published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 22 no. 1, March, 2017

Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Uppsala, Sweden, June 27-29, 2016

Seeking critical literacies in information practices: reconceptualising critical literacy as situated and tool-mediated enactments of meaning

Veronica Johansson and Louise Limberg

Introduction. This paper argues for a reconceptualisation of critical literacy into critical literacies as a merger of respective strengths in two traditions: the elaborate politicised conceptions of critical in associated literacy traditions, and the attention to situated enactments of meaning expressed in literacies approaches.
Method. Firstly, a selective conceptual review forms basis for the reconceptualisation of critical literacies. Secondly, this reconceptualisation is used to reinterpret a small convenience sample of information practices studies.
Analysis. Information practices studies are re-interpreted with particular attention to two main aspects of the critical literacies reconceptualisation in terms of evaluative and transformative enactments of meaning.
Results. The individual studies analysed can be reinterpreted as also describing critical literacies although, due to their alternative framings, not naming them as such and merely comprising a limited range of possible aspects.
Conclusion. Focus on situated enactments of critical literacy (critical literacies) can provide a topical addition to the analytical focus and explanatory realm of information practices studies. These studies in turn can help further explore the critical literacies concept and formulate relations between normative definitions and local practices. This requires, however, explicit and comprehensive attention to critical literacies beyond and across sites, tools and users in new ways.


We are moving fast and far beyond printed texts disseminated through formal channels towards a multitude of new technology, media and practices for information use, production and sharing. At similar pace, the focus on and requests for, critically informed approaches to and uses of these various information resources are also increasing. From national school curricula to international political agendas such as UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy (MIL) project (UNESCO, n.d.), critical literacy competences are strongly requested and prioritised. But the meanings and implications of critical literacy in these contexts are often unclear. They are frequently implied rather than explicated; theoretically underdeveloped; and markedly different from one context to another. Moreover, this vagueness characterises not only educational practice and political projects, but much associated theoretical and empirical research as well.

Within our own field of library and information science, we primarily find these consistently topical issues regarding users’ abilities to approach rapidly evolving and diversifying information resources in critical ways addressed in studies explicitly labelled as concerned with ‘critical literacy’ or ‘critical information literacy’, but also more generally as ‘information literacy’ or ‘information literacies’. The preferred label usually indicates whether critical aspects constitute sole focus and/or are treated as a literacy on its own, or if they are seen as a dimension of, or ‘add-on’ to, information literacy/information literacies in a broader sense.

The demarcation and relations between critical literacy and information literacy as labels, however, are of no interest here. Focus is instead directed towards two different traditions that seem distinguishable in relation to the central concept information literacy. One of these places its main focus on the ‘critical’, the other on ‘literacies’, resulting in different strengths and weaknesses concerning the issue at hand. What are, in this paper, described as mainly ‘critical’ orientations are closely associated with the traditional concerns of critical literacy/critical information literacy. Contributions in this critical tradition tend to be strong in their broad and elaborate conceptions of ‘critical’, but comparatively theoretically aloof and disconnected from actual practices. Studies that emphasise the plural form of literacies, on the other hand, have a forceful direct empirical focus on the ‘actual’ practices of real people in different contexts, but rarely attend explicitly to critical aspects in the elaborate sense of the previous orientation.

If not deliberately addressed, these differences might lead to dissonance and incompatibility between these two research traditions. However, with a coordination of the conceptual and theoretical foundations of each – as in the “critical literacies” reconceptualisation suggested in this paper – the interests of both are merged and made empirically applicable for comprehensive studies. As a result, a new and topical analytical focus for information practices studies can be added to the already existing approaches. And conversely, through enabling comprehensive empirical explorations of critical literacies as situated practices, we might also begin to explore, better understand and develop critical literacies as both concept and research domain. It is against this background that the aim of this paper is set to explore the feasibility and usefulness for the broader research area of information practices of such a reconceptualisation of critical literacy into critical literacies, merging the strengths of the ‘critical’ orientation with the strengths of the ‘literacies’ movements.

The paper consists of two main parts: one conceptual and one empirical. The first part provides a brief comment on the histories and central features of the ‘critical’ and ‘literacies’ research traditions. In closing, we suggest a reconceptualisation in terms of critical literacies which integrates the respective strengths of each. In the second part, we present the results of a first and tentative reinterpretation of empirical findings of prior information practices studies in light of this reconceptualisation. Finally, in the concluding discussion, we point to theoretical benefits and methodological requirements of further comprehensive exploration of critical literacies as topical addition to information practices research.

