Wilson, T. D. (Ed.). Theory in information behaviour research. Sheffield, UK: Eiconics Ltd. [E-book] ISBN 978-0-9574957-0-8. Price $9.99/£6.50/€7.49>

(Available in most e-book formats from Smashwords and from the Apple iBookstore It is also available from the Barnes and Noble, Diesel, Kobo and W.H. Smith online bookstores).

Theory in Information Behaviour Research is a reader for graduate students and researchers in information behaviour who are interested in using theories from other disciplines, mainly psychology and sociology but also philosophy, to help define their research problem and methodology. The book’s editor T. D. Wilson asked information behaviour researchers whose previously published studies had a middle-range, empirically derived theoretical basis to write a chapter for the reader outlining the theory. The book describes seven such theories, one per chapter, each written by a different author or authors: activity theory, critical theory, personal construct theory, personality theory, practice theory, social cognitive theory, and social phenomenology. In addition, an eighth chapter describes the theoretical approaches to information behaviour research both historically and currently used in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The structure of each chapter is extremely effective. Each theory’s definition and basic principles are explained, followed by sections on the history of the theory and a description of how the theory has been used in information behavior research. The chapter ends with a conclusion and a list of reference works and research articles utilizing the theory.

The hope is that the book will establish theoretical frameworks for information behaviour research, not only to encourage rigour and integrity in this research, and to facilitate the communication of results through commonly held principles and concepts, but also to shift information behaviour research away from pure description, powering it onto the road of prediction and explanation. Information behaviour research, according to the editor T. D. Wilson, has 'to move, or at least change, the world'. This ambition is surprisingly commonly lacking in information behaviour research, but in order for the research area to take hold and influence society, research that does not contain this ambition should not be considered worth doing.

The problem in information behaviour research, and its antecedent label information seeking/needs research, is that although we are in the Information Age where information seeking and search is ubiquitous on mobile tablets and smart phones, information science in general and information behaviour research in particular has not had much effect on the computer science-dominated paradigm of what information and information search is, and consequently the design of information search engines. Information behaviour research looks at the user in a deeper way, below the keywords the user types into the engine’s search box.

Information behaviour research contextualizes the user by observing and analysing non-purposive aspects of information seeking motivated by the user’s psychology, the cognitive processes whereby users incorporate new information into their prior knowledge to form new or modified knowledge, and the user’s sociology; i.e., his or her position in a social group. These broader, more holistic criteria of what constitutes successful and satisfying information seeking assume that information is something more than an object, a thing, a commodity.

Gerard Benoit in Chapter 2 states that it is the responsibility of information behaviour research to direct society away from treating information 'as a consumer object [and] towards information as liberation'. Liberation is perhaps going too far, but information behaviour research starts from the realistic, everyday assumption that information enables people to identify, define and solve their problems at work and in everyday life, but that information is actually difficult to seek, find, and use, especially for disadvantaged people in society.

Chapter 1. Activity Theory by T. D. Wilson. This theory looks at human interaction with objective reality and the tension between the individual’s construction of meaning and society’s construction of meaning through organizational structures and norms. An example is the acceptance of an innovation within an organization. The informal norms of behaviour in the organization will importantly affect the uptake of this innovation.

Chapter 2. Critical theory by Gerard Benoit. This theory, from a Marxist perspective, criticizes, for example, library goals and objectives in adopting new technologies that focus on technical and managerial issues of the adaptation, thus allowing information-as-a-commodity to take precedence over information-as-liberation. Critical theory also questions the acceptance of knowledge production for commercial purposes as a given, rather than emphasizing who benefits and who loses from this acceptance. Critical theory asks: Why do people accept social and information systems of production and dissemination that are not in their best interests?

Chapter 3. Personal construct theory by Rebecca Reynolds. This chapter looks at psychologist George Kelly’s personal construct theory and its application in information science by Carol Kuhlthau in her Information Search Process (ISP) Model. Humans are cognitively built to make sense of the world by constantly constructing theories of the world. These theories allow us to anticipate events, which shapes our motivation for and encounters with information. Kuhlthau applies personal construct theory to students seeking information for their school assignment topic by constructing a personal perspective on that topic via the information they seek, find and use. Reynolds is particularly effective in this chapter by relating, like a novel, Kuhlthau’s discovery and utilization of personal construct theory in her research work.

Chapter 4. Personality theory by Jannica Heinström. Personality traits of humans are conceived of as dimensions with a genetic and biological base that are stable over time, which determines human behavior. However, situational factors can moderate the expression of personality traits. Since the 1990s, there has been increasing agreement on a core of five dimensions of personality that affect human information behaviour: negative emotionality, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Heinström (2003) found that each of the five core dimensions of personality have their own impact on information behaviour. For example, openness to experience was positively related to unstructured information seeking such as browsing, while it had a negative relationship to problem definition and the identification of keywords.

Chapter 5. Practice theory by Andrew Cox. The author starts from the position that much of information behaviour research focuses on the individual while the practice approach starts with the influence of the group. A practice is a way of doing things that is underlined by practical understandings, rules and “general understandings” of the group (organization, discipline, etc.). Practice theory is particularly interesting in the study of the information behaviour of Millennials where the real meaning of their seeking information via mobile devices is situated in the practices or conventions of their use.

Chapter 6. Social cognitive theory by Ágústa Pálsdóttir. Social cognitive theory is based on the principle of self-efficacy, which is constructed by the individual and mediates between the individual and social networks in society. Self-efficacy allows people to effectively model their behaviour after others in society. The modeling occurs via what Bandura (1997) calls observational learning, which is achieved via: (1) attentional processes (which controls what the individual selects to observe); (2) retention processes (encoding into memory what has been observed); (3) production processes (where the encoded observation is translated into representations of behaviour patterns); and (4) motivational processes (external motivators, e.g., admired models in a social network).

Chapter 7. Social phenomenology by T. D. Wilson and Reijo Savolainen. The authors observe that there has been a shift in information science over the last 50 years from a positivist framework to a phenomenological perspective. Social phenomenology theory studies how human phenomena are intersubjectively experienced by individuals with and through others. The individual’s active and engaged participation in the phenomena of the world allows the individual to construct meaning or sense. According to social phenomenology theory, the researcher is obligated to ensure that their scientific constructs can be understood by the study subject, which in turn ensures that the scientific construct is consistent with the subject’s own “common-sense” construct of her social world.

Chapter 8. Theoretical approaches to information behaviour research in Russia and Eastern Europe by Elena Maceviciute. Rather than a single theory, this chapter describes various theoretical approaches to information behaviour of Russian and Eastern European researchers (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, the Balkan countries, and the Baltics). The author divides her chapter into four sub-sections of information behaviour-related research: (1) information needs; (2) readership studies; (3) information literacy; and (4) information behaviour. The author states that, with exceptions, these Russian and Eastern European researchers have not been published in the West, nor do they cite Western researchers in their own work. The opposite is largely true as well, which makes this chapter particularly valuable.

This is a beautifully written book, very intense and very in-depth, for researchers and graduate students in information science interested in utilizing well-established theories from other disciplines to conceptualize aspects of the user-information nexus. This gives the book an empirical and practical basis to the theories described in the reader. Each of the eight chapters is designed to take advantage of this theory-to-research practice premise. The low price-tag for the book ($9.99) makes it available to all in its intended audience.


Charles Cole
School of Information Studies
McGill University
August, 2013