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...Murdock's Lies and the Representation of Information
Gordon Fletcher
Faculty of Arts, Griffith University
Paper presented to "Food for Thought" conference, University of NSW, July 1998 and subsequently in the proceedings of the conference.

This paper presents a theoretical and conceptual examination of 'information' as a subject. To do this, 'information' is considered as both an artefact and as a particular form of story. I argue for the consideration of information as coherent, singular and whole 'things'. This position resists the reduction and, to some degree, deconstruction of information to atoms of smaller information that are still meaningful. The paper utilises the examples of the Periodic Table of Elements and George Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas to argue that information is a heavily contextualised social construct whichh is affected by provenance and proxemics. The paper considers the role of consumer culture and the manner in which information is commodified. These claims are then applied to electronically-mediated information-rich environments, such as the Internet.

Information as...

"What is information?" This seemingly innocuous question and the plethora of potential responses are the focus for this paper. Information and the various purposes to which it can be used are a core concern of contemporary cultural practice. These practices also emphasise the increasingly significant role of information technology. The assignment of a pivotal role to information technology in the maintenance and perpetuation of the social has led to the identification of an information society (Poster 1990:11). Some disciplines, such as information science and information systems, claim a close link to the 'stuff' of information. In each of these cases, the focus of activity is upon what to 'do' with information, how to make effective use of it, how to move it around and how to get more of it. In short, the focus for activity centres upon the commodification of information. Baudrillard (1988:29) claims that, "we are everywhere surrounded by the remarkable conspicuousness of consumption and affluence, established by the multiplication of objects, services and material goods."

The persistent presence of information technology within these constructs, however, obscures many possibilities for the detailed examination of information as information. The material reduction of information held in digital form to a binary state appears, at one level, to represent the essence of all information. In this perspective, however, the heavy contextualising required to make any 'bit' meaningful as anything more than one side of a switch is ignored. This reduction also supports the contention that the information held 'in' information technology is fundamentally different to other information. Excising one of taxa of information in this manner privileges it, perhaps intentionally, over many others. This, in turn, excludes the examination of other, possibly older, strategies for 'doing' things to the 'information' of information technology, because of this very difference (Tufte 1990:33).

I do not want to imply a Spinozan understanding of the world by claiming that everything is information (Curley 1969:3). That path is already pursued in many ways by reduction of information to a sequence of binary components. This tendency towards binary computing is, in itself, however, a none-too-surprising development considering information technology's heritage within Western philosophies.

In place of a generalised label and definition for information, this paper considers two allied paths for understanding information; information as story and information as artefact. I argue for the consideration of information (or possibly informations) as whole 'things' and as contextualised social constructs. This position resists the reduction and, to some degree, deconstruction of information to smaller atoms that can still remain meaningful as information.

My scope is necessarily narrow and cursory in this paper to the extent that the entire realm of discourse that regards the relationships between data, information and knowledge remains untouched. Needless to say, this is an equally relevant avenue for exploration that reconfirms the socially constructed and contextualised basis for information.

The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table ( http://www.mother.com/~shaycrk/javapert.html) presents a fruitful example of information as an artefact and is a tacit reference to Spinoza's own 'elemental' philosophy (Curley 1969:30). The, hopefully familiar, arrangement of elements which is used to represent the terrestrial elements is far from a 'simple' list. The position of each element within the table relays various understandings of the interrelationships that are present with other elements in the table. Some tables also utilise a colour scheme which simultaneously represents different taxa. The Periodic Table neatly encapsulates a number of the issues for considering information as an artefact. It is, among other things, a representation of accumulated information, an icon of scientific discourse, a symbol for systematic thought, an elemental map and a text of Western society (whatever that may be). However, and without sounding too much like a Chinese encyclopedia, it is also a cultural artefact recognisable to those of us imbued within contemporary Western cultures. We do not necessarily understand the significance of its 'shape' or the relationships that are implied by the horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines, nor do we need to, but nonetheless it is 'meaningful' in a manner that extends beyond scientific rationality. The meanings that are interpreted from this representation of information, perhaps more importantly, also extend beyond its intended function as a visual mnemonic for chemists.