Part I: A reconceptualisation into critical literacies

For the brief discussion on the roots and central characteristics of the ‘critical’ and ‘literacies’ research traditions presented below, works of both conceptual, theoretical and empirical character are invoked. The scope also transcends literacy traditions in library and information science to include correspondences in education and pedagogy since the disciplinary influences and overlaps seem to outweigh potential discrepancies (c.f. also Lupton and Bruce, 2010, p. 4). In closing, the strengths of each tradition are merged into the suggested critical literacies reconceptualisation, thereupon further elaborated with sociocultural and sociotechnical theories.

The ‘critical orientation’

The roots of critical literacy/critical information literacy are usually and primarily traced back to the Frankfurt school and critical theory in the 1920s and to the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s theories on critical pedagogy from the 1940s onwards. These different roots, however, can also be more specifically connected to two different takes on what the ‘critical’ in critical literacy/critical information literacy does or should imply. These are described here below in terms of evaluative and transformative aspects.

Evaluative aspects

What are here referred to as evaluative aspects of critical literacy/critical information literacy comprise central yet strikingly different interpretations both within and between library and information science and professional practice, respectively.

In library practice and instruction programs, critical literacy/critical information literacy has often been defined and taught in simplified and limiting ways as fixed and narrow sets of criteria and skills for evaluating the quality, reliability and hence (supposed) suitability of information sources, independently of context and purpose. Such approaches tend to construct and uphold dualistic relations between users and information, and evaluation thereby becomes a means whereby users are restricted to accepting or rejecting a source as right or wrong, good or bad. Accordingly, such views have also been heavily critiqued in academia (e.g., Johansson, 2009; Kapitzke, 2003a; Limberg et al., 2012; Sundin and Francke, 2009; Talja et al., 2005).

More sophisticated takes on the critical, evaluative aspects of literacy are instead found, not least, in library and information science approaches that resonate with the formerly mentioned ideas on political and economic philosophy, Marxism, and class struggle associated with the Frankfurt school and Critical Theory (c.f. Vasquez, 2012, p. 467). Consequently, researchers in this tradition attend to the sociocultural, historical, economic, political, ideological and structural forces and processes of relevance to information and knowledge construction, justification, organisation, representation, use and exchange with associated problems. They ask who have (and who have not) power, control and access; to what, how, and with what consequences (e.g., Andersen, 2006; Hansson, 1999; Johansson, 2009, 2012; Kapitzke, 2003a; Pawley, 2003; Pilerot and Lindberg, 2011; Simmons, 2005).

Still, even beyond simplified skills lists and “good-bad” notions of source criticism, a significant trait of this evaluative tradition as described here is the comparatively passive construction of the information user as a recipient. In this construction, the information user is more or less restricted to accepting, rejecting or at the most critiquing the information sources and structures encountered, an evaluation described to depend upon a necessary ‘critical distance’ between subject and object. The roles and functions of information users’ active agency are found instead in traditions that focus on transformative aspects.

Transformative aspects

Beyond learning to ‘see’ and ‘see through’ problems of information as emphasised by evaluative aspects of critical literacy/critical information literacy, there is also, of course, the opportunity to go further by actively engaging in actions intended to change or transform information and its associated processes and structures. And as mentioned, a particularly prominent figure and forerunner of such ideas is the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire. Despite varieties in definitions, a common baseline as described from the educational disciplines is that ideas in this tradition somehow concern “… unequal power relations – and issues of social justice and equity – in support of diverse learners” (Vasquez, 2012, p. 467) aiming towards the “… reshaping of political consciousness, material conditions, and social relations as first principles” (Luke, 2012, p. 7).

As with the critical theory/Frankfurt school, the critical tradition of Paolo Freire too departed from Marxism, but also phenomenological philosophies (Luke, 2012, p. 5). Focus was also more specifically aimed to counteract unbalanced relations between institutionalised and local/alternative knowledge. In opposition to institutional hegemony, Freire described a new purpose for education and pedagogy as aimed at transforming students from passive receivers of ‘knowledge’ into critically aware and active agents empowered to shape their learning to their own interests, and equipped with tools for conscious action towards liberation and social equality (Elmborg, 2006, p. 193; Freire, 2000/1972).

