Information as social and intellectual capital in the research career: a gender perspective
Department of Information and Culture
The academic community is a stratified social structure built on
and a need to be acknowledged. In this environment men and women do not
have the same opportunities and one manifestation is that women have
difficulties in gaining access to social networks. This is likely to
affect women's access to information, particularly information otherwise
difficult to get, since that is usually available through informal
personal contacts. Information exchange is fundamental for researchers
and the foundation for their competence and authorisation. By being
acknowledged by others the researcher and his/her research are given a
value. The researcher can thus be seen as part of a social system. In
this system information is needed for problem solving as well as
advancement and both the amount and type of information available affect
the researchers' participation and position in the system. Therefore,
when studying how men and women find for them relevant information, it is
interesting to take into consideration differences in access to
information. If women have less or different opportunities to gather
needed information, how will their information behaviour be affected? In
addition, attention may be given to new information technology with new
ways of getting into contact with people. There could be a potential for
improved means of communication, beyond established structures.
The purpose of the thesis is to study the information behaviour of male
female post-graduate students from a gender perspective, with special
focus on informal contacts and the importance of new information
technology. This is done by a study of post-doctoral students in two
academic settings. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the
importance of information from different kinds of personal contacts for
the research carrer and the role of information technology in the
creation of such contacts. Information behaviour is regarded as the
interplay between information needs, access to and use of information and
the effects of information use (Höglund & Persson, 1985). These
four aspects are treated as problem areas to which research questions are
related. The behaviour is to a large extent affected and formed by a
social context in which various demands, expectations and ideas affect
people's ways and possibilities to act. Doctoral students are by means of
their education, socialised into a social context in which information is
necessary both for problem-solving and advancement and can thus be seen
as an intellectual and social capital. The processes in which these
capitals are acquired and their influence on the students' research
careers are important to understand. Research on women and the academic
community with descriptions of structural conditions will be used for an
understanding of the students' milieu.
Problem areas and hypotheses
The need for information is governed not only by cognitive reasons;
important are affective and physiological ones (Wilson, 1981). The
doctoral students' needs are responsive to personal needs and shaped in a
social process where competition is central and in which information is
needed in order to understand prevailing norms within the subject field.
For example what subjects are appropriate, which scholars that are
central to the field etc. Depending on what a student does and wish to
accomplish, different kinds of information are sought from various
sources. At the beginning of their post-graduate studies students may
need information to understand the structure of the subject and the local
environment, while later they may need to be familiar with international
structures and actors related to their own research. This includes
information about ways to financing, contacts and distribution of
research material. For an understanding of the reasons for wanting
information one must therefore look to the situations of the students;
what they are doing, their expectations, future plans, financing etc. and
what they need in order to handle their situations as post-graduate
A person's access to information affects how various needs can be
The sources from where information is available are often divided into
formal and informal, giving access to different kinds of information.
Through formal sources, e.g. journals, public information is found which
is central to the intellectual capital. This information is not always
contemporary, as the process leading to publication can be protracted.
Informal sources give access to information otherwise difficult to find
about research in progress but also information of actors, values and
other important aspects of research, i.e. the social capital needed for
positioning in the field. The direct interaction between people is
central and informal exchange of information is often considered one of
the most important sources for information. The mapping of informal
contacts are therefore of great importance for an understanding of the
information behaviour, in particular since different kinds of personal
contacts are likely to give access to different kinds of information and
the access to informal sources may vary more than access to formal
contacts. Concerns will therefore be given to whom the doctoral students
have contact with, what information is gathered from whom and why.
Access to information varies over time. At the beginning of the research
the supervisor is likely to play a large role, not only as a mediator of
information but also to introduce the students to interesting networks.
As the students become socialised into the subject fields they will
probably develop personal contacts of their own and habits for gathering
of information. Influential factors are knowledge of sources, personal
preferences etc. Changes over time will therefore be investigated.
With an in interest in information from personal contacts it is relevant
study the use of new information technology since there are opportunities
for interaction between people with similar interest on equal conditions.
The study will look at how male and female students use different
functions, particularly functions involving human interaction, such as
mailing lists. There are findings indicating that women value these kinds
of contacts more than men do (Lincoln, 1992).
The interest in usage of information and the effects of usage help to
as part of daily activities. How different kinds of information are used
and how useful different kinds of sources are. The results of the use of
information are mirrored in how the students' information behaviour is
affected, for example what new needs that arise due to the usage and if
access, and thus the possibilities to satisfy the needs, are changed. It
is also possible to look to changes in the students' total situations by
observing production and advancement in the field as well as seeing to
their own satisfaction. How are their theses affected? What are their
positions in the field? Are they content with their situations and how
are they evolving?
These problem areas interact in a complex pattern, which makes it
to study all of them although the focus of the study is on access to
information through various sources. Access to information is an
important aspect, where inequality may exist between men and women, but
availability and different kinds of needs for information affect the
final use of sources and consequently the information the students
gather. Various needs may change their access to information as new
contacts are developed with people who are perceived to have important
The preliminary hypotheses that the study will work with are:
- There are differences in access to and participation in social
between male and female doctoral students, for example types of
personal contacts and the proximity of these contacts to the
departments in which the students are active. These differences affect
their information behaviour and in the long run their research
- These differences are likely to decrease as their research studies
resulting in more equal patterns of progress of their careers.
- New information technology is important for the establishment of
contacts for the doctoral students, for example to build social
networks of their own, a function which may be valued higher by female
students than male.
