A Critical Approach to Engaging Communities in Information Behavior Research

A Critical Approach to Engaging Communities in Information Behavior Research

Jia Tina Du
UniSA STEM, University of South Australia
Clara M. Chu
Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Helen Partridge
Deakin Learning Futures, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Human-information interactions tend to be studied as isolated events. In reality, most human interactions, including those associated with information behaviors, are informed by individuals’ association/connection with their communities. A person’s community or communities inform their identity, belonging, behavior, and knowledge. Such influences shaping individual everyday experiences cannot be ignored, given that human-information interaction is a social phenomenon (Veinot et al., 2013). However, research on information, service and technology interventions to date still focus on influences at the individual level, neglecting the social contexts of information behavior. This narrow gaze has resulted in information behavior research that tends to be one-sided, researcher-led information behavior inquiry. This article spotlights a community-engaged approach in information behavior research. We invite library and information science (LIS) researchers to rethink their approach to research and engage in a discussion on a new methodological framework for community-engaged information behavior (CEIB) research when studying human-information interactions.

—Community groups benefit from having a greater voice and influence in their concerns and the hope for better outcomes—

Why does community engagement matter in information behavior research?

Fundamentally, community engagement in research involves researchers and communities working together to address co-identified community issues (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2008; Preece, 2017). Community groups benefit from having a greater voice and influence in their concerns and the hope for better outcomes, especially for marginalized and disadvantaged groups (Pateman & Williment, 2016).

Existing information behavior research on individuals or groups is inadequate in revealing the complexity of reality and its impact on communities to which individuals belong. Often, research has overlooked the positionality of these individuals, as members of a community, in their shared context as a social unit, and in connection to the broader community structure. Consequently, social effects such as community development and social change are rarely studied in information behavior research.

Engaging communities in information behavior research accounts for the complexity that exists in human information behavior in the real world, which generates relevant, valuable and useful research findings. These will contribute to more effective design and deployment of information and technology interventions that respond to the unique needs of a community.

What may constitute a community-engaged research approach?

Some research in LIS is starting to consider more intentional participation of the community, which has been observed in other areas and disciplines, such as human-computer interaction (Carroll & Rosson, 2007), community-based participatory research in public health (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2008), and the ‘intellectual soup’ framework in Indigenous archaeologies and shared knowledges (Smith, Copley Sr, & Jackson, 2018). Community engagement calls for collaboration and synergy between researchers and community stakeholders to better understand the socio-materiality of information artifacts embedded in various contexts.

Different from traditional user-centered approaches to information behavior, community-engaged research puts emphasis on the active participation and capacity-building of community members and the direct improvement of their local conditions. With community engagement at the heart of information behavior research, participants become co-researchers, and the focus of study moves from information seeking to problem solving and community development.

How can community-engaged information behavior (CEIB) research be conducted?

A CEIB methodological framework (Du & Chu, 2022) is proposed to advance a new approach to study human-information interactions and guide information behavior researchers to practice community-engaged inquiries. It is grounded in five principles that serve as the foundation for how CEIB research is undertaken. Applying the principles, research is jointly negotiated, where researcher and community understand their roles, define the research objectives, and anticipate outcomes and impacts. It is asset-based and considers principles, roles, research methods, and community-researcher impacts.

Principle 1. Starts with the community: Focusing on the community, involving the community equitably.

Principle 2. Emphasizes collaboration: Creating collaborative and collective space, co-designing, and co-creating.

Principle 3. Focuses on being useful: Acknowledging community interests and concerns and building community capacity.

Principle 4. Employs appropriate and diverse methods: Applying research methods that are appropriate to the community context and facilitate authentic data collection.

Principle 5. Affirms reciprocity: Building trust and partnerships.

The characteristics of CEIB research entail a shift:

  • from prioritizing knowledge contribution/building to community problem-solving and understanding (developing both expert knowledge and community knowledge),
  • from academic discourse to authentic discourse,
  • from community as object to also as subject in the research,
  • from community as contributor to also as beneficiary of the research,
  • from research as transactional to transformational, and
  • from community as respondent to co-creator/designer.

The framework specifies the who, what, why, how, where and when and relates each of these characteristics to the actors and their roles in CEIB research, and the outcome of their engagement in said research. The community side has context experts who hold community context knowledge/expertise, and the academic side has research domain experts, who are versed in subject and research knowledge/expertise. These experts are participants in CEIB research with distinct vantage points, and positionalities. They engage intentionally in every aspect of the research process and develop a culture of engagement that has a mutually beneficial outcome.