And as with the critical theory influence, we also find – although somewhat scarcer – library and information science correspondences to such Freirean revolutionary and transformative ideals. Researchers that refer to this perspective (e.g., Johansson, 2012; Kapitzke, 2003a; 2003b) emphasise that liberation and empowerment of the marginalised and oppressed involves a repositioning of information users: from comparatively passive recipients to more active agency as producers and actors. Kapitzke, e.g., advances in several publications critical literacy as a political issue concerning active engagement and empowerment whereby information users gain the power and abilities to act on information in accordance with their own interests (Kapitzke, 2003a, p. 49; 2003b, p. 61).

Critical literacy in this transformative tradition, then, is here defined as emphasising the importance, rights and abilities of information users to negotiate externally defined meanings and uses of information resources by reinterpretation, or by producing and disseminating entirely new information on their own. The goal is socio-political beyond the individual and, as summarised by Lupton and Bruce for a number of similar transformative takes on ‘critical’ in literacy approaches as concerned with the empowerment of individuals and groups “… to challenge the status quo and to effect social change” (2010, p. 5).

The ‘literacies movements’

The other tradition of relevance here, characterised by its ‘pluralisation’ of literacy into literacies, is – just as the critical movements described above – also constituted by different scholarly and long-term processes that cross disciplinary domains and research approaches. Of these, specific focus is placed in the following on three movements in particular: the new literacy studies, information literacies and new literacies. But although the examples share a common rejection of the singular form of “Literacy” as normative object of teaching, learning and policy programs, they are also disparate enough to resist description in terms of a unified ‘plural turn’ of literacy research. The discussion below therefore takes hold instead of two other aspects of interest that unite and divide. The first concerns the shared agreement on the social nature of practices; the other concerns different takes on whether certain ‘content’ and ‘media’/‘technology’ should be privileged or not.

Agreement on the social nature of practices

As mentioned, the movements associated with this pluralistic literacies tradition display significant differences, but on an overarching level, Gee (2000) identifies at least a shared situated approach as part of a more general “social turn” away from behaviourism and individualism. Accordingly, central motivations of the three movements included here are largely based on theories of the social nature of practices and of the sociocultural perspective, but with somewhat different emphases and outcomes.

New literacy studies as represented by Street (e.g., 1995; 2003) and Gee (e.g., 1991; 2000), for example, introduces a new theoretical and research paradigm for looking at literacy in which literacy is conceived as multifaceted, complex, ideological and contested practices, embedded in social, cultural contexts and power relations. The stance of new literacy studies against formal definitions and in favour of ethnographic studies of ‘real’, actual practices also constitutes by itself a clear political stance and action. The deferral of attention in this way redistributes values and power: away from the singular, autonomous and institutionalised notion of one, authorised, ‘Literacy’ to the multiple, context-embedded literacies of ‘the local’.

In similar ways, the reframing of information literacy as information literacies in the library and information science context was motivated by an explicit interest among a group of researchers in the Nordic context (c.f. edited publications by Hampson Lundh and Hedman, 2012; Hedman and Lundh, 2009) to get away from normative approaches dominating the information literacy field, such as a range of information literacy standards published by various institutions (e.g. the ALA; Cilip; and SCONUL). Instead, the idea was to openly explore the concept of information literacy applying coherent theoretical frameworks. Findings from conceptual analyses based in empirical studies framed by the theoretical perspectives phenomenography, sociocultural theory and discourse analysis led to the conclusion that the concept of information literacy is multifaceted and cannot be described in lists or standards as a series of abilities. Instead, the reconceptualisation of information literacies was preferred as expressing the view of literacy as shaped by and shaping various practices and therefore expressed in the plural (Limberg et al., 2012).

Finally, the new literacies research area as described by Lankshear and Knobel (2011) also fits in here by combining social practice theory with sociocultural theories to emphasise the mutual shaping of texts, contexts and (discursive and material) tools in social practices. All three approaches thus (new literacy studies, information literacies and new literacies) draw upon theories of social practices and sociocultural perspectives, with not least explicit addition of sociotechnical theories in certain library and information science counterparts (e.g. Johansson, 2012; Tuominen et al., 2005). However, the new literacies’ assumptions concerning ontological changes in the norms and values of ‘literacy practices’ as connected to or even determined by new digital technology also introduces a crucial theoretical and empirical divide.

