limitations too.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger currently working to describe a collection of approximately 14,000 photographs produced by the Army Signal Corps during WWII. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

4 thoughts on “A hunter-gatherer in the stacks

  1. Very nice until the last sentence. Given that there are limitations in every analysis, this hardly needs saying and ends the piece with a whimper. Stopping with the previous sentence would have been much stronger.

  2. Concerning generalist vs specialist foraging strategies, the best strategy could be a combination of generalist and specialist approaches within a reasonable range of patches. Since none of us can know everything, pursuing an unbounded generalist strategy will lead to broad knowledge so thin that it hardly counts as knowledge at all. Conversely, a rigid specialist strategy is, in the classic Greek meaning of the term a form of idiocy. This may be particularly true in anthropology, where the intersection of topical and geographical interests leads to endless fragmentation of whatever it is that we think we know. Now that we have Google and other search engines at our fingertips, no project should ever begin without at least some preliminary search for what people in other places and disciplines have to say about the topic in question.

  3. I can clarify on this. In Sandstrom’s argument the currency of the information ecosystem is “novelty” meaning the information which is most valuable to the user is information she doesn’t already have. This is intuitive. If I’m writing a paper on Anime, I don’t need to do a search for Susan Napier’s book because I own that one. I’m on the hunt for novel information not contained in her 2000 Palgrave publication.

    If novel information on my topic is abundant I can be a specialist. Say I happen upon The American Journal of Anime Studies (I made that up), now I’ve acquired a resource rich patch and have the luxury of consuming lots of novel info without spending time scrolling through all the back issues of Anthropology and Humanism on Anthrosource. Because Anthrosource is clunky its more time consuming to “handle” those resources, meaning it takes more effort to eek out a modest amount of nutritious information.

    However in an environment where novel information is scare I may have to become a generalist. I will have to use a journal on pop culture and look for a piece on Japan, or turn to a journal on Japan and look for a piece on pop culture. I’m casting my net wider and wider because finding the novel information I need is becoming increasingly time consuming and I have to “make do” with less than perfect resources.

  4. Matt, thanks for that explanation. Very clear and compelling. I note, however, the assumption that the searcher already has a topic. Given that assumption, whether sticking to a rich patch or extending the search more broadly is, indeed, the vital question. I think, however, of browsing and brainstorming before a topic takes clear shape. Here is where the breadth-first search will shine, opening up new possibilities foreclosed once the topic is clearly decided. A search for material on anime could stumble on “Cool Japan,” leading to debates over government policy and the importance of soft power in international relations. Pursued in another direction, it could lead to consideration of precursors of anime in Japanese art or Chinese literature. Stylized battles between heroes and villains with distinctive costumes and superpowers are, for example, most of the characters in the Ming Dynasty Chinese classic, Feng Shen Yen-Yi (The Investiture of the Gods): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fengshen_Yanyi. Either direction could lead to insights that confining the search to what other anthropologists have written would not.

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