Gratification Theory Provides a Useful Framework for Understanding the Information Seeking Behaviours and Needs of Distinct Populations

Kate Zoellner


A review of:
Chatman, E. A. (1991). Life in a small world: Applicability of gratification theory to information-seeking behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(6), 438-449.

Objective – Apply gratification theory to the information-seeking behaviours and use of information by a lower working class population.

Design – An ethnographic study framed by social stratification literature was utilized to explore, describe and interpret the everyday information needs, information-seeking behaviours and views of information held by lower working class individuals.

Setting – A major university in the southeast United States, specifically the physical plant facilities including classrooms, bathrooms, janitorial closets, and front steps.

Subjects – The participants were 52 lower working class janitorial staff at a major university. The majority of subjects were single black women in their late 30s. The women had children and were the heads of their households. The women had not completed high school and earned minimum wage; they had been at their jobs for an average of seven years. The workers’ supervisors, and others at the physical plant, were also contacted as part of the study.

Methods – Ethnographic data was collected over a two-year period, 1984-86, through participation in the setting and interviews. A 28-item interview guide was used to identify participants’ job-search strategies, use of mass media, television viewing behaviours, and acceptance of information from individuals and believable sources of information.

Main results – Chatman confirmed the usefulness of gratification theory as a conceptual framework to identify what defines information problems, motivations, and information seeking behaviours for an impoverished population. The results support the findings of social stratification research on the parallel between impoverished individuals’ social life and their orientation toward gratification. A focus on local present reality due to pressing economic and psychological problems orients lower working class individuals toward immediate gratification. Thus, information sources of value to the participants were those readily accessible and easy to use in the moment of need.

The six theoretical propositions of gratification theory Chatman identified through her literature review were applied and confirmed in her analysis of the information behaviours of janitorial workers:
1. Life in a Small World. Lower working class individuals have a local worldview and therefore have limited exposure to job opportunities compared to other populations. The majority of Chatman’s subjects found out about their current job through friends and family employed at the university (51%), or neighbours employed there (11%).
2. Lower Expectations and the Belief in Luck. Individuals of the population have lower expectations of their success and therefore do not actively pursue new opportunities; success is seen as a result of luck. Janitorial workers in the study felt they were lucky to have found their jobs and that their chances of finding a better position were slight and based on “knowing someone” (p. 444).
3. First-Level Lifestyle. Members of the population rely on information from members of their social circles. Study participants sought everyday information from family, friends, neighbours, local newspapers, and television. Information was considered reliable in their view if it aligned with their personal experience, was presented by multiple people, or if the person sharing the information was perceived as trustworthy.
4. Limited-Time Horizon. Lower working class populations experience a time immediacy and limitation different from those of the middle and upper classes. Study participants imagined their future job positions and lifestyles as similar to the ones they currently held, due to perceptions that opportunities were not open to them or worth the effort to pursue. Some exceptions were the possibility of pursuing higher education and having more leisure time in the future.
5. An “Insider” Worldview. The worldview of an insider is focused “on the practical dimensions of life” (p. 445); information relevant to lower working class individuals is that which “solve[s] problematic situations” (p. 441). Study participants’ social conversations revolved around events that reinforced their mental models. Respondents relied on themselves and distrusted those outside their social circles.
6. Use of the Mass Media. Mass media is perceived as a vehicle for passing time, escape, and entertainment, as well as a reflection of lived realities for the population. Respondents indicated that they watched television to pass time, and, secondarily, for practical purposes (e.g., learning how to be safe).

Conclusion – Gratification theory provides a useful framework for library and information professionals to identify how populations define information problems and reliable sources, and their information seeking behaviours and motivations. Chatman’s analysis indicates that the everyday problems faced by the lower working class are not, and will not be, met by traditional sources that information professionals assume to be of value for the population. Based on these research results, Chatman calls on information professionals to critically evaluate and broaden their understanding of how problems are defined and addressed by the specific populations they seek to serve – to consider the relationships between the pressing realities of their service populations and everyday information that addresses those realities. This understanding will enable information professionals to determine if, how, and by what means, they should develop and package information to meet the needs of their service populations and communities.


conceptual framework; ethnography; research methods; user needs; information seeking behaviors

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