Disagreement on ‘content’ and ‘media/technology’

Besides the focus on the social nature of practices, thus, the new literacies movement also proclaims a current shift from ‘old’ literacies associated with books and printed texts to ontologically ‘new’ literacies associated with digital technologies. New technologies, according to their view, have brought forth a set of new ‘ethos’ (new values and new ways of doing things), involving, for example, a shift from the singular, stable, linear and individualised towards the multiple, dynamic, non-linear and collaborative (c.f. Lankshear and Knoble, 2011). The new literacies assumptions therefore also have empirical consequences in terms of sifting out digital media as privileged research objects, and the ‘content’ of interest is thereby also delimited to ‘encoded texts’.

In contrast, new literacy studies and information literacies refrain from explicit delimitations in empirical focus, and remain instead primarily interested in open and exploratory approaches that focus on the situated and contextual as grounds for pluralising literacies, rather than on drawing lines between digital and non-digital; textual and non-textual. Open approaches of this latter type are expressed in a number of library and information science studies where researchers argue for extensions away from traditional foci on texts and associated media and technology. Importantly, this includes recognition of and attention to the physical body and sensory experiences as sources and ‘media’ of information (e.g., Lloyd, 2007; 2009); exploration of intersubjective distributed cognition processes involving people, tools and artefacts, and of social and discursive practices in everyday local contexts and workplace related communities of practice (e.g., Lipponen, 2010; Lloyd, 2011; Talja, 2005), as well as focusing on the more specific yet various mediating functions of technological tools and artefacts irrespective of whether these are digital or not (e.g., Johansson, 2012; Tuominen et al., 2005).

The reconceptualisation presented here in the following favours this latter, open approach, for both theoretical and empirical reasons. Firstly, our social constructionist approach entails that meanings cannot be explained by, or reduced to, technological characteristics alone. Secondly, and as mentioned, previous research shows that the information practices of people are not naturally delimited to one type of content or media alone, but consist of a multitude of simultaneously invoked sources, tools and modalities.

Critical literacies as situated and tool-mediated enactments of meaning

As demonstrated above, the ‘critical’ and ‘literacies’ traditions have many respective strengths, but are also clearly different and exist in relative isolation from each other. Admittedly, there have been some interesting and notable prior examples of models that attempt integration of both critical and situated aspects of various forms of literacy, such as Lupton and Bruce’s (2010) GeST windows model and Green’s (1988) 3D model of literacy. Nevertheless, the distinction remains even in these models as the ‘critical’ perspectives or dimensions in each are still kept apart from – rather than integrated with – what is separately described as cultural and situated practices. A fully integrative approach is instead suggested in this section that concludes the first part of this paper, emanating in the reconceptualisation of critical literacies.

A reconceptualisation of critical literacies as a merger of strengths in the critical and literacies traditions respectively would instead, according to the above, combine attention to sophisticated evaluative (in the sense of distanced scrutiny, evaluation and critique of information, structures and processes) and transformative (active agency to change status quo and power relations) aspects of critical literacy/critical information literacy whilst simultaneously conceiving of these as pluralistic, situated and tool-mediated enactments of meaning.

The understanding of critical literacies as situated is connected to the ‘social turn’ with its focus on the social nature of practices. Critical literacies, thus, should in similar ways be seen as social practices that arise and take form as the result of interactions between people, tools and artefacts within specific, social and cultural contexts as described not least in sociocultural theories. The specific mentioning of ‘tool-mediated’ in addition to this emphasises the potential for more elaborate exploration of the roles and functions of technological tools and artefacts as mediating critical literacy practices in sociotechnical and sociocultural senses.

The resulting combined focus on cultural and technological aspects as shaping and shaped by critical literacy practices also integrates the tension between stability and change expressed in related theories. The view provides argument for why literacies in the plural should not merely be about describing how information practices vary from one context to another; i.e., it should not merely be about supporting the pluralistic account by way of the quantities of localities studied. Importantly, it should also be about revealing and exploring the inherent dynamics of every interaction, at every instance of enactment within specific localities and contexts, as argued by Kress (2000). Such an understanding is brought forth by the sociocultural and sociotechnical contention that the relations between humans and tools are not fixed and predetermined, but dynamic and negotiable (e.g., Bowker and Star, 1999; Latour and Woolgar 1986/1979). Tools have ‘affordances of meaning’ in that they point, hint and guide, but never fully determine. Instead, their meanings are open to interpretation, differently perceived and used depending on a number of aspects invoked and relevant to each instance of user-tool interaction (c.f., Säljö, 2005, pp. 53–55). Every time we engage in information practices, we also engage with tools; thus there is also always potential dynamics. This theoretical view is even further emphasised by our choice to also describe critical literacies as ‘enactments of meaning’.

