published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 25 no. 3, September, 2020

Chatman’s theory of life in the round applied to the information seeking of small populations of ethnic minorities in China

Ming Zhu, and Xizhu Liao.

Introduction. We explore Chatman’s theory of life in the round, that people living in small worlds will not cross their world’s boundaries to seek information, and examine its application to small populations of China’s ethnic minorities.
Method. A qualitative investigation was conducted on information seeking, related to the daily lives of China’s ethnic minorities, and data were collected through in-depth interviews and observations of seventy-eight participants.
Analysis. The data were processed by three levels of qualitative data coding.
Results. In China, it seems that ethnic minorities with small populations prefer not to cross ethnic borders when seeking information, as they may not want to deviate from their traditions and customs, lifestyles or ethnic identities. Information is sought across borders when the information is general knowledge and important, or in an emergency.
Conclusion. It seems that China’s ethnic minorities’ information seeking is consistent with Chatman’s fifth proposition of the theory of life in the round and that this behaviour may be influenced by their traditions and customs, lifestyles and ethnic identities. By applying Chatman’s theory to previously unstudied populations, this research enhances the understanding of ethnic characteristics and traditional culture, as contextual factors that can influence information-seeking behaviour.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.47989/irpaper868


Elfreda Chatman laid considerable groundwork for information seeking behaviour among marginalised and vulnerable populations. Chatman (1991) originally developed the concept of small worlds during her research on information behaviour, and described the phenomenon of how people seek and share information within their own social groups. Her work is based primarily on socioeconomically underprivileged populations, such as the working poor (Chatman, 1985), janitors (Chatman, 1987), retired women (Chatman, 1992) and female prisoners (Chatman, 1999).

Chatman’s theory is increasingly used to explore the information behaviour of various social groups (Burnett et al., 2008; Edwards, 2012; Hersberger, 2001; Jaeger and Burnett, 2010; Lingel and Boyd, 2013; Sligo and Jameson, 2000). Many studies have further developed her research and built on her ideas, especially the concept of small worlds (Burnett et al., 2001; Burnett and Jaeger, 2008; Huotari and Chatman, 2002; Savolainen, 2009; Dankasa, 2017), and have applied this conceptual tool to a variety of populations.

It is our intention to use Chatman’s life in the round theory in relation to the information seeking of ethnic minorities in China. Webster’s Dictionary defines a minority as ‘a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment’. China is a multi-ethnic country with one majority (Han) and fifty-five minorities. These ethnic minority populations include both indigenous populations as well as migrants from other regions. Ethnic populations below 300,000 (small populations) account for a total population of approximately 1.9 million, nearly 0.1% of the total Chinese population. There are twenty-eight ethnic minorities with small populations in China, most of whom live in isolated environments and whose relatively independent culture may generally constrain the exchange of information with the outside world (People's Republic..., 2017). In order to assist these minorities’ exchange information with the outside world and advance their development, we must first understand their information-seeking processes.

Chatman’s theory of life in the round proposes that the social norms and worldviews held by a group that create a certain way of life, may lead to living life in the round and affect their information seeking (Chatman, 1999). This study tests Chatman’s proposition to ascertain its applicability to the lesser populations of China’s ethnic minorities and specifically seeks to establish to what extent they prefer to remain within their ethnic groups to look for information, or if they would cross boundaries to seek information from the outside world. This raises the following research question: does the information seeking of China’s ethnic minorities with small populations align with Chatman’s proposition? And what factors influence their information seeking?

This study attempts to apply Chatman’s theory of life in the round to other, previously unstudied populations. In so doing, it furthers the academic knowledge about ethnic minorities by examining the information-seeking behaviours of China’s smallest populations, which advances the understanding of ethnic cultures and characteristics as contextual factors that may influence information-seeking behaviour. Simultaneously, it expands and extends Chatman’s theory of life in the round to different cultures and populations.

The findings of this study also provide a useful perspective for studying information seeking across cultures and ethnicities, which may be relevant to information professionals that customise information services according to the ethnic characteristics and traditions of particular groups of information users. Additionally, the results may assist government agencies, funding agencies and social organizations to effectively identify the major obstacles and challenges that ethnic minorities face when seeking information, based on their specific ethnic traditions and lifestyles.