It is this 'fuzziness' and 'wholeness' surrounding the meanings of the Periodic Table that subtly indicate what could be seen as the quality of any artefact. We interpret what is before us in a number of different and contextualised ways and, within each of these ways of interpreting what we are looking at, we 'see' a different 'thing' (Shanks & Tilley 1987:98). Yet, and irrespective of the explosion of potential meanings, what remains is a singular and coherent thing from which those various meanings are interpreted. For those who suffered through secondary and tertiary level chemistry subjects the Periodic Table can be read as a quite particular legible 'text'. It can be meaningfully 'read' down to the level of individual atoms and it can be understood through the syntax of the scientific discourses to which it is also an emblem. For those who fall into that convenient category of 'other' there is a vague awareness, a sense of a coherent meaning and probably some recognisable highlights. This level of awareness, I would suggest, is the 'artefactual' sense of the Periodic Table. This does not deny, or even preclude, the textual, symbol or iconic meanings that can be ascribed to any representation of the Periodic Table, in many ways it incorporates them. The artefactual qualities of a particular Periodic Table, however, extends beyond this trinity of meaning to encompass the specific elements of A Periodic Table in relation to other Periodic Tables (Shanks & Tilley 1987:107). In other words, there are additional elements to consider in relation to a particular Periodic Table, including its form, its context, its provenance and its relationship to other "artefacts" - its proxemics.

The range of forms in which even a Periodic Table can be represented is multitudinous. My own wardrobe, for example, boasts the presence of a Periodic Table tie and T-shirt. The tie, especially, would find little utility in a laboratory as its relative narrowness permits only a restricted range of individual elements to be included. Thie tie does, however, clarify a number of issues relating to information as artefact and the commodification of information. Clearly the Periodic Table tie is an artefact in its own right but, arguably, it is also a specific synthesis of the Periodic Table as artefact and the generalised category of artefacts that are labelled as ties. The partially effaced Periodic Table does not obliterate the generalised understanding of the Periodic Table as a whole 'thing', it does, however, largely remove the artefact from the scientific discourses of chemistry to become a commodity of contemporary cultures more broadly.

But the Periodic Table is only one of the persistent artefacts of the chemistry story and but one artefact that I have chosen to refer to within this story. Because, although I am focussing upon ethnographic endeavours, telling a 'good' story is an important element for any work of critical inquiry (Atkinson 1990:36), as it is for any work intended for popular approval. Using different artefacts to tell a story changes the story itself in various ways (cf. Shanks & Tilley 1987:114). This is, though, an unsurprising observation in a paper that makes a claim for information as both artefact and story.

Despite representing the same elemental information the Periodic Triangle, Periodic Swirl and Periodic Rope (Tufte 1990:14) each emphasise particular qualities of interrelationship that can be identified within the classification of terrestrial elements. Each equally represents the sum total of research that has identified these elements individually and none necessarily obscures the relational information contained in the Periodic Table. However, it could also be cynically observed that the table may be the preferred representation for these elements because its dimensions most closely mirror those of foolscap and A4 sheets of paper. In other words, the Periodic Table, as an artefact, suits the demands of current printing technologies.

These considerations of information as an artefact are only part of the story. The Periodic Table is a specific representation of information among its other qualities as an artefact. Conversely, the Periodic Table's presence as an artefact is one of the many roles and meanings that can be ascribed to it. A material culture approach to 'information studies' complements, but does not replace, other existent discourses that conceptualise the 'stuff' of information. However, to advocate information solely as an artefact would itself only capture some of the attendant complexity and prove, in isolation, to be as limiting as any other arbitrary dictate regarding the application of theory and method to an object of research. As with any artefact, information is always 'something' as a consequence of its human manufacture and the ascription of meanings applied to 'it', its use and the social practices that flow through and around it. Information, and any artefact, do not 'float' unbound from context or the ascriptions of meaning. This understanding presents another possibility for understanding information, and one that reflects Richardson's use of George Mead (1989:172-173) to consider the artefact as an abbreviated act. Information, and arguably any artefact, could similarly be posed as abbreviated story. In this sense, the 'things' that are identified and understood as information are the meta-elements of, collectively, a sequence of human activities, the systhesis of other information and the social contexts in which these activities occurred.

George Murdock's Story

George Murdock's 1967 Ethnographic Atlas is a specific form of information and an ethnographic construction of reality. The Ethnographic Atlas is a 128 page compilation of the 'significant' 89 qualities of 1170 societies which are presented in tabular form. The 89 qualities covered are drawn from a survey of a broad range of ethnographic writings and consequently it represents a range of ethnographic interests and concerns. For example, column 19 describes the community organisation (1967:48), column 35 identifies the types of games that are played (1967:52), column 37 indicates the presence of male genital mutilation (1967:53), column 71 identifies the institution of slavery (1967:58) and column 84 catalogues the roofing material employed for housing (1967:60). This information, which includes a comprehensive bibliography, was originally published in the journal Ethnology through the 1960s and Murdock himself proclaims that its intention is to facilitate cross-cultural comparison of societies with a 'standard' set of parameters (1967:3).