Through describing critical literacies as enactments of meaning, we underline the above, and emphasise more clearly another assumption, namely that besides the locally situated and dialogically evolving critical literacies, individuals and groups encounter, learn, become socialised into and ‘carry with them’ also the formal, powerful conceptions and definitions of critical literacy from earlier (e.g. school, library instruction) to later (work or everyday related) practices – what Brandt and Clinton (2002, p. 2) refer to as the “distant” literacies in the “local”. Importantly though, these external norms and ideas are not simply implemented ‘as is’, but become reinterpreted, appropriated, adapted, negotiated and perhaps even partially or fully discarded in relation to later needs and practices.

By placing focus on critical literacies as enactments of meaning, thus, we mean to include and attend to the ways in which the existence of such powerful (because of their connections to authoritative social and political institutions) ‘external’ (to the sites of many local information practices) conceptions of critical literacy affect information users’ actions and practices in more or less conscious ways, whilst simultaneously also making visible critical literacy practices with other and more local origins that exist alongside and complement these. Through enactments, information users ‘do’/’perform’/’play out’ abstract notions of critical literacy in their own situated ways, a view also said to resolve the “global-local” controversies of literacy research, describing instead what Street (2003, p. 80) calls “hybrid” literacies.

Part II: Seeking critical literacies in information practices

As a follow-up to the reconceptualisation of critical literacies above, we present in the following a first and tentative (re-)analysis of a small convenience sample of previously published information practices studies. We do not purport to present on the basis of this anything more than educated guesses and suggestions of likely possibilities of reinterpretation, but this was deemed enough for the here attempted illustrative rather than conclusive purposes. As described above, the presentation in the following is structured under the two main aspects of critical literacy found in the conceptual review in terms of “evaluative” and “transformative”, but with the noteworthy difference that focus is now on examples that express pluralistic, locally situated enactments of these. Focus is, in other words, on examples of these two types of critical literacies.

Enactments of the evaluative

Information practices studies with findings that relate to enactments of evaluative aspects of critical literacies seem particularly common in studies of information seeking and use set in formal educational settings, which, of course, is hardly surprising. It is in these formal educational settings of primarily schools and libraries that evaluation and source criticism are particularly valued and cultivated, often in the form of lists of skills serving as formal objects of teaching and learning. Naturally, then, information users in these settings (pupils and students) are also likely to more closely adjust to, express and enact, the views and expectations cultured within. And many studies, for similar obvious reasons, adjust their focus towards exploring – from critical or merely observing perspectives – these types of enactments. Accordingly, aspects of ‘critical’ in focus for such studies often concern source criticism, credibility and evaluation.

One example of such a study was conducted by Francke and Sundin, focusing on educators’ ways of conceptualising the credibility of participatory digital information resources, in particular Wikipedia (Francke and Sundin, 2012). Two out of four approaches described in this study were more or less recognisable from traditional source evaluation criteria. In the first approach, the educators grounded credibility on control, through knowing or checking the author or institution generating the source. Factors of interest comprised estimations of the author’s expertise, the purpose of the source, and its perceived stability. In the second approach, the educators also linked credibility to possibilities to compare the consistency of claims between different sources in a sort of quantitative enactment of credibility assessment.

Other studies set in educational contexts have identified a strong focus among pupils on information seeking as fact-finding, where ‘facts’ are seen as answers to questions and are considered to be neutral and true (Gärdén et al., 2014). Such enactments of meaning seem to constitute adherence to, or adaptations of, norms and values mediated in formal education through authoritative generic ‘skills lists’ emphasising critical literacy/critical information literacy as ability to distinguish between ‘facts’ and ‘opinion’ or between ‘factual information’ and ‘value-laden sources’.

Interestingly, radically different aspects come forth when focus is shifted to outside formal and controlled educational and similar settings. In Lloyd’s studies of Australian firefighters (Lloyd, 2007) and ambulance officers (Lloyd, 2009), e.g., it is shown how, besides textual and codified resources, the scene of a fire or a person that is ill become for these professionals information resources of a markedly different character than the manuals, books, lectures, and arranged exercises that had previously served as main information resources during formal education. New forms and modalities of information are introduced on site and in the practical line of carrying out the actual work – such as sound, vision, sensation, observation and interpretation of the actions and reactions of more experienced co-workers – and the practitioners experience and take in this information through their bodies and senses. ‘Fire sense’, the firefighters explained, could not be acquired merely by reading about it (Lloyd, 2007, p. 188). Similar findings also came out of Sauer (1998) and Somerville and Abrahamsson (2003) in their studies on workers in the mining industry.

