Information Architecture and the Construction of Ideology: A Proposal for a Qualitative Study of a School District’s Web Pages

Stephen P. Victor
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education
University of Houston
Houston, Texas, USA
steve@svictor.com

 

Abstract: The Internet has only begun to be seriously studied, yet it promises to be a fertile area for research. This paper proposes a qualitative study of a public school district’s Web pages to analyzed possible messages taught about the nature of knowledge and the role of the schools in its formation and transmission.

Introduction

The Internet, particularly the interconnected, globally distributed system of hypertext documents known as the World Wide Web, has only begun to be seriously studied, yet it promises to be a fertile area for cultural research. The Web has become a powerful tool in education, and we hear increasing calls from politicians and educators to provide teachers and students the opportunity to use the Internet for instruction and learning. 

Much has been written on the overt impact of the Internet on the curriculum, but what is the role of the Internet in the transmission of what has been termed the “hidden curriculum” (Apple, 1990)? This paper summarizes a proposal for a qualitative analysis of a public school district’s Web pages. The study will analyze the potential messages—both overt and hidden— presented in these pages about the nature of knowledge and the role of the schools in its formation and transmission.

Brief Summary of Literature Review

For the purposes of this summary, I will provide only a brief description of my review of the literature on information architecture. In this review, I suggest a definition of information architecture, reviewed the theoretical underpinnings of the field, propose a four-phase model of information architecture (Victor, 1999), and suggest the instructional application of its principles. I list here only some of the topics addressed in my review:

Theoretical Background

Information Theory and Information Design

Perception and Cognition

Hypertext/Hypermedia Theory

Constructing an Information Architecture

Business Process Analysis

Information Analysis

Task Analysis

Contextual Analysis

The Information Architecture Process

Guidelines for Constructing an Information Architecture

An Information Architecture Model

Instructional Applications of Information Architecture

The Social Construction of Knowledge

Information Design, Objectivism, and Constructivism


What clearly emerges from the literature review, I believe, is the importance of considering user or learner needs at every stage of the process. Sound information architecture, then, is user-centered. The four phase model of information architecture I describe (Design, Develop, Deploy, Document) may be viewed as a framework for research into the processes of creating user-centered information: design of information (needs, audience, and task analyses), development of information (writing, graphical production, page/screen layout, programming), deployment (implementation and evaluation of the information product), and documentation of the product (to feed into future expansions and revisions). 

Furthermore, information architecture can serve a rhetorical or ideological function in its use as a tool for the reproduction of culture. Because of my interest in theorizing the practice of Web design, I will present below a fuller treatment of the portion of my literature review dealing with information architecture and ideology. I hope readers will bear with what might appear to be—indeed could very well be—a tangential excursion into unusual areas of cultural studies.

Information Architecture and Ideology: A Theoretical Framework

Overview

Any rigorous analysis of cultural activity—including, of course, education—must be grounded in some sort of theoretical framework. This section examines the work of two researchers who have applied theoretical and methodological principles to the study of certain aspects of culture. Hebdige (1979) uses the punk rock movement of the early 1970s in Britain as the starting point for an analysis of the role of style in the formation of cultural identity. Maboudian (1999) examines the role of school Web pages in presenting/defining gender identity. For Hebdige most particularly, cultural artifacts (clothing, musical forms, machinery) are appropriated by subcultural groups from a “mainstream” milieu and transformed, given radically new, often hidden value and significance. Maboudian examines the use of a relatively new cultural form—the Internet Web page—as an instrument for propaganda by a large urban public school district. Each writer shows in a unique way how cultural production may be used in powerful ways in the construction of individual and group identity.

