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Information in extension: A poverty of theory

Darren Schmidt

Department of Primary Industries, Queensland
PO Box 23 Kingaroy Qld 4610


This paper argues that the concept of information is imperfectly understood by the extension profession. It is argued that this is in part due to the historical alignment of extension "science" with the natural sciences which has given rise to the assumption that information is merely a variable in a functional rationalist schema. It is put that these same epistemological assumptions have pervaded extension and communication theory until recently, and that information concepts should be critically re-examined by the extension profession if it is to deal with the challenges of the Information Age on their own terms. Information concepts from a non-traditional perspective - interpretivism - are briefly outlined for comparison.


Information is having an identity crisis. From an extension perspective, what is information? Is it a commodity to trade, own or sell? Is it the bricks and mortar that constitutes our messages, giving them substance and gravity? Is it the component "stuff" of communication that sustains the familiar relationships between officer and client?

Is there information contained in a hybrid sorghum seed? In a slick multi-media based decision support cd? If both media carry information, but different types of information, how is that different? What are the parameters and what is the nomenclature we use to differentiate different types of information?

Information is represented in all these and much more. In fact, the label "information" has become so catholic in its scope and its vast diversity of uses that it is at grave risk of becoming diluted beyond usefulness. The simple urging that "We must get this information out to our clients" is fraught with practical, methodological, and epistemological traps. Many extension officers are familiar with the practical problems, which often stem from budget restrictions, skill deficits, or poorly defined goals and objectives. Sometimes, the required information cannot be sourced easily, or it is misleading, or it is produced or distributed poorly. Beyond these problems, the questions of "what do we want to say" and "why do we want to say it" define - or frustrate - the methodology we use to "shift" the information to its intending target. Who needs it? What do we really want to improve ... behaviour "out there" or our own personal list of outputs for the year? Is information to be used as an instrument of change or merely the tool we use to furnish extension trophies to ourselves? Finally, what good does it do? Every extension officer with experience has witnessed considerable amounts of money spent on well intentioned - and sometimes well designed - communication campaigns which fail to achieve their set objectives. Is "information", using any one of its disguises, to blame? Is there too much information, or not enough? Is it too dense to be understood, or too lightweight to be considered seriously? Is it too hard to find, or too easy to be inundated with possibly relevant information that defeats the reader by sheer volume?

This paper argues that for extension practitioners riding the bow wave of the information-communication age, the "information" concept has not been regarded rigorously enough. Its denotative meaning, largely lost amidst political agendas and smoke-and-mirrors technocracy, needs to be revisited and critically examined. It argues that a creditable body of literature and theoretical development does exist that can underpin a reconstruction of our professional understanding of information concepts and that extension - as a purposeful activity - will be richly rewarded if it musters the intellectual courage to regard "information" more critically.

Functional rationalism and the magic bullet

One of the enduring metaphors dogging extension's understanding of "information" is the so-called "magic bullet" concept. Borne of decades old research carried out in the US, this theory holds that information is a discrete and empirically real package that can be bundled up and "shifted" or transmitted from one place to another, or from one person to another, or from an organisation to an audience. If designed and directed properly, this package can effect largely predictable results on its intended recipients; the information strikes its "prey" like a magic bullet and brings about expected and measurable outcomes.

The magic bullet metaphor is a theoretical hangover from the information theory work pioneered by researchers like Shannon and Weaver (1949) and Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955). These researchers, who analysed telephonic communication and political propaganda respectively, relied on the widely held functionalist assumption that communication was more or less mechanistic and could be more or less reduced to various parts and processes that, considered in isolation, could reveal much about the broader phenomenon. Information, from this perspective, was held to be data organised in such a way that it would retain most its physical integrity after leaving its "source" and arriving at its "destination". As these early information theory models became more sophisticated, elements such as "noise" and "feedback" were added to explain the apparent unpredictability with which information could be violated by extraneous or counter-cooperative variables. They sought to explain why information could be misheard, misunderstood or disregarded.

The "communication as complex machine" metaphor, replete with information as one of its many and varied components, borrowed heavily from the presiding scientific philosophy of the middle 20th century. This scientific philosophy had - successfully under its own terms - introduced to the world the atomic age, the Green Revolution, space travel and heart transplants, to select a few examples. The functionalist, empirical and reductionist tools that increased wheat yields and egg outputs were rejigged and set to work on the emerging curiosities posed by the dawning information age. Communication, and by default the information that "built" it, was assumed first to be "a thing to behold" and subsequently "a thing that proceeded somehow", and ultimately "a thing that could be manipulated" like so many measurable scientific replications.