Literature review

Chatman’s life in the round

Chatman developed numerous theories to explore the information behaviour of marginalised populations (Chatman, 1991; 1996; 1999). The theory of life in the round was drawn from her research with women in prison (Chatman, 1999). According to Chatman, life in the round describes a situation where members understand the meaning of a group’s particular expressions, language and values, which defines what information is considered acceptable by the group. The theory of life in the round is based on four concepts: small world, social norms, worldview and social types. A small world describes a world where members share similar opinions and understand one another due to the customs and language they uniquely share. Social norms set the rules and customary patterns that define members’ activities in the small world and give this small world a sense of balance with codes of behaviour that provide a collective sense of direction and order; following the norms brings group order, whereas deviation brings chaos. Worldview is the collective set of beliefs held by a small world’s members; a mental picture or cognitive map with which to interpret the world. Small world members have similar worldviews: they share similar life experiences and habits, which allow them to interpret the world with a mutual understanding of various connections and interrelations. The purpose of social types is to assign an individual to a social role and distinguish the overt traits or characteristics of the individual, inside and outside of their world. Small world insiders share social norms and worldviews, that is, they have a common understanding of their small world, which they believe is misunderstood by outsiders. People who do not share common characteristics are regarded as outsiders, from whom small world insiders hide certain information.

The social norms, worldviews and social types of a small world set in place certain beliefs and important rules that define the perceptions and activities of its members. They thus know who is important and trustworthy in their small world and have a consistent understanding of which information resources are important and how to access them.

Chatman (1999) made six propositional statements to define her theory of life in the round: 1) a small world conceptualisation is essential to a life in the round because it establishes legitimised others within that world who set boundaries on behaviour. 2) Social norms force private behaviour to undergo public scrutiny. 3) The result of establishing appropriate behaviour is the creation of a worldview. 4) For most of us, a worldview is played out as life in the round. Fundamentally, this is a life taken for granted. 5) Members who live in the round will not cross the boundaries of their world to seek information. 6) Individuals will cross information boundaries only to the extent that the following conditions are met: the information is perceived as critical, there is a collective expectation that the information is relevant, and a perception exists that life lived in the round is no longer functioning.

Ethnic minorities have daily traditions and customs, and members are expected to interpret the world and codes of behaviour in a particular way. Thus, their lifestyles are influenced by their traditional culture and living environment. The theory of life in the round may assist in examining how the ethnic characteristics and traditions of minorities influence their information seeking, and, therefore, this study may assist understanding how Chatman’s theory of life in the round applies to information users characterised by their ethnicity and traditions, especially in the context of Chinese culture.

Information seeking research on ethnic minorities

Human information seeking is a deliberate and purposeful method of satisfying information needs. This is supported by various theories, such as the theory of public knowledge (Wilson, 1977) and sense-making methodology (Dervin, 1998), and models, such as the framework for information-seeking processes (Kuhlthau, 1991; Wilson, 1999). At the same time, numerous attempts have been made to characterise the different contexts in which information is sought, such as ‘social roles, tasks, and identities’(Case, 2017, p. 47). The common opinion is that the context in which a person is observed significantly influences their information seeking (Courtright, 2007; Pettigrew, 1999; Savolainen, 2006; Talja et al., 1999; Chatman, 1999; Dervin, 1998; Fisher et al., 2004).

For ethnic minorities, the context may be their living or work environment. For example, Du and Haines (2017) found that ethnic minorities in Australia tend to seek information about the weather, traditions and work; their information seeking is affected by their geographical conditions and oral traditions.

Socioeconomic factors can also influence minorities’ information seeking. These may include poverty, a lack of resources, low education levels and limited language skills. Low levels of education and poor economic development mean that the information needs of ethnic minorities in China are closely related to their everyday lives, such as information on agriculture and the climate. The acquisition of the information is significantly influenced by their own language and culture (Jin and Liang, 2015).

Additionally, researchers have found that ethnic minorities’ oral cultures (Larson and Lewis, 2017), values and beliefs (Meyer, 2009), identities (Lilley, 2008, 2012), and traditions and habits (Yeh, 2007) may affect their information seeking. Larson and Lewis (2017) highlighted that rural Ugandan minorities with oral cultures find that the homogeneity makes it easier for them to spread information within their ethnic group.

Meyer (2009) found that oral culture within South African ethnic groups is controlled by their attitudes, perceptions, norms, values and belief systems. Lilley (2008) used his own sense of cultural identity to study ethnic minorities in New Zealand and observed that theyencounter a wide range of barriers where information may be unavailable, incorrect, difficult to find or members may be unaware of the information they actually need when seeking it. A follow-up study also found that the value of Māori secondary school students’ ethical networks may affect how they seek information (Lilley, 2012). Yeh (2007) further emphasized that ethnic minorities’ information seeking is influenced by their personal lifestyles, traditions and prejudices, which also impact the way they fulfil their information needs.

