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.