LIS 510: Information Behavior in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

For the final paper in our Information Behavior class we had the opportunity to write about information behavior in a world of our choosing, either real or fictional. The class had some excellent papers about information behavior in the TV show Seinfeld and in real world examples such as among equestrians at a barn. My final paper was on the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The 1986 John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic example of a series of different information giving and seeking behaviors. From an impoverished life-world within the constraints of Chatman’s small world theory, Ferris Bueller must employ Savolainen’s mastery of life techniques in order to get what he wants: a day off. The school administrator who does not believe Bueller’s story suffers from an example of Belkin’s anomalous state of knowledge (ASK) and attempts to use segments of Taylor’s question-negotiation and information seeking theories to help resolve the ASK. These classic theories and models of information behavior all help to explain different facets of information behavior exhibited by characters in the film.

The premise of the movie is entirely based on a beautiful day and a slacking high school senior, Ferris Bueller. In order to convince his parents that he is sufficiently sick that he needs to stay home and then continue the ruse, Bueller must exemplify all four of Chatman’s impoverished life-world concepts within the small world theory: risk taking, secrecy, deception, and situational relevance (Chatman, 1996).  Employing these four concepts leaves Ferris Bueller in what Chatman would define as an impoverished life-world, however Chatman’s theory is built on information seeking. Throughout the movie Bueller is the source of the information, not the recipient. This means that Ferris Bueller is not part of the impoverished life-world but rather he is the one creating it. Bueller’s risk-taking and deception given the situation are fairly standard application of Chatman’s definitions while Ferris’ secrecy is the most interesting application of the tenets of the theory. Ferris’ “…deception is a deliberate attempt to play-act, that is, to engage in activities which [his] personal reality is continuously being distorted. It is a process meant to hide [his] true condition by giving false and misleading information. What this does, of course, is shrink the possibility of receiving useful information” (Chatman 1996, p. 196). Bueller’s secrecy, however, is only revealed when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera (and his audience) directly. These monologues reveal that Ferris is faking sick today partially in an attempt to help his best friend, Cameron Frye, out of the funk that he has been in lately, to get Cameron to have a little fun. Since this day of hooky is Ferris’ ninth of the semester the audience now realizes the situational relevance and importance of this day. Despite the fact that Ferris Bueller is creating an example of Chatman’s impoverished life-world as opposed to living in one he still embodies the four central parts of this particular small world.

It is precisely the small world structure that allows Ferris to be able to create the impoverished life-world within it. The high school students that make up a majority of the population in the small world “…have a more narrow and local view of the world, information that originates outside of their social world is not of great interest to them” (Chatman 1991, p. 438). Since the students have no need for information from outside their small world they tacitly accept the ever more ridiculous stories and rumors of Ferris’ illness, which is precisely in line with Chatman’ third proposition of restricted world view (ibid). While the students comprise the largest portion of the small world population the teachers and administrators are also supposed to unquestioningly accept the information on Bueller’s illness. The only person who at any point ventures outside in search of information beyond the instant gratification of the small world is Dean of Student Ed Rooney. From within the bounds of the small world and Ferris Bueller’s position in control of so much information Ferris must utilize everyday life information seeking in order to achieve his goals.

Savolainen’s way of life framework for the study of everyday life information seeking states that people prefer informal information sources to solve their every-day (non-work) information problems (Savolainen 1995, p. 260). Ferris Bueller successfully takes advantage of this fact and again, as with Chatman’s theory, utilizes the way of life and mastery of life theories from the position of an information creator instead of an information consumer. Savolainen’s “…concept of way of life refers to “order of things,” which is based on the choices that individuals make in everyday life. “Things” stand for various activities taking place in the daily life world [and]… “order” refers to preferences given to these activities”(Savolainen 1995, p. 262). Ferris Bueller’s order of things involve him not going to school and being a master manipulator so that he gets what he wants.