In summary, previous studies have found that, in addition to economic poverty and living conditions, the information seeking of minorities is closely related to their ethnic characteristics and traditional culture. Based on Chatman's theory life in the round, the present study investigates which factors affect the information seeking of ethnic minorities with populations under 300,000 (small populations), in terms of their living conditions and traditional culture.


This study forms part of a project supported by the National Social Science Fund of China. The project conducted in-depth research on the daily information practices, living conditions and cultures of ethnic minorities with small populations, and first-hand research data was collected through in-depth interviews and participatory observation.


There are twenty-eight ethnic minorities with small populations in China. The province with the largest number of these minority groups is Yunnan with eight: Dulong, Deang, Jino, Nu, Achang, Pumi, Blang and Jingpo. The total population of these small groups in Yunnan Province is about 450,000, with most of them living in remote areas that still have their own independent ethnic characteristics, unique culture and regulated lifestyles. To ensure that the living conditions of the study sample matched the description of Chatman’s living life in the round, the Dulong and Nu ethnic groups located in Gong Shan County, Yunnan province, were selected as samples for this research. The distance from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to Beijing, the capital of China, is 2,603 kilometres. Gong Shan is approximately 955.8 kilometres from Kunming. The average distance between most villages managed by Gong Shan County is approximately 150 kilometres. Therefore, the geographical locations of the samples selected for this study are relatively remote, far from China’s modern cities.

From the Dulong and the Nu research sample, five villages were chosen (Longyan, Bapo, Makua, Jashen, Shuangla), followed by 78 people from these villages for in-depth interviews and participatory observation. There were 47 males and 31 females, most between 30 and 50 years old. Among these 78 participants, 39 graduated from primary school, 14 graduated from middle school, and only three graduated from an institute of higher education. Among all 78 respondents, 36 could understand Mandarin and 19 could write in Chinese. Most of the participants raised poultry and livestock or planted fruits and vegetables at home; only 11 worked for external organizations, and five were village heads. The Dulong have their own language, many of their villages are built on slopes over 3,000 metres above sea level, and most villages have little communication with the outside world (Guo, 2009). Surrounded by the steep slopes, the elders discuss and decide various affairs in the clan. They practice nature worship and profess animistic beliefs, believing that this worship can bring good luck; thus, they pray for a fortuitous destiny and to avoid disaster (People's Republic..., 2015a). The Nu are an ancient minority who speak the Nu language and mostly live near the Nu river, their religion is nature worship and they believe that all things are spiritual (People's Republic..., 2015b). They attach great importance to cultural inheritance, and the patriarch decides most of the affairs within the group (Zhang and Liu, 2007).

The five villages selected for study are in remote mountainous areas along the border area between China and Myanmar; most of the villagers belong to the Dulong and Nu ethnic groups, and only a very small percentage of the villagers come from other areas or ethnic groups through immigration and marriage.The villages have their own common law and are typically led by a prominent leader. There are two types of village head: one holds the highest prestige as the village’s patriarch, and the other is appointed by the government. This different leadership affects the interests, concerns and responsibilities of the village. The patriarch decides most of the affairs within the group, and they are eager to maintain their own existing traditions and customs. Although a government-appointed head must confer with the village’s most prestigious elder to determine village affairs, they are more likely to communicate with the outside world. Five of this study’s respondents were village heads, two of whom were appointed by the government.

The common laws in these villages govern each group’s behaviour, and take the form of folk proverbs, songs, and ancient sayings. They serve as the rule for dealing with people and affairs, the standard of judging right and wrong, and the law of mediating internal conflicts. The groups depend largely on agriculture for a living, raising poultry and livestock and planting fruits and vegetables. Their surplus production is sold to the outside world. Their way of life is routine, working during the day and resting at night. Except for sacrificial ceremonies or festivals, they have no recreational activities. They love their own way of life and traditional customs and perceive their current life as peaceful, comfortable, and less complicated than life in the outside world. They seldom communicate with people from the outside world because they believe that outsiders may not understand their common law or respect their culture and customs.

