argues that social constructivist approaches provide a theoretical
lens through which information researchers can gain a clearer picture of information users not as ‘needy’
individuals to be ‘helped’, but as social beings, experts in their own life-worlds
Frohmann says the cognitive paradigm constitutes information behavior as “the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of ‘information’ as given, natural-scientific, cognitive events taking place within radically individualised ‘information processing devices’”(1992, 381). Frohmann (1992) argued that such a model, based on notions of objective reality and individual subjectivity, offers no theoretical framework for considering complex social relations between people and information, such as the political manipulation of truth.
Talja (1997) has questioned the fundamental methodological basis of cognitive research – the question of whether a
researcher can ever access another person’s knowledge structures. What cognitivist research methods produce, therefore, are representations not of the participants’ cognitive structures but
of the social interaction between researcher and participant.
influential models of information behavior to position
information need and uncertainty as central concepts
Frohmann (1992), Talja (1997) and Julien (1999) have all critiqued this focus on information need as the primary instigator
of information behavior
This focus on rationalist approaches may also account for the field’s on-going research focus on users’ interactions with
formal information sources and systems
Savolainen has noted that “Western social science has experienced a shift from methodological collectivism (or holism) and
individualism to methodological situationalism” (1993, 23). Over the last three decades, the influence of theorists and
philosophers such as Schutz (1972), Berger & Luckman (1967) and Foucault (1970, 1972; 1978; 1980), as well as the
empirical work of social anthropologists and sociologists such as Bourdieu (1977), Knorr-Cetina (1983) and Mulkay (1991),
have led to the emergence of a range of social constructivist approaches to research in the social sciences
The nature of
language as a social construct, and its central importance for individuals’ sense-making, is a key feature of the social
Dervin (1989; 1999) and Frohmann (1992) have both criticised existing information behavior research for largely ignoring
issues of power and power relations. By contrast, Foucault’s discourse analytic framework constructs the relationship
between knowledge and power as central of central importance. Indeed, it constructs knowledge and power not as separate
entities but as conjoined products of the same social processes - knowledge/power (pouvoir/savoir)
The study found that participants’ constructions of the author and her work drew on a complex array of existing
knowledge/power structures, derived not only from information science, but a range of other disciplines
The relationship between participants’ behavior and their role as academic researchers and their expertise in constructing
the author and her work in terms of existing bodies of accepted knowledge in a range of disciplines strongly suggest that
Talja’s suggestion that information behavior may arise “more from selected interests and cultural expertise than a lack of
knowledge” (1997, 77) is the most appropriate model for understanding their behavior.
Given the context of the present study – academic researchers’ constructions of a prominent author in their field – is one in
which unemotional critical analysis might be expected to dominate, its findings add weight to Julien’s claim that “affective
and rational behaviour cannot be polarized’ (Julien, 1999, 588).
In contrast to previous research into the impact of affective factors (e.g. Kuhlthau, 1993), which have focussed on their
negative impact as a barrier to information seeking, the present studies’ findings tell a more positive story. They suggest
that participants’ friendships with their colleagues enrich their experience, facilitate communication and help tie
information behavior researchers together as a community.
In characterising information artefacts as “objective knowledge”, and contrasting this with the “subjective world” of
individual consciousness, Brookes’ model implies that information artefacts have a stable and/or absolute meaning.
Yet the findings of the present study do not at all support such a contention. The findings show that participants were able
to derive a wide variety of sometimes contradictory meanings from the same body of text-artefacts
The study found that issues of power and authority were central to understanding participants’ constructive processes.
This paper contends that social constructivism offers information
behavior researchers a theoretical lens which builds on the strengths of existing approaches whilst addressing some of their
recognized weaknesses. If pioneering researchers such as Wilson (1981) and Dervin & Nilan (1986) allowed us to see
information users as active constructors of meaning, social constructivism allows us to see that these constructive
processes not as isolated incidents of individual meaning-making but rather as inextricably linked to on-going networks of
shared understanding, social conventions and knowledge/power relations.