In order for Ferris to get his way of life to respect his desired order of things he must achieve mastery of life. “Mastery of life may be either passive or active. It is passive when people are satisfied with seeing that everything goes on as expected, at least on the whole. Active mastery of life is associated with pragmatic problem solving in cases where the order of things has been shaken or threatened” (Savolainen 1995, p. 264). Since having to attend school threatens Ferris’ order of things he must undertake active mastery of life. Ferris’ best friend Cameron is an excellent example of passive mastery of life. Cameron is wholly dissatisfied with his life but he does nothing to change it or deal with his unhappiness. In this way Cameron’s life is going as expected and he seems to enjoy the suffering that goes along with his life and how it is affected by his parents’ tenuous relationship and other dissatisfactions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ferris’ pragmatic problem solving to stay out of school results in utilization of all of his material, social, and cultural (cognitive) capital to create and spread information about how sick he is. In Savolainen’s theory all of these forms of capital are used as a method to see and use information (p. 267); however, Ferris is using them to create information, a similar inversion of theory as seen in the application of Chatman’s impoverished life-world.

Since Ferris is a popular student he is able to use his extensive social capital in order to spread word of the severity of his condition. All of the students are very concerned about Ferris and his well being, none of the teachers seem to care, however it is Dean of Students Ed Rooney who is enraged to hear of Ferris’ ninth absence of the semester. This ire places Rooney in a classic example of Belkin’s anomalous state of knowledge. In his disbelief that Ferris Bueller is truly sick for the ninth time Mr. Rooney “…decides to investigate or use some part of his…state of knowledge or image but on consideration, [Rooney] realizes that there is an anomaly in that state of knowledge with respect to the problem faced” (Belkin 1980, p. 135). The anomaly in Rooney’s state of knowledge is that all sources indicate that Ferris truly is sick however Rooney refuses to believe this is true. Since there is no potential for independent verification from another person Mr. Rooney must seek information he can only get from Ferris Bueller himself.

 Info Behavior

Fig 1. Pre-negotiation decisions by the inquirer (Taylor, Robert S., 1968, p. 181)

The lengths to which Mr. Rooney must go in order to find out whether Ferris is truly sick is a near-perfect re-telling of pre-negotiation decisions by the inquirer as outline in Taylor’s Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries. Rooney’s information need is to ascertain Ferris’ current state of health. In order to fulfill this need first he asks a colleague, his secretary Grace, for information about Ferris and whether he is well-liked by his peers and other matters that could help Rooney find an answer. When Grace is not a sufficiently fruitful source of information he then searches the literature, in this case Ferris’ record in the school’s database, while on the phone confirming Ferris’ absence with Mrs. Bueller (another example of consulting a colleague). While consulting Ferris’ record the number of absences magically declines from nine to two, further solidifying Rooney’s anomalous state of knowledge. In a slight deviation from the schema, Rooney’s inability to get an answer from his personal files results in a search for information off campus, the experiment/observe nature portion of the chart. Rooney does not succeed in finding Ferris at a popular local pizza parlor, and since all methods of satisfying his information need have failed Mr. Rooney heads to the Bueller home. In this manifestation of pre-negotiation decision making the Bueller family home is the library (the one location Rooney can go and be assured to receive the information he desires) and Ferris Bueller is the librarian, the one person who can give Rooney the information he needs.

Rooney’s adherence to Taylor’s schema for pre-negotiation decision-making by the inquirer does not result in the resolution of the feeling of ‘wrongness’, there is still an inadequacy in Rooney’s state of knowledge (Belkin 1980, p. 137) about Ferris and his illness. A piece of knowledge that Rooney does gain while at the Bueller home is that Ferris isn’t there, as revealed by a glitch in the recording that Ferris has set up to answer the intercom when the doorbell rings. Mr. Rooney was only able to gain this knowledge because he was willing to venture outside of the information small world of the high school, something that no other character is willing to do throughout the course of the movie. Although venturing outside of the small world does help Rooney gain information it does not resolve his anomalous state of knowledge. As Belkin predicted (p. 141) the receipt of knowledge did not cause Rooney’s ASK to be resolved as he had hoped but rather caused an evolution of the anomalous state of knowledge. However, since Rooney is already at the last step of Taylor’s pre-negotiation matrix while far outside his small world of the high school Rooney is forced to wait at the Bueller home (aka the library) and wait for Ferris (the librarian) to resolve the ‘wrongness’ of Rooney’s anomalous state of knowledge related to Ferris’ truancy.