The villages are far from the central town, and, although the government provides some public services, such as medical check-ups, and technical training, there are no public facilities, such as hospitals, schools, libraries or public transport. They only visit the nearest township to sell their agricultural goods, send their children to school or receive medical treatment for serious illness. They travel by hitchhiking or using a shared vehicle belonging to their group, as few people own cars in this region. The nearest primary school is approximately 70 kilometres away, so the children in the group board at school from six years old. Families with cars bring their children home once a week, but families without cars wait a month or more to reunite. In many cases, they will not seek a doctor in the outside world unless they are seriously ill, in which case they may leave the county or seek medical treatment in a city. There are no computers in these villages and, although most residents own mobile phones, their function is limited to intra-family contact. Only a few of the youth know how to use other functionalities, such as for social media or watching videos. The youth have experienced school in the outside world, so they are likely to have more exposure to, and a better understanding of, certain social evolutions, such as the introduction of mobile phones.

Data collection

This study employed a qualitative approach to investigate information seeking, related to the daily lives of ethnic minorities with small populations, and data were collected mainly through semi-structured interviews and participatory observation, with each interview lasting from 60 to 90 minutes. The majority of the interviews were conducted in the participants’ homes, and the key interview questions included: (1) What do you do in your daily life? What information do you need in your daily life? Can you describe your current life? (2) Who do you usually contact for information? What methods and skills do you use daily to get information? How do you usually know what is happening in the outside world? (3) Do you encounter any difficulties in your daily life? How do you usually overcome these difficulties? If it doesn't work, who might you turn to for help? (4) Can you tell me something about your culture? Have the traditions or customs influenced your search for relevant information?

Data were obtained by recording the in-depth interviews with the participants’ consent, and observations were noted immediately afterwards by all members of the research team. Some interviewees declined audio-recordings, although they consented to note-taking. As emphasized by Chatman (1996), insiders tend not to share information with outsiders because they feel that outsiders do not share the same social norms and values, and would not understand their customs. Therefore, the research team would have been perceived as outsiders by the villagers, reducing the respondents' trust in the research team. Consequently, we took mitigating measures for this study. To establish trustful relationships, the research team stayed in the villages for 20 days (eating, living and participating in their activities). Each interviewee was given a small gift of soap to show appreciation before the interviews. A few ethnic minorities with small populations cannot understand or speak Mandarin; therefore, the team hired locals with basic fluency in both Mandarin and the local language as additional team members for the research. Furthermore, all interview recordings and observation notes were electronically converted for transcription. Each interview transcript was sent to the individual participants for review, for their feedback on the content and key aspects of the transcription, and to obtain their final approval on the transcript’s accuracy.

Data analysis

The research data were processed by three levels of qualitative data coding analysis (Creswell, 2014). The coding work of this study was undertaken by three people. Before coding commenced, the coders were trained on the overall work of this study. During this process, the researchers also confirmed that each coder understood the nature of the coding work and comparing the codes assigned by the different coders.

The first level of coding identified topics raised by the participants. These were established as nodes that explain the meaning of each statement. For example, the statement, ‘Because I can only see my daughter once a month, I sometimes contact my daughter's head teacher to ask about her situation in school’ was labelled as children's education, the source of information seeking was labelled as teacher and the frequency of occurrence during the interview was noted. The second level of coding outlined themes from past studies and theories, and coded the appropriate data related to each research question. For example, the statement, ‘We often have to prepare for traditional rituals, and then we need to talk with the patriarch to consult our genealogy and ask if there will be any special requirements for the patriarch's rituals this year,’ was labelled as traditional ritual. The third level of coding combined similar nodes into subcategories and grouped them into various categories that summarised the concepts. All the different categories were condensed, or matched, to the main categories that explain the phenomena under investigation. For example, according to the relationship between nodes, traditional ritual, religious beliefs, ethnic rules, and traditional knowledge; were all categorized as traditions and customs. Thus, the information seeking of ethnic minorities with small populations is divided into two categories, according to the information source: information seeking within an ethnic group and information seeking outside of an ethnic group.


The statistical analysis of the interview data shows that ethnic minorities with small populations concentrate their everyday information seeking to within their families. Table 1 illustrates the preferred information sources. Among them, family members are the most likely source (89.7%), followed by relatives (61.5%) and people within the same ethnic group (54.1%). Furthermore, the Dulong tend to look for information from family members and relatives, more frequently than the Nu; the Nu tend to solicit information from similar ethnic groups, more frequently than the Dulong, and their frequency of seeking information from the outside world is about the same.

Information sourcesPercentage
Family members 89.7
Similar ethnicity (friends, neighbours, etc.)54.1
Government staff 17.6

Information seeking within an ethnic group

Ethnic minorities with small populations seek information mainly within their trusted and familiar social relations because they doubt the reliability of other groups. According to the data analysis from the interviews, there are three main reasons for information seeking within ethnic groups: traditions and customs, lifestyle, and ethnic identity.