Dick Hebdige (1979) adopts an almost purely theoretical approach in discussing his subject: the meaning of style in the development of subcultural groups. While he chose as his immediate area of study the punk rock movement that arose in Britain in the mid-1970s, his work is an extended meditation on the use of cultural artifacts by a subculture to define itself, to set itself apart from the dominant culture. His methodology, though qualitative, seems to employ none of the usual techniques of observation and interview for data gathering. He rather uses such artifacts as newspaper articles and radio and television interviews as his primary source. There is indeed little evidence that he even attended a musical performance or even personally met any of his subjects. His study traces the historical roots of the punk movement from the development of reggae among the black immigrant working class youth of the 1950s and 1960s, the mingling of these youths with white working class Mods in the 1960s (and resulting racial tensions), to the emergence of punk in the 1970s. The punk’s transformation of clothing and musical forms is for Hebdige representative of the larger process of style in the formation of social identity. In his interpretive framework cultural artifacts—safety pins used as jewelry, plastic trash bags worn as clothing—become texts bearing meaning for the interpretation of cultural activity. He grounds his interpretation in a semiotic analysis of the appropriation of signifiers by the punks and their reassignment of them to new signifieds: “safety pins and bin liners signified a relative material poverty which was either directly experienced and exaggerated or sympathetically assumed, and which in turn was made to stand for the spiritual paucity of everyday life” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 115). The punks’ style becomes a parody of bourgeois life: “beneath the clownish make-up there lurked the unaccepted and disfigured face of capitalism…beyond the horror circus antics a divided and unequal society was being eloquently condemned” (p. 115). He cites Mepham, who writes that it is necessary to identify the “generative sets of ideological categories” and to trace the replacement of these sets by different sets. With the punks, Hebdige notes, it is difficult to identify consistent “generative sets” of signifiers; items such as the swastika, apparently stripped of its traditional meaning (fascism) and worn by the punks merely for shock value, “its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning: from its potential for deceit” (p. 117): “The key to punk style remains elusive. Instead of arriving at the point where we can begin to make sense of the style, we have reached the very place where meaning itself evaporates” (p. 117).

These contradictions make a traditional semiotic analysis difficult if not impossible. Hebdige turns for a solution to a branch of semiotics that attempts to deal with such problems. This branch discards the traditional reading of texts to reveal a fixed number of meanings for the idea of polysemy, in which each text generated a potentially infinite range of meanings. Attention is directed to those places in the text where meaning is most in doubt; the emphasis is placed on the process of meaning construction rather than on the text as a final product (p. 118). Literary expression is viewed as a signifying practice, in which signifier and signified are separated and assigned new relationships and meanings: language is “an active, transitive force which shapes and positions the ‘subject’ (as speaker, writer, reader) while always itself remaining ‘in process’ capable of infinite adaptation” (p. 119). Reading punk “texts” through this critical lens, then, Hebdige suggests that the punks deliberately presented a disunified set of significations: they “played up their Otherness, ‘happening’ on the world as aliens, inscrutables” (pp. 120-121). Their ensembles “did not so much magically resolve experienced contradictions as represent the experience of contradiction itself in the form of visual puns (bondage, the ripped tee-shirt, etc.)” (p.121, italics in original).

Ideology and Interpretation

Such a reading of cultural activity is perhaps only possible in the wake of the radical critique of language and its role in the development of personal and cultural identity engendered by the pioneering work of Saussure and consequent developments by Lacan and other postmodern theorists. Belsey (1980) draws on Saussurean linguistics, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and Marxist theory to provide a useful summary of the construction of the subject in the work of ideology in the social formation. While Belsey’s immediate concern is the role of postmodern theory in literary criticism, the positions she describes have of course been applied to a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences and may be profitably considered here. 

For Saussure, language is a system of signs, of differences with no positive terms.[1] Language does not describe entities that exist independently in the world but rather precedes their existence, making the world intelligible by means of differentiating concepts. A sign consists of a signifier (sound-image or written shape) and a signified (concept). Because signifier and signified seem for us inseparable (the sound-image dog belongs with the concept dog), we believe language to be transparent, something that labels unproblematically an entity in the world. Further, in Saussure’s theory, language is a social fact. Social groups generate signs, agreeing to attach specific signs to specific signifiers. A community creates a signifying system as a means of producing social organization; “[l]anguage therefore comes into being at the same time as society” (Belsey, 1980, p. 42). Communities also create ideology, systematic representations of the meaning of events, the roles of individuals in society—in the form of discourse, myths, stories, history—and this ideology is necessarily grounded in language. Just as signifier and signified in language seem inextricably linked—to the extent that language seems transparently to describe reality—so does the linguistic nature of ideology make it seem to describe “reality” as it actually is. Recognition of the arbitrary nature of the signifier-signified relationship has profound effects on our view of the world:

