Metatheory in Library and Information Science: A Nascent Social Justice Approach

Article excerpt

This article explores the use of metatheory as an integrative conceptual tool that can help analyze, direct, and enhance theory building, professional practice, and professional preparation in LIS. The field's historic under-examination of metatheories is addressed, the nature of metatheory is explicated, and an emergent social justice metatheory for LIS is introduced, with the intention of encouraging discussion and increasing awareness of both metatheoretical approaches and social justice in LIS.

Keywords: metatheory, social justice, LIS education, theory-building, conceptual analysis


It is no secret that the information professions are functioning in increasingly complex environments, necessitating new perspectives for preparatory curricula and new theories for research and practice. Indeed, the need to develop, teach, and apply theory in LIS remains acute (Buckland, 2003; Hj0rland, 2000; Thompson, 2009), and in response, LIS researchers and practitioners have created many useful conceptual frameworks, models, and theories (Pettigrew & McKechnie, 2001; Fisher, Erdelez, & McKechnie, 2005).

In line with these efforts, the development, teaching, and application of metatheory can also bring critical clarity to challenges faced by LIS educators, students, researchers, and practitioners. Briefly, a metatheory is a set of assumptions that orient and direct theorizing about a given phenomenon (Lawler & Ford, 1993). The use and development of metatheory has long been considered a necessary component for the growth of theory in the social sciences (Alexander, 1982; Wagner & Berger, 1985). By extending theory and metatheory in a discipline, subsequent professional preparation and practice can also be enhanced.

Although coverage of metatheory is somewhat scarce in LIS literature, approaches that can be used as metatheory have been developed (or borrowed) in the field in recent years, including phenomenology (Budd, 2005), everyday information practices (Savolainen, 2008), affective aspects of information (Nahl, 2007), and serious leisure (Hartel, 2005). But the application of metatheory in LIS has been limited. LIS theories frequently carry within them implicit metatheories, but they are often vaguely expressed, diminishing their usefulness (Bates, 2006; Vakkari, 1997).

Social justice is one such metatheory that is under-developed in LIS. This is not to say that social justice activity has been lacking in the field. On the contrary, the information professions have long been associated with inclusiveness, civic- mindedness, and concern for the poor and under-served (e.g., Chatman, 1987; Childers & Post, 1975; Forsyth, 2005; Venturella, 1998). Discourse on the field's association with these and other values often takes a human rights emphasis (e.g., Phenix & McCook, 2005; Samek, 2007; Samek & Rioux, 2008) or an ethics emphasis (e.g., Carbo & Smith, 2008; Cordeiro, 2009; Fleischmann, Robbins, & Wallace, 2009). The explicit term "social justice" is also now appearing with regularity in the literature (e.g., Britz, 2008; Jimerson, 2007; Mehra, Albright, & Rioux, 2006), but few studies of LIS are explicitly guided by established social justice theories, despite the social justice orientation that is implicit in many LIS works.

This article addresses the under-examination and lack of application of both metatheories and explicit, established forms of social justice in LIS education, research, and practice. The next section is an introduction to metatheory, distinguishing it as an integrating conceptual device. Following this introduction, diverse typologies of social justice that are especially relevant to LIS are reviewed.

From these literature-based conceptual analyses, a nascent articulation of a social justice metatheory is presented as a promising emergent tool that can be used to analyze and direct theory building and professional practice as well as enhance LIS curricula. …


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