Traditions and customs

For ethnic minorities with small populations, traditions and customs are the basis of social norms, and refer to beliefs and rules that have gradually been consolidated by the group, over a long period. For example, the Nu have well-established traditions and customs, which are generally understood through cumulative experience and the inter-generational heritage of daily life. The Dulong's traditions and customs are closely related to their ethnic characteristics and serve as conscious and unconscious standards for their activities. The daily social norms held by the groups can provide direction and order for the Nu and the Dulong, thus regulating everyday behaviour and reinforcing where activities happen. Social norms for these two groups, such as worshipping nature, respect for the elderly, or their traditional management systems, may limit their need for information seeking. For example, interviewee P57 said:

Here you need to judge a lot based on traditions and customs, to see if they are accepted by the group, and to fit in the right place, including sacrifices, traditional festival celebrations, weddings, funerals and so on. When I was very young, I was told that any recreational activity during sacrificial ceremonies was forbidden. At that time, young people were not allowed to watch TV or even talk about topics unrelated to sacrificial activities, let alone use mobile phones.

Traditions and customs are mainly manifested in the traditional knowledge of ethnic minorities with small populations. Arcane knowledge is held in the memories of the Nu’s patriarchs or elders and is sustained by oral heritage. Under the influence of rules within ethnic groups, traditional knowledge leads them to adopt a relatively traditional approach to problem-solving because they believe most solutions can only be found within the group. For the Dulong, their traditional and consistent knowledge systems may limit the selection of information sources, as their social norms are based on customary belief patterns and activity spaces. Therefore, when these two small groups seek information, their traditions and customs are thought to form the basic values they use to quickly determine what information they need, where they can get it, and what information is not applicable. For example, interviewee P35 said:

We hardly ever go to hospital because of their treatment methods; their techniques are contrary to our traditional ideas and knowledge. For example, the hospital encourages us to take medicine before childbirth and have scheduled check-ups to help us give birth and raise healthy children. But for us, fertility is a natural process without human control and interference, and it is ridiculous to try and control the birth of a child. We have our own methods of birthing children and keeping them healthy, which have proved to be successful since our ancestors.


Lifestyle is the reflection of the worldview of ethnic minorities with small populations, living in small worlds. It refers to the regular behaviour, cognitive models and ethnic characteristics formed over time by the traditional daily lives of ethnic minorities with small populations. The Dulong and Nu lifestyles, for example, tend to be regular and consistent, as their worldview dictates the routine of long-term daily life within their groups. Lifestyle changes may challenge them, and it is easy to pay little regard to changes in the outside world. Therefore, their scope of information seeking and their methods for acquiring information are relatively concentrated. As a result, most of their information needs are generated by their daily lives. Interviewee P21 said:

Mostly, we go to bed early at night because there are basically no recreational activities, except for group festival celebrations or sacrificial activities. Every night we talk to our family or watch TV and then go to bed. When we have free time during the day, we get together for a cup of tea with our clan members and talk about recent events in the clan, or we go to the mountains to collect medicine, hunt wild boar and so on.

A worldview is a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world, which is inherited among ethnic minorities with small populations. It accumulates to form a relatively concrete lifestyle, which leads to habitual behaviours that immunise them from outside influences. The everyday lives of the Dulong and the Nu prevent them from fully understanding outside information. They are more willing to trust in the intuition they have accumulated through daily life in the group and prefer information that is easily understood, rather than complex and abstract topics. The lifestyles of these two small groups render information easier for them to understand and accept when it is generated internally. Therefore, concerning information sources, their information needs may be better met from inside their small worlds. For example, interviewee P08 said:

Some experts came to teach us how to grow tea. Although they know some important techniques, I don’t think they understand the particularity of tea planting here. Their techniques are too complicated, we don’t want to learn them. Most importantly, they do not understand the culture and tradition of tea planting in our ethnic group, and many of their technologies are contrary to our experience. For us, tea planting should rely on manual weeding and natural fertiliser, not herbicides and other chemical products.