If signifieds are not pre-existing, given concepts, but changeable and contingent concepts, and if changes in signifying practice are related to changes in the social formation, the notion of language as a neutral nomenclature functioning as an instrument of communication of meanings which exist independently of it is clearly untenable. Language is a system which pre-exists the individual and in which the individual produces meaning. In learning its native language the child learns a set of differentiating concepts which identify not given entities but socially constructed signifieds. Language in an important sense speaks us…. Differences and distinctions which seem obvious, a matter of common sense, cannot be taken for granted, since common sense itself is to a large degree a linguistic construct (Belsey, 1980, pp. 44-45; italics in original)

Lacan’s radical interpretation of Freud posits that identity and subjectivity (the idea of the individual as subject) are grounded in language (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). At birth, the child has no sense of identity, no sense of itself as distinct from an “other.” In the “mirror-phase” of development, the child sees itself “as a unit distinct from the outside world” (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). The child learns to identify with this unitary, autonomous self. However, to participate in society, the child must learn language, it “must enter into the symbolic order, the set of signifying systems of culture of which the supreme example is language” (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). In learning to speak, the child learns to differentiate between “I” and “you,” and in identifying with the first person singular pronoun, the child becomes a subject: 

Subjectivity, then, is linguistically and discursively constructed and displaced across the range of discourses in which the concrete individual participates. It follows from Saussure’s theory of language as a system of differences that the world is intelligible only through discourse: there is no unmediated experience, no access to the raw reality of self and others. (Belsey, 1980, p. 61)[2]

Further, the subject “is constructed in language and in discourse and, since the symbolic order in its discursive use is closely related to ideology, in ideology” (Belsey, 1980, p. 61). Industrial capitalism, Belsey suggests following Althusser (1972), requires the existence of subjects, individuals who believe themselves to be autonomous, freely acting consumers of material goods. The conventional role of culture in ideology is to reinforce the position of the subject: to maintain the sense of a stable identity free of contradiction. Because ideology always masks its activity, there is a naturalness to the status quo; it “makes sense” that things are as they are. The role of literature in a capitalist society is to maintain the “sense” of the dominant ideology, to present a unified subject, capable of acting freely. Literature, as ideology, interpellates the subject, addressing individuals who, in their recognition of the address, are constituted as subjects (Althusser, 1972). Literature, art, and other cultural artifacts, are commodities that reinforce the subject’s place in the social formation and reproduces the dominant ideology. In terms of my own research interests, one could say that Web pages interpellate those who view them, drawing the viewer into the mesh of ideology that permeates our perceptions of ourselves and of our relationships with others. The conventional critic, therefore, presents for the reader what Barthes terms the “readable text”: s/he collaborates with ideology in the masking of multiple discourses, “diverting the reader from what is contradictory within it to the renewed recognition (misrecognition) of what he or she already ‘knows’, knows because the myths and signifying systems of the classic realist text re-present experience in the ways in which it is conventionally articulated in our society” (Belsey, 1980, p. 128). The radical critic must examine literature in terms of its production, as a composite of many discourses.[3] No longer the passive consumer and re-packager of ideology, the critic becomes an active producer of meaning, deconstructing the “readable” text to create the “writable text”: the text in which multiple meanings and knowledge in diverse, often contradictory, forms, are laid bare. Practitioners of critical qualitative research, such as the critical ethnographic methodology of Phil Carspecken (1996), act in similar ways, disentangling the many meanings present in human experience and cultural activity.