The Atlas is a curious artefact of ethnographic research on a range of levels. It is almost always housed within the reference collection of university libraries. This location imparts a tone of validity over its role as a definitive source of information and by extension the societies for which it speaks. It is also clearly an artefact of its period. It has embedded within it a variety of assumptions about which aspects of the source ethnographies that it draws upon should be presented and what can be readily discarded. In this respect, Murdock's role within the Ethnographic Atlas is that of an editor.

The tabular format utilised in the Atlas has necessitated the standardisation of the available options under each column. While this structure still accommodate the relatively unusual such as ultimogeniture as a rule of succession and ice as a roofing material it does restrict the range of ethnographic detail that can be presented. This is, admittedly, in some respects an unfair comparison as the Atlas is not intended to provide detail. The 'famous stories' of Malinowski, Mead or Evan-Pritchard do not present the same order of information that is contained within the Atlas. The detail of observation found in each of these ethnographies has been abjured to standardised generalisations within the Atlas. These are complementary orders of information in the same manner that a library catalogue complements the library holdings that are themselves particular combinations of information. The danger, and difficulty, is when one order of information becomes a substitute for another. Baudrillard's consideration for the orders of simulacrum is relevant in this context.

This would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of basic reality, it masks and perverts a basic reality, it masks the absence of a basic reality, it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard 1983:11)

This is an ever-present danger for the utilisation of any information and, in some situations, an absent caution when the discussions involve information technology. Malinowski's observations in the Massim are specific observations and cannot be transplanted holus bolus or in some cases even applied to the subjects themselves.

I feel that his material is still not properly digested, that Malinowski would be regarded in some ways as naïve by the people he was studying. That the people he describes would still seem somewhat foreign to the Trobrianders themselves (Baldwin in Young 1979:12)

Ethnographies are still being conducted and probably in environments which Malinowski would never have considered. Kapferer (1988:80) in his description of Geertz's Works and Lives also identifies the specificity of anthropology.

He [Geertz] shows that the different lives he explores can indeed be different, disjunct and in intellectual conflict. They do no comprise - as by extension, anthropology does not comprise - variations upon a single theme.

The Atlas is, irrespective, a particular story and one that can be claimed as an abbreviation of many other abbreviations. The Atlas, however, equally be removed from this particular contextualisation and be completely excised, at least momentarily, from any hierarchy of information that might imply an 'original turth' beyond the Atlas itself. Decoding the elements attached to a single culture in the Atlas provides a different understanding than might be gained from reading the ethnography from which the Atlas entry was drawn or by experiencing the culture at first hand. This is not to advocate the necessity of immediate experience or the presence of an ultimate informational 'truth'. The experience of contemporary cultures is, to a large part, defined around the reception and interpretation of abbreviated and distilled stories.

The 'Beginner's Guides to [insert philosopher here]' approach prevades many virtual universities' approaches to education and mistakenly equates learning with the dissemination of 'bits' of information. The 'lifestyle' program is another example of the presentation of abbreviated information. Tonya Todman's televisual craft efforts do not realistically empower the home viewer to intimate her prowess with the glue gun. Similarly, the Two Fat Ladies particular skills with lard are not (fortunately) readily repeated. Information, in these situations, is reduced to a context in which it is primarily a commodity for exchange. Tufte (1990:34), somewhat righteously, describes the commodification of information as chartjunk. He is particularly disparaging of information that is presented to be noticed as information and cites Rand's statement that, "reader's of a report should be unaware of its design".

I am purposefully describing the Atlas as story and as an artefact to emphasis that its meanings and context extend beyond the singular function of reciting data and always includes some role as a consumable 'thing'. By creating information that is extrapolated from various ethnographies which are the stories of 'others' about still 'others' Murdock's story-telling artefact holds a steady three degrees of separation from any actual society that it purports to catalogue. The ethnographic equivalent of a Bacon Index (http://www.spub.ksu.edu/issues/v100/FA/n069/fea-making-bacon-fuqua.html). There is one exception to this distanciation of information from informants and that is Murdock's own society which, not unsurprisingly, is absent from the Atlas as some sort of 'data'. This is the level at which the Atlas-as-artefact presents an intersection of meanings and practices that does not allow the information that it contains to stand in isolation. In many respects it cannot be objectively separated if it is to tell George Murdock's story. Atkinson (1990:7) observes, "that texts do not simply and transparently report an independent order of reality. Rather, the texts themselves are implicated in the work of reality construction." As the story of Murdock himself, the written text of the Atlas does have some consideration for its own provenance. Murdock figures personally within the text when he claims that,

it is improper to include a society [in a world sample] because the investigator happens to know its culture at first hand, as did the author when he used, in Social Structure, the culture in which he was reared (the Yankees of Connecticut) and all three of the cultures which he had personally studied in the field... (1967:5)