Ethnic identity

Ethnic identity is a standpoint that distinguishes the social types in the small worlds of ethnic minorities with small populations. For the Dulong and the Nu, their ethnic identities involve their different beliefs and emotional attachment to their familial culture. The two groups' religious beliefs and inherited customs define their unique characteristics. Ethnic identity involves their culture, as well as their interpersonal relationships and other reliable resources within the group. A strong sense of identity and attachment to their own group constitutes their cultural self-confidence and inner trust, and they may have difficulty communicating and cooperating effectively with people outside of the group. The social type creates the standpoint, from which they can judge others’ social roles as either insiders or outsiders. They may feel alienated from the outside world and, therefore, are more likely to trust only information from insiders, thus blocking the dissemination of information from outsiders. As interviewee P11 noted:

Our village is like a big family; we have few outsiders here and very few of us go out. Several young people went outside to look for work a few years ago, and for a long time, we didn’t receive any messages from them. Later, people in the clan said that they had been arrested for taking part in drug trafficking along the border. For a long time, we’ve all felt that outside, society is very complex, even dangerous. Although our material conditions are not as good as the outside world, we feel our life here is simple and peaceful, and we do not want something bad from outside to enter our group.

The kinship and relationships formed through ethnic identity convince the Dulong and the Nu that their cooperative internal networks are effective and trustworthy. The uncertainties they face during the information-seeking process are mitigated by relationships built on close contact, open communication and a mutual sense of identity. Due to the function of social type, their self-identity is attached to the group’s traditions and customs, and they doubt that they would be understood and accepted by the outside world. Therefore, many ethnic minorities with small populations believe that information seeking from the outside world is impossible. For example, interviewee P29 said:

We rarely talk to outsiders. I usually only talk to my husband, sometimes my daughter, and sometimes my relatives in the group because outsiders don’t understand our traditions and customs. For example, a Han woman from a nearby village came to visit her relatives. When she heard that we were discussing the idea of tattooing snakes on the arms of a new-born baby, she thought we were crazy, but we thought she was crazy. She did not respect our traditions, so I’m afraid we cannot build trust or and communicate with outsiders.

Information seeking outside an ethnic group

Although the information seeking of small populations of ethnic minorities mainly occurs between insiders(i.e. people who possess internal information or resources within the group), they may occasionally seek information from middlemen (i.e., people who possess external information or resources belonging to their group) and outsiders (i.e., people who possess external information or resources not belonging to the group). Two typical situations emerged from the interviews with the research participants when describing their external information seeking. First, their external information seeking must not contradict their group’s traditions and customs, lifestyles or ethnic identity. Therefore, when their information needs cannot be fulfilled internally, and the information sought is general knowledge, they may cross their group’s boundaries for information from middlemen and outsiders who are deemed useful. Interviewee P31 said:

There is no school in our village, so our children have to go to school far away in town. They only come home about once a month, so we don’t really know much about their situations at school. Then, I heard that the Han women in the next village often consult with their children's teachers about how their children are doing at school, so in recent years, people have been gradually trying to look outside for information about their children’s schooling. When I learned that my niece's friend was teaching in the elementary school in the town, I asked my niece to introduce us, and then I tried to get information about how my children are doing in school from her.

The second situation is when their external information seeking conflicts with the group’s traditions and customs, lifestyles or identities. When faced with urgent and important problems, they avoid seeking information from their own group because of these conflicts and may secretly cross boundaries for information from outsiders, without alerting members of their group. For example, interviewee P14 said:

Our traditions and customs emphasise that women should have natural births, but there are extenuating circumstances. For example, my brother was almost 40 years old and still had no children at home. One day, an expert from the provincial city came to town to give us free medical inspections. My brother and sister-in-law asked me if they should see the doctor and I advised them not to go. Then, they went to visit the doctor and received treatment without telling my parents. The next year, my sister-in-law fell pregnant, but my brother dared not tell my parents about it, and he wouldn’t let me tell other people in our group.

From the above statements, we can see that when the information that ethnic minorities with small populations seek is public knowledge but cannot be found within their group, or when they face urgent or important issues that conflict with their traditions and customs, lifestyles or ethnic identities, they may seek information from middlemen or outsiders.


The findings of this study are consistent with the original hypothesis, that the small worlds of China’s ethnic minorities with small populations, align with Chatman’s fifth proposition of the theory of life in the round: members who live in the round will not cross the boundaries of their small world to seek information (Chatman, 1999). These findings provide further understanding of ethnic characteristics and traditional culture, as contextual factors that can influence the information-seeking process. Applying Chatman’s theory to previously unstudied populations furthers expands the theory of life in the round to encompass alternative cultures and ethnicities.