The theoretical base for the study is research on information needs and
in library and information science. Information gathering is seen as
being a part of a social system in which information seeking is an
activity performed in order to satisfy personal needs (Wilson, 1997). By
stressing social dimensions a shift occurs from studying
information-seeking behaviour to the importance of information in
different social settings. The word gather is used in order to emphasize
the fact that a person may not only actively seek for some specific piece
of information but may also browse, i.e. randomly find out if something
is of interest, or the person may receive unasked-for information from
someone, e.g. a supervisor. The person may or may not find this
The personal sources that are of special interest in the study can be
on an individual level but they can also be regarded as parts of various
social networks. Social networks are here understood as contacts between
people that are more or less regulated and continuous (Höglund &
Persson, 1985). According to Höglund and Persson, information in
these may be shared between well-informed people rather than with those
less well-informed. Newcomers in a subject field may have difficulties
gaining access to relevant networks (Cronin, 1982). In the study the
networks of individual doctoral students will be studied with respect to
kinds of contacts and what information is gathered from whom
(Haythornthwaite, 1996). These networks will then be compared with one
Another point of departure for the study is descriptions of the academic
as a hierarchic research culture built on competition for financing as
well as visibility as a researcher, sometimes called male. This leads to
a need to be acknowledged by people that are higher up in the hierarchy
(Fox, 1991). In this environment informal, social networks are formed,
normally maintained by men, and there are reasons to believe that women
are more exposed when trying to gain access to these.
As a framework for interpretation of information behaviour and the
of research questions the so-called gender system is used (Hirdman,
1987). Gender is here understood as a social phenomenon with a
fundamental social and structural ordering of men and women in society.
In this relation men are generally given the preferential right of
interpretation, leading to an uneven distribution of resources. These
relationships are seen as circumstances in which people have
opportunities to act. Descriptions of the academic community as a male
research culture belong here. By such a perspective, men and women do not
have to act differently, but women have to adjust to structural and
cultural conditions where they do not have the same status as men.
Different directions of what is called The Social Shaping of Technology,
example the SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) school offer a way
to understand information technology and its use (Bijker, et al.,
1987). The meaning and function of technology are considered to be
created in different contexts, e.g. production or usage, which changes
focus from technology as a fixed artefact towards a conception of
flexibility and ambiguity (Lie, 1995). In the study this leads to an
awareness that information technology may have different values depending
on who uses it and for what reasons. Feminist research on e.g. women's
participation and experiences of computer-mediated communication are also
of interest here (Kramarae & Taylor, 1993).
Methods, workplan and progression
The methodological point of departure for the thesis is pluralistic,
methods are used to gather and analyse empirical data. Both quantitative
and qualitative methods elements are present, although the latter
As a preparation of interview questions the study begins with pilot
interviews with three senior researchers about
their information habits and experiences from their research careers.
Overall the thesis is based on case-studies of two research departments,
one where research groups are common, for example in the natural
sciences, and one where individual work dominate such as in the
humanities. Six doctoral students from each department, three male and
three female, in different stages of their education, will be
interviewed, a total of twelve students. By dividing the post-graduate
studies in three phases, initial, middle and final, and choosing two
students from each phase, it is possible to relate different phases of
their careers to their information behaviour.
Since knowledge of the social settings in which the doctoral students
in is important, participant observation will be used to get an insight.
Focus will be on the history of the departments, their work, culture of
seminars etc. Complementary methods are reading of material and
interviews with people with a good knowledge of the departments. A
bibliometric mapping will also be done for a notion of connections
between researchers and who are working with similar questions. This will
later be compared with the students' personal networks for an
understanding of their integration and positions in the field.
Further, to investigate the situations of the students and their
behaviour, deep interviews and diaries that the students will be asked to
keep, will be used. The keeping of the diaries will take place during
three separate weeks in two months. The students will account for their
daily activities; when information is gathered and used, what type of
information, from where etc. To reduce their workload some parts of the
diaries will consist of ready-made alternatives.
There will be two interviews per student, separated by the diaries. The
interviews will focus on a reconstruction of the students' way through
their research studies to their present situation. In the following
interviews the first interviews and the diaries will be followed-up with
a deepening of their needs of information, ways of gathering information
etc. Throughout the study, a mapping of personal networks as well as the
use of information technology is important and will be given special
In the analysis the empirical material will be used to give a picture of
departments and the doctoral students' careers. These will be compared
with one another for examples of the interplay between context and
information behaviour. As the study has a gender perspective special
attention will be paid to structural and cultural circumstances which may
affect the development of information behaviour and the research
The gathering of data and writing of the thesis is planned to take four
with data collection the first two years and analysis and writing the
Preliminary work plan:
Year 1 Pilot study; Description of departments; Bibliometric
mapping; 1st round of interviews
Year 2 Diaries;
2nd round of interviews; Parallel working at the material
Year 3 Working at the material and analysis
Continuos analysis and completion of the thesis
Progress: The work is still at its beginning. Last autumn I presented a
plan for my dissertation and now I am seeking financing. The next step is to work on
a literature review and discuss information behaviour related to a gender
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- Fox, M. (1991). Gender, environmental milieu, and productivity in science. In H. Zuckerman, J. Cole & J. Bruer (Eds.), The Outer Circle. Women in the Scientific Community. New York: Norton.
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- Wilson, T.D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. J. of Documentation, 37, 3-15.
- Wilson, T.D. (1997). Information behaviour. An interdisciplinary perspective. In P. Vakkari, R. Savolainen & B. Dervin (Eds.) Information seeking in context. Proceedings of an international conference on research in information needs, seeking and use in differerent contexs 14-16, August, 1996, Tampere, Finland. London: Taylor Graham.
Information Research, Volume 4 No. 2 October 1998
Information as social and intellectual capital in the research career: a gender perspective, by Gunilla Wiklund
Location: http://InformationR.net/ir/4-2/isic/wiklund.html © the author, 1998.
Last updated: 9th September 1998