The end of the reading summaries

Pettigrew, K. E., & McKechnie, L. E. F. (2001). The use of theory in information science research. Journal of The American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52(1), 62–73.

Shera, J. H. (1972). Communication, culture, and the library. In The foundations of education for librarianship (pp. 81–108). New York: Wiley.

Webber, S. (2003). Information science in 2003: a critique. Journal of Information Science, 29(4), 311–330.

I hope that I can admit without fear of reprisal that in my reading this semester, when a discipline makes the transition from those papers that make a grand call for a theory (whether in information science, communication processes or even my own field of media studies) to the actual research that is produced in support of those clarion calls, I am repeatedly rather disheartened. In preparation for the last class, we read Bush (1945), who may have been a little bit dreamy when he wrote of the Memex, and its potential to change the world. This week we read Pettigrew and McKechnie (2001), who, in their search to discover whether or not Information Science researchers refer to theories, code journal articles and reduce their findings to a number (34% of articles in IS, as it turns out, refer to theory). While this might be useful, it seems like an awful lot of work for a few percentages that could be reasonably guessed at by a reader well-versed in the literature. And it reminds me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the meaning of life is also reduced to a single number. To my mind, it’s oversimplification. At any rate, in their study of 1160 articles, they found an average of less than one theory cited per article, and concluded that most of the theories originated in the social sciences (45.4%) or in IS itself (29.9%). Pettigrew & McKechnie write that “if fields such as information science (IS) are to delineate disciplinary boundaries… then they require their own theoretical bases” (p. 62). They seem to be saying that IS doesn’t count as a discipline without theory of its own.

Shera (1972) writes that “It is man’s capacity for organizing information into large and complex configurations, and his ability to transmit that information to other men, that is the great glory of the human species” (p. 84). In this way, he seems to be echoing Carey (1989), who quotes Dewey as saying that “of all things, communication is the most wonderful” (p. 13). Shera also agrees with Carey in advocating a cultural view of communication (though Shera applies this to Information Science and library studies where Carey uses it for media studies). In other words, they seem to be performing the same task for their respective disciplines: arguing that communication creates culture. Shera also discusses secondary communication, where a graphic record—writing or pictures—intervenes between the two people who are communicating. Shera then launches, appropriately, into a history of the library, which is the physical manifestation of the accrual of culture. (He quotes Alfred North Whitehead who gives credit to writing for the intellectual progress of mankind, and without citing him, invokes Brookes (1980), in arguing for Popper’s World III as the basis for IS research.) Shera writes that libraries began as elite private institutions and gradually became aggressively democratic institutions such as the public library with its drive to bring knowledge to the common man (p. 106). He argues, stirringly, that libraries can be instruments of social cohesion.

Webber (2003), however, finds less cohesion in the field of IS, as she sets out to determine the then-current status of the discipline. She concludes that, yes, IS is a discipline, though it is one of varied approaches and research problems. In embracing this diversity, she seems to side against those who would call IS “fragmentary.” She also dismisses writers such as Pettigrew & McKechnie who believe that a discipline needs a grand theory and focused research methods to be a discipline at all. She cites a growing body of research, and an international community of researchers as proof that it is a discipline. She outlines the idea of hard vs. soft and pure vs. applied, saying that Pettigrew & McKechnie are criticizing IS for not being a hard, pure science (one that uses empirical research to support explanatory theory). But Webber writes that IS is clearly an applied science, one in which the research is often directly applicable to practitioners, and one that includes both hard and soft elements in its research. Using this schema, she shows that the internecine debates of IS are not unique—and exist in many disciplines. As a British writer, she devotes the second half of her literature review to the state of Information Science in the UK.

Being somewhat skeptical of grand unifying theories and an over-emphasis on quantitative research, I tend to want to agree with Webber’s conclusion that the various “specialisms” that she identifies can all contribute to a more complicated vision of information science than a grand, unifying theory would seem to support.

But hey, that’s just me.

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