Murdock accommodates other anomalies in the data with short notes that read as curious sub-texts of their own. One can too readily guess the meaning of the comment on Gisu society, "but without penetration" (1967:11). Whereas the comments, "usually after capture" (1967:12) for the Bafia appears mysterious and exotic even when it is cross-referenced to the column that discusses modes of marriage. The notation for the Tasmanians is equally concerning; "extinct since 1876" (1967:27).

Murdock's work constructs a social 'universe' of ultimate cross-comparability. Although it has been observed that this is a quasi-universe (Underhill 1975:843) Murdock makes a quite conscious effort to foreshadow criticism of his work by providing a series of guidelines to the use of his Atlas. These principles form an intimate part of Murdock's own story. Among these principles is the suggestion that, "no world sample should include two societies located geographically so close to one another that diffusion is likely to have jeopardised the essential independence of their cultures" (1967:4).

For Murdock, a 'good' story is clearly a story of statistical proportions unobstructed by the untidiness or variability of human organisations or practices. Galileo observed the distinction that can exist between what the eye of the forehead registers and what the eye of the mind envisions (Tufte 1990:19). This can be reworked for the Atlas to become what the people of the ethnography practice is distinct from the information that the Atlas records. But this is, of course, Murdock's story and one which Latour and Woolgar could have been describing when they claimed,

The function of literary inscription is the successful persuasion of readers, but the readers are only fully convinced when all sources of persuasion seem to have disappeared. A text or statement can thus be read as 'containing' or 'being about a fact' when readers are sufficiently convinced that there is no debate about it and the literary inscription processes are forgotten (Atkinson 1990:46).

The difficulty with Murdock's story and the extent to which the Atlas is distanced from social practice and experience is revealed by attempts to incorporate oneself within the Atlas's schema. What, for example, is defined as a society within the Atlas? This is a perennial puzzle of the social sciences and one with a variety of potential answers. Yet the Atlas, despite its efforts to categorise the internal qualities of individual socieities, assumes this encompassing category as a given. The definition appears to be largely assumed and is driven by the contributions of the individual authors of each ethnography. Can we speak of an Australian society in the context of the Atlas or is Murdock implying a more tightly geographically bound population? This latter supposition is supported by Murdock's description of the Yankees of Connecticut as his own 'home' culture. Murdock's insistence upon 'sampling' independent cases appears to take ethnographic method to its most rarified level where the people have left and only their faint echoes, as stories and information, remain.

Other stories from the Ethnographic Atlas

Murdock's Atlas is also the first element of other stories. A range of papers appeared after the Atlas's publication that utilised it as a source of information. Each follows, to varying degrees, Murdock's prescriptions regarding the use of the Atlas in order to help craft stories about others (Heise et al. 1976, Ember 1978, Smith & Crano 1977). Lomax and Arensberg's (1977:659-679) "A worldwide evolutionary classification of cultures by subsistence systems" presents the apogee of comparative and cross-cultural macro approaches to ethnographic research. The first two sentences adequately summaries the extent of their orbit,

Comparative ethnology now provides the data by which all known cultures can be usefully arrayed in an evolutionary series on the basis of their subsistence systems. The insight is an old one, but the amassing of evidence about expressive as well as societal and ecological patterns that the computer makes possible lends new weight to an evolutionary treatment of cultural variation (1977, 659).

This is apparently a claim for the capabilities of specific tools, namely the computer, which now makes it possible for the authors to prove their argument. Without considering the specific effect that a tool has upon the representation of a theoretical argument one can only speculate what Marx might have done if only he had had a ball point pen. He may have crafted a better story, he may have had other research opportunities but it would seem fairly unlikely that he would have developed a 'better' theory.

Nonetheless, Lomax and Arensberg present their own telling of a story that starts with Murdock. They also use some specialised artefacts in the forms of graphs and charts to assist them (1977:666,672). L.H. Morgan's nineteenth century theories of cultural evolution which is hinted to in their introduction is echoed in these artefacts. However, more significantly, the information that is Lomax and Arensberg's article exists at four degrees of separation from all of the societies described except those of the authors. At this level of abstraction the information available from a 'world sample' can be compared and confined to the single page of an academic article. Inquiry into the entirety of human experience, it appears, spirals exponentially downwards from the global morass of societies, to individually crafted ethnographies, to an Ethnographic Atlas through to a final and single graphically arranged taxonomy.