Common for these latter studies is that the information and knowledge gathered from direct interaction ‘on site’ and ‘in practices’ becomes compared to the original information resources of formal education (books, lectures, exercises). As a consequence, these codified, formal resources come to lose status and value. The constraints of formal sources due to their decontextualised, generic character is made visible through the direct interaction with other information resources.

In a different context, a study of professional users of data visualisation tools found that the study participants were seen at times to position themselves as either consciously or unexpectedly evaluating data in various ways. For these different ‘evaluative’ enactments of meaning, the users invoked many ‘tools’ in various ways, such as distantly, a priori and authoritatively formulated generic ‘knowledge’ of data as information resource in general; professional knowledge unique to their personal, long-term workplace experience; and spontaneous, unexpected affordances of the technological platforms and designs of the visualisation tools (c.f., Johansson, 2012, pp. 205–207).

Although briefly discussed, the examples above combine to paint a picture of the enactments of evaluative critical literacies as both varied (between contexts) and dynamic (within contexts).

Enactments of the transformative

Studies of information practices matching the enactments of so-called transformative critical literacies seem particularly prominent in situations concerning important decision making or transitions between one context to another involving choices of identity, career, professional roles and strategies with related aspects of tension, conflict, and power. One example is found in Sundin’s (2003) study of nurses pursuing individual careers and (contested) professional projects in the workplace; another in Hultgren’s (2009) study on students deciding between higher study programs and occupational choices upon leaving school; and a third in Rivano Eckerdal’s (2012) study on young persons choosing contraceptives. The critical aspects here concern abilities to further personal and community-related empowerment and political and power related goals; self-fulfilment and possibilities to lead good and healthy lives, make informed decisions and partake in democratic processes, contributing to social equality. The study participants’ seeking, choosing, analysing, adapting, and passing on information from resources selected according to personal and/or political interest criteria, not least, reveal a number of interesting patterns and practices.

Another example can be found in the study on data visualisation tool users by Johansson (2012, pp. 207-209) which – among other practices – also describes user enactments with the intent to simultaneously question and tear down or overthrow the knowledge monopoly of more powerful actors. Several times, this concerned the distribution of both power and money. As tools for this, the users took hold of, e.g., discursive constructions emphasising their data as ‘facts’ and the visualisations as ‘true’ and ‘objective’. They also restricted or removed exploratory interaction possibilities in favour of focusing on static visualisations that portrayed the desired ‘image’. If not succeeding to overthrow power hierarchies, then the data and visualisation tools at least functioned to open room for more voices and alternative viewpoints in contested issues, which is also to be considered as enactments of critical literacies of transformative (empowering and democratising) character.

A further possible example of this type of transformative critical literacies might also be found in the previously mentioned study of educators’ credibility assessment of Wikipedia as information resource by Francke and Sundin (2012), whereby one of four strategies was to consider Wikipedia as information resource in light of the situation and the way in which it was intended to be used. The authors describe this as a kind of situated and relative approach, and it is possible to reinterpret this as a positional shift whereby the information users move away from the passive recipient position where possible actions are limited to an acceptance or rejection of an information source based on a number of critical evaluations. In this example, the users become instead active subjects, reinterpreting the credibility of a specific Wikipedia entry to suit their own needs and interests after a situated relevance judgement. One and the same user might therefore also think differently about the credibility of one and the same entry, depending on situation and purpose. The educators, in other words, constructed the credibility of Wikipedia and its entries in different ways for different purposes.

As with the evaluative enactments, these possible examples of transformative critical literacies also suggest a wide variety of enactments , both across and within various contexts.


