Information Worlds

This page describes the theory of Information Worlds, which is one of the two theories being used in my dissertation. If you have any thoughts or questions, let me know!

Information Worlds Theory

Information Worlds is a very versatile theory that can be used with a variety of methods, and focuses on describing information in social contexts, ranging from very small and local contexts (e.g. an academic department) to the larger contexts in which those are embedded (e.g. a university) (Jaeger & Burnett, 2010).

Information Worlds focuses on the social aspects of information in settings of all sizes, from very localized contexts to broader social contexts, and the interactions between those multiple worlds. It draws upon Elfreda Chatman’s concept of small worlds (see, e.g., Burnett, Besant, & Chatman, 2001)  and Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the lifeworld (see Habermas, 1992) – the “collective information and social environment that weaves together the diverse information resources, voices, and perspectives” across a culture as a whole (Jaeger & Burnett, 2010, p. 26). The theory argues that individual information worlds are never isolated. Instead, they overlap, intersect, and interact in a variety of ways, all of which has an impact on how information is conceptualized and used within and across worlds.

The Five Concepts

Information Worlds is comprised of a set of five interconnected concepts: Social Norms, Social Types, Information Value, Information Behavior, and Boundaries. The concepts of Social Norms, Social Types, and Information Behavior are derived directly from the work of Chatman (Burnett et al., 2001), while Information Value significantly revises her concept of Worldview. Finally, the concept of Boundaries, while related to concepts such as Boundary Objects (see, e.g., Star, 1989), is new to this theory.

Social Norms refers to those agreed-upon observable behaviors that are common and accepted within a world. These norms may govern behaviors such as dress styles or appropriate modes of interaction. They may range from highly formalized explicit norms (including laws, acceptable use policies, etc.) to often unspoken norms governing more implicit patterns of behavior, which must be inferred through observation.

Social Types refers to perceptions of the roles played by individuals within a world. Like Social Norms, Social Types may be explicit, and defined by clearly stated positions an individual holds in a world. Or they could be implicit, emerging from the ways others interact with an individual. For example, an individual may fulfill the Social Type of a leader either by holding a defined position (e.g. a team captain) or simply because other members of the world simply tend to defer to that individual for guidance without formal recognition of leadership.

Information Value designates an agreed-upon hierarchy of the importance of different types of information within a world. It includes a spectrum from high to low (or no) value, and delineates the variety of ways in which value can be measured (e.g. economic vs. artistic value). For example, one world may consider information about politics to be of extremely high value, while another world may care little for political information. Because perceptions about value are often contested, there may be disagreements within a world about degrees of value, and interactions between different worlds can often take the form of conflicts about information value.

Information Behavior refers to the full range of normative activities and practices related to information within a world. These include information seeking, informal information exchange, information hoarding, sharing, archiving, collecting, avoiding etc. It also refers to practices and beliefs related to appropriate or inappropriate information sources within a world. For example, one world may particularly value libraries as information sources, and thus information seeking within them is a desirable behavior, while another world may emphasize interpersonal information sharing as the preferred form of information acquisition.

Boundaries are those places at which information worlds come into contact, across which information may (or may not) cross. Boundaries may be permeable or impermeable, virtual or physical, etc. Worlds may be contiguous (as in two nations that share a border), embedded (as in a state that is embedded within a larger nation), or overlapping. They may, further, be agreed-upon or contested, and may be explicitly defined or implicit. As with the other concepts, the precise form of boundaries may vary across worlds.

3 Js and a G

3 Js and a G includes three doctoral candidates and one faculty member, who meet weekly to construct and discuss the Information Worlds theory, which is being used in three methodologically diverse dissertation projects. A key component of the research group is the creation of an Information Worlds codebook that can be used in content analysis across all three projects. By frequently sharing feedback and working together, the codebook and subsequent coding it is used for have the potential to be much stronger than a codebook created by a single author, and to be applicable across a wider variety of contexts.

The three projects reach across a wide spectrum of interests. Julia Skinner’s project uses archival materials to engage in theory testing and to describe the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library from 1920-1942. Jisue Lee’s project focuses on social network and content analyses of political tweets surrounding the elections in South Korea, and interviews with Twitter users identified as opinion leaders. Finally, Jonathan Hollister’s project focuses on an ethnographic exploration and description of the role-playing community in WildStar, a recently released Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG).


For more information, see:

Jaeger, P.T. & Burnett, G. (2010). Information Worlds: Social Context, Technology, and Information Behavior in the Age of the Internet. New York, NY: Routledge.


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