Context-making in information work

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Sat, 11/01/2014 - 23:13

A lightning talk at the SIG-USE annual research symposium at the 2014 ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Seattle, WA.



Context-making in information work

Isto Huvila

Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor

Åbo Akademi University


’Context’ is not only something that influences information practices (and/or information behaviour) and the outcomes of informational activities but it is also a ’thing’ that frames the underlying primary activities of their (often) secondary information pursuits. Work is a ’context’ (or upper-level activity) of information work (or activities if you prefer) similarly to how it is a context a broad range of other secondary level activities [2][3]. Even if the conceptual difference between these two layers of activities may be clear, in practice, the difference is made in each and every context again and again. In information behaviour research, the making of a context is often one of the fine lines (using the words of Eviatar Zerubavel [4]) we as researchers draw when we are determining the object of our analysis. But the context is similarly made by the research subjects as well. When they do things and especially when they reflect about the things they are doing they are categorising things as belonging to context and to be of the principal subject matter.

The lightning talk discusses the observations made during an interview study of the Swedish stakeholders of archaeological archiving and the differences how the study participants reflected upon the focus of their and their colleagues work and informational pursuits relating to archaeological information. Archaeological information was discussed in broad terms to comprise all types of archaeologically (i.e. for archaeologists, about archaeology) relevant information from the perspective of the interviewees. During the analysis of the empirical data, it became apparent that the perception of what is contextual and what is that what is contextualised in archaeological information as a part of their work differed considerably between the study participants and was actively shaped rather than merely explained during the interview process. After initial attempts to explain the differences by referring to the differences in the ’background context’ of the actors (i.e. education, demographics, worktask), another alternative emerged from the analysis of the empirical material. Similarly to how information behaviour researchers draw lines between contextual and primary aspects of human activity, the study participants were actively involved in a process of making the contexts of their work. In a similar sense to how, for instance, boyd [1] has discussed context in an infrastructural sense as an enabler and platform of social situations and interaction, the study participants’ framing of their work and archaeological information could be be seen as an active collective and individual making of work and information work related infrastructures and things supported by them. 

The aim of this presentation is to explicate how the framing of work and information work and on-going context-making of the interviewees could provide an alternative and possibly, in some respects a better explanation of the differences how archaeological information is conceptualised and used by the different actors. At the same time, a closer look at the practices of both information work and (primary) work related context-making have a capability to shed light to the practices of information processing as a part of human pursuits. 


[1]    danah michele boyd. Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, 2008.
[2]    Isto Huvila. Ecological framework of information interactions and information infrastructures . Journal of Information Science, 35(6):695–708, 2009.
[3]    Isto Huvila. How a Museum Knows?  Structures, Work Roles, and Infrastructures of Information Work. JASIST, 64(7):1375–1387, 2013.
[4]    Eviatar Zerubavel. The fine line: making distinctions in everyday life. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.


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