It is another of the artefactual device used by Lomax and Arensberg that introduces the cautionary tale of my paper. Lomax and Arensberg's intention for their inclusion of a crude and large-scale representation of the earth is clear. Ostensibly, this is a locational guide for the societies that have been incorporated into their world schema. However, it is clearly also a reference point back to their initial claims - computers have solved our research problem and here is solid proof for the validity of our theories. Closer inspection leaves many unresolved questions. This map, for that is what apparently it must be, cannot be 'read' without knowledge of the Ethnographic Atlas. Each letter appears to represents one of the societies in the 'world sample' but in realising that this is the purpose of the representation it becomes meaningless data superimposed onto a representation of the earth. Murdock's Atlas represents a quasi-universe that never existed in its entirety at the same ethnographic moment nor does it represent all societies (Underhill 1975:843). In superimposing this data there is no explanation as to why geographic features such as New Guinea should be so heavily distorted. It can be observed that the authors have 'helped' out their computer-generated representation of this information by drawing rough continental shapes onto the alphanumeric printout. This amalgam points to a particular privilege being accorded to the information contained by the information technology of Lomax and Arensberg's computer.

Finding Artefacts and Telling Stories in Information Rich Environments

To this point I have described events of recent history. The work of Murdock and other cross-cultural ethnographers was a labour of the 1960s and 70s. Their works reflect an attempt to accommodate within ethnographic story-telling the expanse of information that was seen as relevant to the understanding of social practice. Their efforts also reflect an increasing awareness of the anthropological relationship to particular types of information-rich research environments. An expanding base of researchers and research, new conceptual and theoretical approaches, new university departments and an increasingly broad application of ethnographic method were all increasing the richness of this environment. The response to this abundance of information, as it is reflected in the Ethnographic Atlas, was to systematically rarify and distanciate the scale of information until it was manageable by both the researcher and by the currently available computing power.

However, the two decades of hindsight that are available in which to critique the Ethnographic Atlas parallels the development of increasingly powerful tools that facilitate the storage and re-presentation of information. Partly as a consequence of the increasingly ubiquitous presence of these tools, the scale of accessible information available to contemporary cultures has multiplied. This increase in information has been of such an order of magnitude that it has provided the capacity for the creation of 'new' information environments, such as the World Wide Web. Within these spaces information becomes increasingly commodified. At a mechanical level this presents no great challenge because electronically-mediated information rich environments obtain the capacity for this mediation by constituting information out of the same basic binary 'stuff'. This 'equality' of information has led to development of websites which claim to provide "value-added" information, for a fee.

The cautionary tales found in the Ethnographic Atlas can similarly be found with the various web search engines and their recent revitalisation as Web 'portals'. These developments potentially reflect an increaingly blurred state between orders of information. The web search index is an order of information removed from specific web pages. Depending on the search index the information about a specific page is a subset of the information contained on the original page. The increasing sophistication of the search index and the utilisation of meta-data within individual web pages has allowed the pages generated by queries made to these search indexes to approach a level of semiosis. Like the cultures in the Ethnographic Atlas, the information presented as a consequence of a query to a search index can appear to be temptingly meaningful in itself.

As tertiary education is increasingly conducted within virtual environments the manner in which information is understood and conceptualised impacts upon the shape and meaning ascribed to the environment itself. Presenting a university subject is another form of story telling and, as with the Atlas, its artefacts have their own form, provenance and context. Altering these artefacts also alters the subject. Placing the outline of a subject online, for example, does not duplicate the printed document but, instead, creates a new, albeit closely related, artefact with a different provenance and proxemics and a context which can be understood separately from that of the 'other' version. The environment informs the artefact in as many ways as the artefact informs the environment.

The dangers, then, for telling stories in cyberspace are similar to those of faced by Murdock in his Atlas. How do you convey a 'good' story and what are the information artefacts being presented?


Information is never trivial, it is not 'just' lumps of binary or analogue data. Information is always social. As with all stories and artefacts, what information reveals about human practice and experience extends beyond the immediate surfaces of function and form. Understanding information, however, is a path negotiated between the philosophy of an essential informational 'element' and the discovery of utter specificity in its contextualised experience. There is no pure information. What is present is the intersection of practices, contexts, proxemics and provenance. In some situations, however, and with the right story, these intersection can assume the illusion of an objective state.

Information is a core component of contemporary cultures yet, in the finest of social science traditions, it approaches indefinability.

References Cited:

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