Same principles, new era

The same empirical assumptions informed much subsequent communication research, including Rogers' diffusion of innovations theory. Notably, it was the discipline of rural sociology, and thence extension, that first embraced this theory as a means by which the process of extension could be explained, and perhaps manipulated. Information, for all of its unpredictability on the interpersonal or micro-level, seemed to "move" or behave more or less predictably (at least in retrospect) on the social unit or macro-level. The diffusion of innovations theory held sway amongst extension officers for years, possibly because it provided a practical - if not poetic - picture of what should happen to innovations as a result of dedicated extension work. Fundamentally, however, the diffusion of innovations theory is a product of functional rationality in that it merely stands traditional experimental design on its head by tracing caused effects to stimuli as opposed to tracing given stimuli to caused effects (Katz et al, 1970, p. 354). It is, in effect, an extension of Green Revolution-era scientific philosophy that, ultimately, was barely more useful than the earlier communication models in explaining what people did with information or why.

Systems research, something of a successor to the diffusion of innovations theory and epistemological champion of extension during the 1980s and early 1990s, is also based in functional rationalism and has its anchor in the natural sciences. Stretching back to von Bertalanffy's (1956) pioneering General Systems Theory, the systems approach came to be popularly held as an approach that featured the appropriate level of "complexity" necessary to deal with humans and their wildly unpredictable information needs. Early on, von Bertalanffy differentiated what he termed "open" and "closed" systems. Closed systems, whilst conceivably complicated, are ultimately predictable because no new energy or matter is exchanged across the system's boundaries over time. A natural example is an organism which, whilst metabolising according to its own internal laws and which can be usefully analysed at this level, predictably dies if it does not feed, breathe, or allow to exit that matter which it has allowed to enter. Open systems, which freely exchange energy and matter across its boundaries, could and probably would bear witness to its artefacts and internal processes bifurcating and evolving according to environmental demands. At this level, every organism and social system is an open system. This branch of systems theory found a home in Checkland's (1981, 1990) soft systems methodology to which many Australian extension officers subscribed for a decade or so.

Nevertheless, it is argued here that the systems concept with which most of us are subconsciously comfortable is the closed or hard systems concept, simply because it most closely mimics the empirical, functional rationalist models with which we are familiar and which have worked so well in the natural sciences. And, of course, it is the natural sciences which have informed so many of the advances made in agriculture over the past 100 years. The "science" of extension has been required by necessity to work side by side with the science of natural systems, and it was probably inevitable that the transparent success of the natural sciences in launching the Green Revolution would dictate that extension share the same rational assumptions, the same functionalist methodologies, and the same empirically derived models to explain and predict the behaviour of human communication systems.

But these same models still stubbornly refuse to accommodate the vagaries of communication. Information apparently refuses to behave as a variable should and morphs in structure and intent as it zooms around human systems sustaining purposeful human activity. As a component of the communication system, it assumes the empirically baffling quality of remaining in the place whence it was transmitted, whilst simultaneously "arriving" at its destination. As a commodity, it doubles, rather than halves, when shared between two parties. Unlike other empirical phenomena, information appears to defy the laws of cause and effect. In broad terms, information and its exchange has underpinned every purposeful human activity from starting World War II to starting controlled traffic farming, but - significantly - it cannot be depended upon to perform similar feats in the future. Rarely predictable, the effects of the same information in different circumstances can result in action, rumour, suspicion, rejoicing or nothing at all.

Even in the new century, the slickest looking, most market sensitive information can still be thrown away or ignored by its intended recipient. In Queensland's Department of Primary Industries, extension resources have never looked so good and they are available in print, cd and now the web. Nevertheless, primary producers, the traditional consumers of this information, aren't necessarily the richer or wiser for it and extension budgets continue to be cut. Why hasn't the magic bullet worked? It is argued here that as extension professionals, we recognise the intransigent nature of information without acknowledging the well-credentialled but probably inappropriate theoretical ground on which much of our understanding of "information" and "communication" is nurtured. This misjudgment is of crucial moment: they don't call it the "information age" for nothing, and the extension profession - and all other communication professions for that matter - is poorly placed if it does not entertain a disciplined understanding of what information is, what it is not, and what it can be.

What information can be - a negotiation

A long and illuminating literature has been developed - largely outside the US - that draws heavily from the interpretivist tradition which has its bed in European subjective sociology. Interpretivism, actually a loose collection of theories sharing the same epistemological assumptions (Burrell and Morgan, 1979, pp. 227-234), holds individual experience and an individual's knowledge or understanding of that experience as key to understanding human systems. In other words, there is not an independent, knowable and measurable reality "out there", but rather an individual's disciplined interpretation of their experiences with it. The meaning ascribed by individuals to this experience is primary for it is through meaning that we can be conscious of activity or experience. Language is held to be the vehicle with carries this meaning and is, not surprisingly, central to the work of many interpretivist studies.