In the context of small worlds

To some extent, spatial factors may reinforce the isolated living conditions of marginalised and vulnerable populations (Yu, 2011). For Chatman, the small world goes beyond the notion of spatial factors; social factors, such as norms, worldviews and social types, may play a particularly significant role in living life in the round (Savolainen, 2009). In this study, the boundaries of the sample groups were not only set by physical isolation from the outside world, but, more significantly, by the groups’ ethnic characteristics, rules, and beliefs, which supersede all information from the outside world. They are influenced by their own traditions and customs, lifestyles and ethnic identities. For example, interviewee P46 said:

A few years ago, the government constructed free and modern living areas for us, to improve government administration and the quality of our living conditions, but most of us lived there for less for than three months before returning to our original living areas. Although the new area had improved conditions, and there were more opportunities to obtain services and technology from the outside world, we felt that the new areas were not comfortable or convenient, and they did not conform to our lifestyle and traditions.

The social norms for ethnic minorities with small populations are their traditional rituals, rules and knowledge, that construct the order and boundaries of their small worlds, such as their respect for elders, their reverence for the rules of their groups and their worship of nature. This social norm determines what is acceptable and what should be rejected and may constantly constrain the value system within ethnic groups.

The worldviews of ethnic minorities with small populations are reflected in their groups’ regular behaviours, traditional ideas, and life experiences. These allow them to maintain everyday routines and patterns and their attitudes towards health, such as integrating their living habits with nature. Worldviews determine things that are important or trivial to them and may directly limit their daily behaviour within the group.

The social types in this study are insiders, middlemen and outsiders. Insiders share the group’s social norms and worldview, such as regarding elders with the highest prestige and as having most of the knowledge within the group. People with external knowledge or resources are considered middleman: they know more about the outside world than insiders, for example, the villagers working in external agencies or those who do not belong to that village’s ethnicity. Outsiders have different characteristics from the villagers and belong to the outside world, such as government staff, teachers, doctors, experts and businessmen.

In the small worlds of ethnic minorities with small populations, most of their information needs are related to their daily lives or the public domain. They are constrained by the social norms and worldviews of their small worlds, and have strong emotional attachments, cultural self-confidence, self-belief, and familial values. Therefore, the fulfilment of their information needs is typically sought from insiders. Their information needs must be important or urgent, and unable to be fulfilled within their group, to motivate them to look for information from middlemen and outsiders. If the information received conflicts with their social norms and worldviews, they may secretly look for information from outsiders, without alerting the members of their group.

Our findings suggest that the studied ethnic minorities with small populations live in small worlds with isolated living conditions and ethnically independent characteristics. The effects of these factors (traditions and customs, lifestyle, and ethnic identity) engender ethnic minorities with small populations to seek information within their ethnic group, which consequently influences their information-seeking behaviour.

Seeking information within an ethnic group

The findings of this study contribute to understanding why ethnic minorities with small populations choose to seek information within their own groups rather than cross ethnic boundaries for information. Living environment, oral tradition, and ethnic characteristics may affect ethnic minorities’ information seeking, thereby limiting their information needs (Jin and Liang, 2015; Du and Haines, 2017; Meyer, 2009). This study finds that ethnic minorities with small populations are more dependent on their common traditions and customs, and the cumulative lifestyles formed within groups. Their information needs are generally related to the group, so they tend to seek information through the group’s commonly understood and accepted, existing knowledge and experience. Therefore, to some extent, information needs generated within a group are easiest to fulfil. Selective information seeking leads to information avoidance, that is, peoples’ information needs conform to their beliefs, knowledge and opinions, and avoid contradictory information (Case, 2017), while their ethnic identities enable the avoidance of information that contradicts their traditions and customs, and lifestyles.

Ethnic minorities frequently use interpersonal communication to meet their information needs (Du and Haines, 2017; Larson and Lewis, 2017; Meyer, 2009). According to this study, ethnic minorities with small populations have their own traditions and customs and select information resources and channels that are appropriate to the group’s lifestyle. To some extent, methods to meet information needs beyond the group are likely to be useless for them, or, at least, unnecessary for the moment. For ethnic minorities, following their traditions and customs may cause their prejudice against outside information (Yeh, 2007; Lilley, 2008). In this study, ethnic identity was highlighted among ethnic minorities with small populations, as they exhibit strong affiliations to their traditions, customs, and lifestyles. Most participants stated that information from the outside world is unreliable because it contradicts their experience, and, therefore, they are reluctant to accept it. An individual’s access to information resources depends on their relationships within the social structure (Mozafari and Hamzeh, 2015); therefore, ethnic minorities with small populations may prefer to look for information within the group because they share similar backgrounds and tend to trust their own relationship networks.