(Actor/Participant’s vantage)
  Intentional engagement  
Characteristics Context knowledge/expertise [Context experts] Subject and research knowledge/expertise  [Research domain experts] Culture of engagement Outcome of engagement in CEIB research
Who Community members, representatives, organizations, intermediaries and proxies   Information behavior researchers Shared understanding of roles, contributions and recognition   From distinct positions, both uncover a common sense of purpose, the community is more aware of themselves as context experts and researchers acknowledge their position/role as information behavior and research experts
What Community needs, culture, experiences, concerns, priorities, communication in language community uses and understands Theory, research methods, subject matter (information behavior), objectives, often in language that only subject and research experts understand Recognition of knowledge each has that will be exchanged; collaboratively formulating the research goals, engaging with people around their aspirations, their concerns, and how they see their community   Appreciation of the needs and expertise that informs the research, the community is more aware of themselves as actors of information behavior and researchers acknowledge their knowledge in CEIB research design, implementation and dissemination
Why Community problem-solving and understanding of information behavior Contribution to knowledge building in information behavior of communities of interest Understanding the collective impact of resulting shared work and the reciprocity taking place   Recognition of the distinct interests, enabling the setting of realistic goals related to understanding information behavior, co-developing the research, and the resulting impact of knowledge about community information behavior
How Capabilities and socio-cultural practices Ask and instruct, objective-driven, often in language that only subject and research experts understand Creating collaborative and collective space, building community capacity, acknowledging authenticity or established practices, engaging in process observation; communicating in a language that fosters understanding and reduces confusion   Grounding the decisions and process in what matters to the community regarding what will be learned about the information behavior of said community, and working from an understanding that the participants hold the knowledge of information behavior being studied, and can communicate in their preferred language
Where In community space In space conducive to research and considered accessible by researcher Negotiating the location/medium that is accessible and familiar, understanding the benefits and barriers   Consideration of the local community environment in order to ensure that the location is accessible and the conditions enhance the ability to gather authentic information behavior data
When Availability and socio-cultural practices Availability and research practices, limited research and funding period Negotiating the time, understanding the ease and limitations/inconvenience, understanding the time and long-term sustainability of research engagement   Identification of the relevant time to conduct the research for greater impact allows the community to share knowledge of information behavior at an appropriate time (e.g., convenient, culturally relevant), and the researcher to plan for data collection at such times
The CEIB methodological framework: Roles and engagement in a collective, collaborative, constructive, equitable, and reciprocal space/process. [note: the framework table content is cut and pasted from the original article]

With the emphasis of infusing community engagement in information behavior research, the framework aims to foster knowledge production that is participatory, promoting researchers working with community and community having agency in the research process. The CEIB approach may vary in its application in specific research projects and community contexts. We encourage information behavior researchers to join this methodological project, critically discussing, testing, extending, and refining the proposed framework.

The original article on which this essay is based

Du, J. T., & Chu, C.M. (2022). Toward community-engaged information behavior research: A methodological framework. Library & Information Science Research, 44 (4).


Carroll, J.M., & Rosson, M.B. (2007). Participatory design in community informatics. Design Studies, 28, 243-261.

Minkler, M. & Wallerstein, N. (2008). Introduction to community based participatory research. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds). Community based participatory research for health (2nd ed., pp. 3-26). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Pateman, J., & Williment, K. (2016). Developing community-led public libraries: Evidence from the UK and Canada. Routledge: London.

Preece, J. (2017). Community engagement and its evolving terminology. In University community engagement and lifelong learning (pp. 49-74). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Smith, C., Copley Sr., V., & Jackson, G. (2018). Intellectual soup: On the reformulation and repatriation of indigenous knowledge. In V. Apaydin (ed.), Shared knowledge, shared power (pp. 9-28). Springer.

Veinot, T.C., Meadowbrooke, C.C., Loveluck, J., Hickok, A., & Bauermeister, J.A. (2013). How “community” matters for how people interact with information: Mixed methods study of young men who have sex with other men. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(2), e33.

Cite this article in APA as: Du, J. T., Chu, C.M., & Partridge, H. (2023, January 4). A critical approach to engaging communities in information behavior research. Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 1.

Jia Tina Du

Dr. Jia Tina Du is an Associate Professor in information sciences and Professorial Lead at UniSA STEM, University of South Australia.