Social epistemology as a foundation for information services

Fallis, D., 2006. Social epistemology and information science. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 40(1), pp. 475-519

In this chapter of the Annual Review, Fallis argues for social epistemology as the best philosophical underpinning to information science. Providing access to society’s knowledge through recorded information is argued as the main reason for information services. Interestingly, social epistemology was first coined in information science (by Shera) , though was also developed as an idea independently within philosophy.

Fallis covers the debates within philosophy as to what constitutes knowledge, and how these have been viewed by information scientists, most of whom have naturally taken more pragmatic perspectives. He also notes the different (classic v revolutionary) views of social epistemology, with the former a social extension of the established idea of knowledge as justified true belief, but the latter taking the social constructivist line. A further useful distinction made is between social epistemology as a normative project — the goal of which is to maximise knowledge acquisition (or at least maximise access to authoritative information) — and the sociology of knowledge, which is about understanding and describing how social factors contribute to knowledge making.

In outlining debates about necessity of the truth condition, Fallis notes that librarians will help the user try to discover the “truth”, which the user in turn sees as the key objective of using the service. That said, it is acknowledged that the collection owner cannot possibly know whether all the facts contained therein are true.

Some interesting and important conclusions come from acknowledging the centrality of social epistemology in this way:

  1. That epistemic principles should guide collection organisation (e.g. by type of claim and evidence offered);
  2. That information providers should collocate a range of viewpoints on a topic to allow the seeker to better determine the truth (a principle taken from Mill’s On Liberty);
  3. That any aspect of an information service that enables the social acquisition of knowledge is as important as any other (sofas and coffee bars are as important as books)- I liked this one!

I felt this to be a very rich and balanced article with many considerations of lasting relevance as we move into the digital age. I also really liked the exploration of the underlying goals of information services, a topic that needs to be foregrounded more often.

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