Crossing ethnic boundaries for information

The main source of information for ethnic minorities with small populations is trusted and familiar social relationships, and most information seeking takes place within the same ethnic group. If knowledge within the group can solve the problem, its members will not seek information across boundaries. However, in situations where the group is unable to meet information needs and the required information is general knowledge relevant to the group, or when they are faced with urgent or important issues, they may seek information externally.

Chatman (1999) provided a sixth proposition, which explains the situation should the fifth proposition not hold. The sixth proposition provides, at least in part, some reason as to why ethnic minorities with small populations might cross the boundaries of their group; however, the findings of this study indicate these groups have a strong sense of identity and attachment to their small worlds. Therefore, the third condition of Chatman’s sixth proposition (that external information-seeking will occur when members perceive that life in the round no longer functions) could not be confirmed by this study, as no participants had that perception of their small world.

The interviews revealed two typical conditions whereby a group may seek information from outside. First, their external information seeking must not contradict their traditions and customs, lifestyles or identities within the ethnic group. Therefore, when their information needs cannot be fulfilled internally, and the information they seek is general knowledge, they may cross boundaries for information. This may include information related to children's education, agricultural sales and so on. The second situation is when their external information seeking conflicts with their traditions and customs, lifestyles and identities within their group. In such instances, they avoid seeking information in their group, even related to health or skills, because of these conflicts, and, therefore, may cross boundaries for information.

Conclusion and implications

This study collected empirical data on different contextual factors of life in the round, in terms of the information seeking of ethnic minorities. It supports Chatman’s proposition that members who live in the round will not cross the boundaries of their world to seek information. It implies that the small worlds of China’s ethnic minorities with small populations are in line with Chatman’s theory of life in the round. The research shows that their traditions and customs, lifestyles and ethnic identities are the main factors that create their small worlds, which may also influence their information seeking.

Based on the analysis of the interview data, this study finds that, despite the spatial and social factors intertwined here, the information seeking of ethnic minorities with small populations is deeply rooted in their traditions and customs, lifestyles and ethnic identities. Therefore, their information needs are regulated, there is usually a defined way of meeting them, and they seldom seek information from outside their group.

At the same time, when reviewing the specific obstacles and severe challenges faced by minorities, information professionals, funding agencies and social organizations should consider the influence of ethnic identities and traditions, to support their integration into the contemporary information society. First, young ethnic minorities should be encouraged to connect and communicate with the outside world, when they are curious and eager to access information technology, and can spread new ideas among the group. Second, the inclusiveness and interaction of ethnic minorities with the outside world must improve, to win their trust and assist them in inheriting their cultural customs and knowledge system. For example, with the consent of locals, their culture and knowledge can be stored, developed and employed through the use of modern information technology. Third, ethnic minorities must be encouraged to obtain information, through the provision of free information services, to allow them to understand the effects of using these services according to their own understanding. For example, government agencies or social organizations can provide free daily information translation resources, thereby reducing language-based information access barriers, and provide comprehensible and reliable information dissemination services and training.

The limitations of this study include the relatively small sample size and lack of more in-depth analysis of the relationship between factors, which should be treated with care when generalising the findings. Further research is needed to explore more details concerning the inheritance of factors within the group, for example, how traditions and customs, lifestyle, and ethnic identity, established from within a group, form stable behavioural patterns, cognitive models and psychological characteristics. How these factors gradually evolve into their information-seeking process within the explanations of social norms, worldviews and social types requires further explorations, as well as the reasons behind ethnic identity adherence among groups, and how this persistence forms their information needs.


This research was supported by China National Social Science Fund (No. 17CTQ021) and Yun Nan Province Social Science Fund (No. QN2016051), and the Postdoctoral Programme of China Scholarship council (No. 201808530040).

About the authors

Ming Zhu is Associate Professor in School of History and Archive, Yunnan University, China. He received his Ph.D. from Nankai University and his research interests are in human information behaviour, particularly the information practice of the marginalized groups in society. He can be contacted at zmynu@outlook.com. ORCID No. 0000-0002-7711-7149.
Xizhu Liao is a graduate student in the School of History and Archive, Yunnan University, China. He can be contacted at wyliaomeishu@163.com.


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How to cite this paper

Zhu, M., & Liao, XZ. (2020). Chatman’s theory of life in the round applied to the information seeking of small populations of ethnic minorities in China. Information Research, 25(3), paper 868. http://InformationR.net/ir/25-3/paper868.html (Archived by the Internet Archive at https://bit.ly/3jmuAAX)

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