Ideology and Education: A Study of a School District’s Web Sites

I will now examine the work of another qualitative researcher and suggest ways in which her work might be said to demonstrate the critical activity described by Belsey. As indicated above, the Internet offers many opportunities for scholarly study. One such study is that of my former colleague at the University of Houston, Wendy Maboudian (1999), whose objects of study are quite literally texts. Her study examines the visual representations of gender differences presented in the Web pages of an urban public school district. After gathering data related to representations of female use of technology, Maboudian uses semiotic analysis and the methods of critical ethnography (Carspecken, 1996) to reconstruct the meanings contained within the imagery. She likens this analysis—in her words “the reconstruction of human agency from a visual” (Maboudian, 1999, p. 56)—to the work of the anthropologist in recreating the lives of our human ancestors. In terms of postmodern literary criticism, Maboudian identified and reconstructed the “writable text,” the discourses hidden within the Web pages and images she examined. While her findings did indicate possible gender bias in the area of female use of technology, Maboudian cautions that the analytic methodology she employed suggests only possible meanings, not definitive ones. She concludes that those responsible for creating Web pages be aware of the meanings that may be inherent in seemingly innocuous images and that they create sites that accurately represent school populations. Maboudian suggests further studies might examine the use of animation in Web sites, the depiction of gender representing professionalism in visuals of adult educators, and the actual use of Web pages by students and their interpretations of the visuals in them.[4]

Research Proposal

In keeping with Maboudian’s suggestion, I propose to undertake a study that, in terms of postmodern theory, will deconstruct ideological features of school Web sites to determine the extent to which school Web sites might perform the function of social reproduction or transformation. Several studies have examined the role of the school in the reproduction of culture (e.g., Apple, 1988, 1990; Willis, 1977). For example, Althusser (1972) writes about Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), institutions that act to support and reproduce dominant ideological practices. The most dominant of these ISAs are educational institutions, which, to use Althusser’s phrase, “drum into children” the ideology and ritual practices necessary to prepare children to conform to the interests of the ruling class and take their places as workers in the social formation.

Generally in qualitative research, hypotheses are not stated at the outset but are expected to emerge as the study progresses (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1996) Consistent with this approach, I will attempt to construct and test hypotheses during the course of the study in an effort to formulate grounded theory. I will, however, begin with the following grounding questions:

Research Design

Sample

Data for this study will be taken from the publicly-available Web pages presented by a large public school district in the southwestern United States. According to the district Web site (www.austinschools.org), there are 66 schools in the district with Web sites. The city is predominantly Anglo and does not have the socioeconomic diversity of a larger city (although it does have a fairly significant minority population, primarily Hispanic and African American).

Data will not be collected from any human subjects.

Phases of Research

Research will be conducted in four phases:

These phases are described in detail below.

Phase 1: Data Collection

The researcher will examine and print all available Web pages for the selected district. Because these pages are freely published, no permission will be required for retrieval.

Phase 2: Examination and Coding of Data

The researcher will examine the Web pages and identify significant themes that emerge. Coding will be done as described by Carspecken (1996).

Phase 3: Classification of Web Sites by SES

The researcher will classify the schools by socioeconomic status (as defined by participation in the Free and Reduced Cost Lunch program). This classification might prove useful in analyzing the various potential messages presented to particular socioeconomic groups.

Phase 4: System Analysis of Data

Carspecken (1996) presents a methodology for critical ethnographic research that draws on the work of Habermas (1985, 1989) and other social theorists. This methodology analyzes meaning in terms of three “worlds” or types of validity claim. A validity claims makes an appeal to one of three realms of human experience: the objective, the subjective, and the normative-evaluative.

In the process of reconstructive analysis, statements or other elements are analyzed to generate possible meanings. The Web sites will be analyzed in detail using the “cultural circuits model” of data analysis (Johnson, 1986; Carspecken, 1996). According to this model, analysis proceeds in four steps:
  1. How was the site produced? (name of school, student-produced? Teacher-produced? Faculty-produced? Other?) What are the designers’ interests in producing the site? What cultural influences inform the site? (need to publish mission statement, class schedules, etc.)

  2. What possible meanings are in the site? (overt and covert meanings) Examine the site as a literary text. Identify any possible meaning fields. Conduct reconstructive analysis (validity claims, power typology, etc).