As the tools through which we encounter and interact with information are constantly and rapidly increasing in both quantity and diversity, we can expect more and new challenges for information users and their abilities to approach and use information resources in critical ways. Sociocultural and sociotechnical theories on meanings as locally situated and tool-mediated further suggest that we also can expect ever more varied enactments of critical literacies. Therefore, if research on critical aspects of information production and use within library and information science is to keep up with the developments and needs in this area – from education and policy to research and everyday information practices – it is important not to lose the connection between the critical literacy and information literacies traditions and the conceptual, theoretical and empirical progress made within each. To this end, the reconceptualisation of critical literacies as suggested here represents such a synthesis of strengths in each tradition: the broad understanding of ‘critical’ in the ‘critical orientation’, with the pluralistic, situated empirical focus of ‘literacies movements’.

Through the tentative analysis conducted on prior information practices studies, we found that approaches and findings in these studies also can be recast and analysed in terms of critical literacies. However, these enactments are spread out with rather a limited register of expressions apparent in each study. The study by Johansson (2012), however, demonstrates that information users can, and most likely often do, shift and move at different times between most conceivable expressions of critical literacies, although not for the same purpose, nor always within the same context or practice. Without additions of comprehensive studies with explicit interest in critical literacy enactments, thus, the potential full range of users’ critical literacies will not be made visible.

The above, of course, is not to say that there is anything wrong with the body of information practices studies referred here: theirs have been other foci altogether, and their results are highly interesting and valuable as they are. Rather, we want to show that there is additional and unexploited potential within the existing framework of information practices studies to also, in part or in full, directly target or indirectly relate studies and findings to discussions and explorations of enactments of critical literacies; on their range, variation, nature and characteristics. With terminological consistency and analytical co-ordination, we might begin to form an overview and comprehensive understanding of the complex and multifaceted aspects associated with critical literacies as defined here.

Further, empirical studies of critical literacies need not be restricted to particular sites, contexts and practices but can – and must – also be centred on technological and discursive tools and individual or groups of information users, all of which expand beyond or travel across sites and practices. People and tools are not confined to one site and, as shown by Moring (2011) in a study of newly recruited sales assistants, the individual trajectories of moving across sites and communities of practice greatly influences individual experience and actions. Such approaches could thereby pave the way for topical studies on variation and commonality concerning the nature and function of tools and their affordances across the broadening spectrum of resources for information production and use today.

Based on our elaborations here of critical literacies as concept and situated enactments of meaning, we conclude that they comprise a complex set of mutually shaping components involving external and formal definitions and teachings of critical literacy and information literacy; less or not at all formalised cultural and context-bound social practices and tacit and embodied knowledge; strategic reinterpretation, mobilisation and production of alternative information; and interaction-originating user-tool/technology/modality negotiations and co-constructions of meaning. But many more empirical studies are needed in order to gain a better understanding of the nature and relations of the enactments of critical literacies: “How are they done?”

From here, we foresee a number of interesting questions for the future, in particular: what tools, affordances, strategies, contexts and practices are central to the enactments of critical literacies; when do users shift from one enactment to another; how is this transition accomplished; how conscious are the users of enacting various meanings or of shifting between them; and what consequences can be associated with the users’ enactments in each instance? From the analysis here, we also anticipate interesting opportunities to use the concept of critical literacies as a topical addition to the current analytical objects of information practices studies in several ways but primarily asking what critical literacies actually are – i.e., as they are enacted by information users in various situations – rather than focusing on what we think they ought to, or ought not to, be, or how well or poorly individuals manage to “implement” preconceived and externally originating notions of the same.


We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for constructive comments that helped sharpen arguments and broaden the examples further. Thank you also to our colleague at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, Professor Annemaree Lloyd, for helpful reading of an earlier draft of the paper.

About the authors

Dr. Veronica Johansson is Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, S-501 90 Borås, Sweden. Her research interests primarily concern critical aspects of information literacies (critical literacies), visualisations of data, and interaction design/human-computer interaction. In her dissertation she explored critical literacies in user interactions with visualisations of data. She can be contacted at veronica.johansson@hb.se
Dr. Louise Limberg is Senior Professor of Library and Information Science at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, S-501 90 Borås, Sweden. Her research interests mainly concern the interaction between information seeking and use, and learning, linked to issues of information literacy. In recent years Louise has also devoted research interest to studying local historical perspectives of Library and Information Science as well as the Swedish history of school librarianship. She can be contacted at louise.limberg@hb.se


How to cite this paper

Johansson, V & Limberg, L (2017). Seeking critical literacies in information practices: reconceptualising critical literacy as situated and tool-mediated enactments of meaning. Information Research, 22(1), CoLIS paper 1611. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/22-1/colis/colis1611.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6oUCQ6ufM)

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