While Rooney is trapped in his anomalous state of knowledge Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane Peterson, and his best friend Cameron Frye are at large in downtown Chicago has to offer. Ferris continues to embody active mastery of life, utilizing pragmatic problem solving to impersonate Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago, in order to get a lunch reservation at a fancy restaurant. While Ferris is the ringleader through their time playing hooky Sloane and Cameron both embody passive mastery of life techniques (Savolainen 1995, p. 264). Both are satisfied with their lives, at least as far as their activities for the day are concerned, and they see no need to change the way things are. Since both Cameron and Sloane are so content to follow Ferris’ lead they are the perfect companions to his schemes for achieving Ferris’ desired way of life.

One exception to Cameron and Sloane’s compliance is how unhappy Cameron is about the fact that Ferris has commandeered Mr. Frye’s vintage Ferrari as their car for the day. Despite that this car is his father’s pride and joy Cameron did little to resist Ferris’ cajoling and lets his best friend do things that make him afraid or uncomfortable. Savolainen describes this as the learned helplessness of pessimistic-affective mastery, where “[o]ne does not rely on his or her abilities to solve everyday life problems, but adopts a strategy of avoiding systematic efforts to improve his or her situation” (Savolainen 1995, p. 266). If Cameron had been able to stand up to Ferris and refused him the use of the Ferrari he would have been able to escape a situation that becomes a major problem at the end of the movie.

When Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron are back in Mr. Frye’s garage attempting to erase the mileage from the Ferrari by putting running it, propped up on blocks, in reverse they realize that their plan isn’t working. It is this horrifying realization that moves Cameron from a passive to an active stance on mastery of life. “Mastery of life aims at elimination of continual dissonance between perceptions of ‘how things are at this moment’ and ‘how they should be’” (Savolainen 1995, p. 272)  and Cameron is finally tired of the dissonance between the dream and the reality of the quality of his relationship with is father. Cameron’s diatribe on how he is treated by his father, how he lets his old man walk all over him, how he has to take a stand again his father’s treatment, signals his switch to active mastery methods. The change in Cameron’s attitude is a big achievement for Ferris considering the element of secrecy from the impoverished life-world lens was that Ferris’ goal was to make Cameron happier.

With his secret objective accomplished, Ferris now races home in an effort to not ruin his carefully constructed impoverished life-world deception by having his parents arrive home to find all of his tricks for fooling anyone who may come by the house seeking to verify his illness. Within the definition of a small world, getting home is Ferris’ greatest risk-taking yet. Racing home through neighbors’ yards and almost getting caught by both his parents in their cars, Ferris makes it to the back door mere seconds before sic o’clock. While searching for the spare key he is confronted by Mr. Rooney, still waiting to begin the question negotiation portion of Taylor’s model. Unfortunately for Mr. Rooney, Ferris has the upper hand in this negotiation. When Mr. Rooney was inside the Bueller home earlier in the day he dropped his wallet. Ferris’ sister Jeanie meets them at the back door with the wallet and allows the family dog to terrorize Mr. Rooney. This leaves Rooney’s anomalous state of knowledge unresolved and Ferris just enough time to slide back into bed, allowing him to keep his parents in their information poor small world.

The movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an excellent example of many different models and theories of information behavior. Chatman’s small worlds, Savolainen’s way of life, and Belkin’s anomalous states of knowledge are all well represented in the film, as are the corollary theories from Chatman on impoverished life-worlds and Taylor’s question negotiation. One major departure is that all of these theories pertain to information gathering but the vast majority of the movie focuses on Ferris’ role as an information creator and spreader. Despite the fact that there are ample theories on casual information gathering there are few or no sources that deal with the casual information creation seen in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While this movie is a product of the 1980s, casual information creation and dissemination has become much more pertinent since the wide spread of the internet and self-published personal websites have become legitimate sources of information. Even though it is a frivolous movie about the escapades of a truant teen and his friends there are serious implications surrounding the inability of existing information behavior theory to fully describe Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.


Belkin, Nicholas J. (1980). Anomalous States of Knowledge as a Basis for Information Retrieval. The Canadian Journal of Information Science, 5, 133–143.

Chatman, Elfreda 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.

Chatman, Elfreda A. (1996). The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47(3), 193–206.

Hughes, John. (1986). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Paramount.

Savolainen, Reijo. (1995). Everyday Life Information Seeking: Approaching Information Seeking in the Context of “Way of Life.” Library & Information Science Research, 17, 259–294.

Taylor, Robert S. (1968). Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries. College & Research Libraries, 29, 178–189.


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