  3. Analyze particular groups exposed to the site (students, parents, teachers, community members). What meanings are generated for these representative groups? How are these meanings similar to those found in step 2? How are they different?

  4. Analyze routine activities of the groups in relation to their interpretations of the site. Do they act differently than their interpretations would suggest? Does the site affect their behavior in some way?

Completion of the Cultural Circuits Model

In my proposed study, I will actually complete only the first two of the four steps described above. Completing the entire circuit would require interviews or other dialogic interaction with site producers and consumers. However, according to Carspecken (personal communication, November 14, 2001), it is possible to conduct useful research without completing the circuit, as illustrated by Apple’s (1988) study of teachers and texts.While I will investigate the first step to a limited extent (in that I will provide descriptive information on each site’s producers), the majority of my analysis will be devoted to the second step, analysis of possible meanings in each site. Data analysis will include a mixture of validity horizon and meaning field analysis (Carspecken, 1996) as well as semiotic analysis (Hodge & Kress, 1988; Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996).This analysis will draw upon features of the Gestalt theories reviewed in my review of the literature and, to a certain extent, Schema Theory as multiple readings of images and texts are explored in a manner illustrated by Apple’s (1988) Teachers and Texts. While coding will be based on these analytic methods, I will present a precise explanation of the analytic framework usedas the study progresses because I expect this framework to emerge from the study’s findings.

Example of Data Analysis

As an example of the process of reconstructive analysis, consider the following.

 

The brightly colored image on the school's main page immediately arrests one’s attention:

Figure 1. Brentwood Elementary home page

 

The image is of boys and girls of several different ethnic groups holding hands. The intention is no doubt to portray the multicultural nature of the student body. The smiling faces are probably intended to convey a positive impression of the school as a pleasant or fun place to be. The children stand holding hands, alternating by gender. Applying a traditional gender role interpretation to the clothing and hairstyles (skirts and long hair for girls, pants and short hair for boys), there are 8 girls and 14 boys. Interestingly, when two boys are standing together, they do not hold hands. No girls stand together. Only one girl, in the upper left corner, does not have a boy on either side. All the other girls have a boy on each side.

Possible objective validity claims:

The school’s students are ethnically diverse.

There are more boys than girls at this school. (possible)

Possible subjective validity claims:

The school’s students are happy.

We are happy to be at this school.

We enjoy our school’s diversity.

We enjoy learning (backgrounded)

Possible normative-evaluative validity claims:

It is good to be happy at school.

Schools should be pleasant places to be.

It is good for schools to be ethnically diverse.

Girls and boys should wear clothing appropriate to their gender. (backgrounded)

Boys are more important than girls (backgrounded).

Boys should not hold hands with other boys (backgrounded)

Girls need boys for support (possible; remotely backgrounded)

The artist who created this image is named Lauren S., who seems to be a female student at the school. What does her art tell us about her view of her school and of the culture of the school? Most obvious, she seems to intend to portray the school as a pleasant place. It is possible also that she intends to portray learning as a fun activity. Whether she actually believes these claims is impossible to tell without asking her. It is also difficult to tell whether the school is really a pleasant place without visiting it, but the pages on the site create the impression that it is. The image seems to suggest a fairly traditional, heterosexist understanding of gender roles. Girls have long hair and wear skirts. Boys have short hair and wear pants. It is acceptable for girls and boys to hold hands but not for boys to hold hands with boys. The fact that with one exception girls stand between boys might suggest she views boys perhaps as protectors. The fact that she puts more boys than girls in her picture could suggest that she views boys as more significant in some way than girls. It could also simply suggest that as a girl on the brink of puberty (and presumably having a heterosexual orientation) she is more interested in boys than in girls. The genesis of her beliefs regarding gender would be interesting to trace.


As another example, the border art by Robert P. on the Partners in Education page merits some analysis:

Figure 2. Graphic from Partners in Education page

 

Possible Objective Validity Claims:

Brentwood’s sports teams win more games than other schools’ teams. (implied but not explicitly stated)

Brentwood does indeed rule in a political sense. (highly improbable)

Possible Subjective Validity Claims:

Brentwood is better than other schools.

