Dr. Elfreda A. Chatman was well known for her ethnographic approaches in researching information seeking behaviors among understudied or minority groups (poor people, the elderly, retired women, female inmates, and janitors).
Dr. Chatman's research contributions or developments resulted in several middle-range theories: Information Poverty, Life in Round, and Normative Behavior. Based on her background in sociology, she introduced her "small worlds" method to studying information behavior.
Life in the Round
This theory draws on Chatman's study of female prisoners at a maximum-security prison in the northeastern United States. After observing inmates both during and outside of their interactions with the prison's professional employees, Chatman observes that the women live "in the round", that is, "within an acceptable degree of approximation and imprecision". Instead of seeking information about the outside world, over which they have no control, prisoners avoid gathering this type of information: in order to survive, they place importance on "daily living patterns, relationships, and issues that come within the prison environment" over which they can exercise agency. In this way, inmates display defensive information seeking behavior.
Inmates form a "small world," a closed community where private opinion gives way to a shared reality and accompanying information-seeking behavior. Social norms established by inmates determine the importance or triviality of a piece of information; as such, information that affects prisoners in an immediate way - such as illness while medical staff are off-duty - gain importance, while information on the outside world becomes trivial. Chatman concludes that life in the round disfavours information seeking behaviour, as there is no need to search for outside information. Prisoners "are not part of the world... being defined by outsiders"; because inmates do not need additional information to participate fully in their reality, they do not seek it out.
Chatman saw that these disincentives to information seeking could become cultural norms in the small worlds that the people she observed took their norms from, and that these cultural norms could produce what she labeled information poverty, where a group could perpetuate norms that would cause the avoidance of information that would be useful to people in the group if they were to seek it out.
Dr. Chatman received her B.S. from Youngstown State University, her M.S.L.S. from Case Western Reserve University, and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Her 1992 book, The Information World of Retired Women (Greenwood Press), won the ACRL Best Book Award in 1995. Dr. Chatman participated in the American Library Association's Library Research Round Table (LRRT) during the 1980s and 1990s, and served as LRRT Chair in 1993-1994. Dr. Chatman was a professor at the School of Information Studies at Florida State University before her death on January 15, 2002 at the age of 59.
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