Is language, then, the "conduit" for information? Other European sociological traditions, such as structuralism and semiotics, can be instructive here. Such traditions treat language as an ongoing process that humans use to negotiate meaning, establish mutually acceptable realities, and trade metaphors and other sense-making structures in order to understand each other and navigate society. Information, in this context, is more fruitfully described as the "building blocks" of signs and symbols which aggregate to form meanings, words, sentences, gestures and ultimately language, and which are also subject to ongoing negotiation and re-definition.

It is not within the scope of this paper to present a critique of the interpretivist tradition or how it can be used to re-evaluate the role of information in extension (see, instead, Bordow and Moore (1991) and Littlejohn (1989) for more reading). Rather, interpretivism or indeed other approaches such as cognitive studies or critical theory are suggested as alternative starting points for discussion about information in extension if only because of the intellectual dominance of the functional rationalist models that obfuscates alternative thinking. Educators and community development professionals, free from the organisational ties that bind extensionists to functional rationalist ideologies, have long understood the value of interpretivism and other "alternative" theories of communication. The evidence lies in the broad palette of pedagogical and developmental methodologies now available to help students teach themselves or help communities solve local problems.

At worst, the tenets of interpretivism can sound almost subversive to professionals schooled under the assumptions of functional rationalism. At best, they may sound vague. But it is worth noting that human systems, including the communication they use and the information they share, tend also to be vaguely drawn and difficult to predict. They, too, can behave stubbornly, illogically, or even subversively. In many ways, the epistemological assumptions under which interpretivism works mirror human systems more closely than do the functional rationalist approaches. Under interpretivism, information is not a variable which can be moved, removed, or otherwise manipulated. It is merely the currency of negotiation, used and modified to meet the demands of new meanings, new realities and new relationships.

Professional imperatives

Where does this leave the extension professional? Rushing or reverting to either of the perspectives outlined above to discover the "real" information will not solve anything: neither can claim intellectual ascendancy nor exclusivity over the "real" information or the "real" way to know and understand information artefacts and processes. Interpretivism, for all its methodological flexibility, can be a victim of its own arbitrariness. It creates its own meta-theoretical paradoxes through its reliance on relativism: researchers who attempt to explain human behaviour through an interpretivist framework will do so by mediating meaning through their own metaphors and sense-making structures, resulting in an expressly relativist and individualised interpretation of the world (Giddens, 1976, p.151). Ultimately, any research must access "the world" if it is to say anything about it and all; the difference is that rationalists say "the world" is patently there to be measured and manipulated, while interpretivists argue "the world" is mediated to us through language and reflective negotiation of perceived reality.

More pressing for many, do modern-day extension professionals have the time to visit each college of literature to determine for themselves which perspective has more relevance to their day-to-day work? Who has time for epistemological chin scratching when there is a brochure to be printed before the summer harvest or a Landcare meeting to attend that night? In reality, few extension professionals today can afford to care whether their grasp on information concepts is intellectually watertight, but the future may herald a different urgency.

To rethink the role that information plays in extension may also be to avoid becoming mere blip shifters as the information age matures. The apparent savings gained by reducing extension information to a series of discrete bubbles of knowledge produced, stored and sent digitally are seductive to those in charge of extension budgets. If extension officers provide information and advice, why can't their energies be channelled into mediating that information through digital providors, such as the web, thus democratising access? Clearly, the role of extension officers in this scenario diminishes signficantly to one that has more to do with managing electronic files than communicating with people.

It is not difficult to find articles warning of the demise of extension as we know it. Fell (2000) points to how extension's use of language and treatment of information concepts has not always worked to the profession's best advantage. Quinn Patton (1993, p.647) argues that "extension is an Information Age idea with an Industrial-Colonial Age organisational structure and an Agricultural Age mentality". He also notes the ironic point that the extension profession was likely the first to recognise that a knowledge economy, rather than merely capital, labour, or technology, was the key to "power and progress" (p.646).

How can extension professionals rekindle the level of critical thinking that enabled them to recognise, decades before other professions, that information and knowledge were central to development? Perhaps one answer is to revisit first principles: to ask "what is this information and what are we doing with it?" and explore the answers with intellectual discipline and adopting a more plularist theoretical standpoint. These questions would transcend in-vogue discussions about storage and transmission, graphics and animations, and even "knowledge management organisations" (Koski, 2001). Instead, they may expose the paucity of the theories on which extension officers base so much of our communication practice.


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