I enjoy feeling a sense of superiority to other schools. (backgrounded)

Possible Normative-Evaluative Validity Claims:

It is good for our school to be better than other schools.

It is good to exult in one’s superiority.

Robert seems to be demonstrating a stereotypically male aggressiveness toward rivals in other schools (most likely in the area of sports or other competitive events). This belief in the superiority of Brentwood to other schools appears to be reinforced in the statements of staff members analyzed in previous sections [not shown in this summary]. Robert appears to have learned that it is appropriate to believe in (and exuberantly proclaim) the superiority of one’s own school to other schools.

I have included these two samples of qualitative analysis as examples of the sort of interpretation I will conduct on the district’s sites. As noted above, this interpretation will be augmented with semiotic analysis.

Conclusion

This paper summarizes a longer work that will, I trust, one day soon become my dissertation. I am grateful for the assistance of the members of my committee: Dr. Sara McNeil (chair), Dr. Melissa Pierson, Dr. Patricia Holland, and particularly my methodologist Dr. Phil Carspecken, formerly at the University of Houston, now (regrettably for us) at Indiana University.

References

Althusser, L. (1972). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Apple, M. W. (1988). Teachers and texts: A political economy of class and gender relations in education. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (1990). Ideology and curriculum, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Belsey, C. (1980). Critical practice. London: Routledge.

Carspecken, P. F. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide. New York: Routledge.

Carspecken, P. F. (1999). Four scenes for posing the question of meaning and other essays in critical philosophy and critical methodology. New York: Peter Lang.

Fraenkel, J. R., & Wallen, N. (1996). How to design and evaluate research in education, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Habermas, J. (1985). The theory of communicative action, volume 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1989). The theory of communicative action, volume 2: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Routledge.

Hodge, R. & Kress, G. (1988). Social semiotics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Johnson, R. (1986). What is cultural studies anyway? Social Text, 16, 38-80.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.

Maboudian, W. L. (1999). A comparative analysis of gender differences as represented visually in school Web sites. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Houston.

Victor, S. P. (1999). User-centered Web site design: A model for development. In P. De Bra and J. J. Leggett (Eds.), Proceedings of the WebNet 1999 World Conference on the WWW and Internet. Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs.
New York: Columbia University Press.

 



[1] The discussion of Saussurean linguistics that follows is based on Belsey, 1980, pp. 38ff.
[2] For a discussion of Derrida’s dismantling of the “metaphysics of presence” see Carspecken, 1999.
[3] Belsey does not employ the terms “conventional critic” and “radical critic” in her analysis. I have adopted these terms as a convenient shorthand.
[4] Maboudian coined two terms for her study, and she suggests further development of the implications of these terms.

Cyberread refers to the effect produced on the reader by the fact that the Web page is accessed through the computer and that the reader is aware the Web site was produced through school authorities. I suggest that it might be useful to separate the two rather unrelated elements of the definition. The first, that the page is accessed through the computer, seems closely tied to technological competence, and its effects might be expected to diminish as computer usage increases and viewers gain increasing familiarity with technology; when the computer, in other words, becomes merely another form of presentation, like the book or the television screen. The second element, awareness that the Web page is officially sanctioned, seems to offer much more fruitful terrain for critical analysis and deconstruction of meaning.

Cybiotic is “a subset of semiotic meaning within the context of the Web page” (p. 20), and includes syntagmatic relations created by elements—navigation controls, menus, visuals—that generate meaning. When considered in conjunction with the first aspect of Maboudian’s definition of cyberread, this term might prove useful in deconstructing the role of computers in the formation of ideology. When navigation, menus, visuals become familiar, as unnoticed and “natural” as the margins of the printed page, what hidden discourse can be contained within them?



ITFORUM PAPER #59 - Information Architecture and the Construction of Ideology: A Proposal for a Qualitative Study of a School District’s Web Pages by Stephen P. Victor of the University of Houston. Posted on ITFORUM on February 14, 2002. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/home.html