Vol. 12 No. 4, October, 2007


Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Conceptions
of Library and Information Science—"Featuring the Future"

What's in a turn?

Jan Nolin
The Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University College of Borås, Sweden

Introduction. The concepts of "divergent" and "convergent" research fields are utilised to discuss the strategy of introducing "turns" in information science.
Method. This is a discussion paper which uses conceptual analyses in combination with a discussion of research ideals.
Analysis. Information science is a divergent research field which includes many subfields with diverse perspectives. They are influenced by different schools of thought and when "turns" are introduced, there will be many attempting to turn the field in different directions.
Results. Different turns have various implications for the research field. The metaphor of "the turn" is highly flexible and the research field can be bent in many different ways and in a more or less fundamental manner. The situation of information science being a relatively small research field, including many subdisciplines and perspectives serves as a setting for a divergent field with many turns in different directions. However, several ideas that address a more fundamental turn, that would make the field more convergent, is discussed in the article.
Conclusions. An image of a stronger more convergent research field is often a hidden implication of a turn. Perhaps strategies of introducing different "turns" need to be connected to a position on what kind of research field information science should be. Do we want a field with many minor turns or do we want to move over to a more convergent research field and turn as one unit?


Becher and Trowler (2001), makes an interesting distinction, noting that the boundaries of a research field can be convergent, signifying a homogeneous research community that sets up a very clear boundary which therefore is easy to defend. Contrary to this, other research communities may work with divergent boundaries, which are much less clear and more difficult to defend. In this case, many researchers colonise areas very close to the border and may frequently cross over to the other side. This characterisation of the divergent research field seem to fit information science which is often said to be a multidisciplinary discipline, (Saracevic, 1999, White and McCain, 1998). Machlup and Mansfield (1983) suggested that one should speak about "the information sciences", similar to the way one speaks of the social sciences. Such an approach would allow for heterogeneity and would make questions of an overall identity much less important. Indeed, the implication of this idea is that information science consists of a number of subdisciplines which just happened to be grouped together through a series of arbitrary historical circumstances. Others subfields or research areas could with equal logic have been part of the family. Working with such a perspective one could conclude that information science does not have a common identity and all discussions on similar topics (paradigms, boundaries, key notions etc) are otiose.

It is possible to make a very different interpretation of the dilemma posed by Machlup and Mansfield (1983), that since information is everywhere, then every research field could be said to be information science. It could be argued that this dilemma is not unique for information science, but instead a feature that has enabled strong disciplines to build perspectives and models applicable to wide range of phenomena. Sociologists say that social situations are everywhere. Linguists argue the primacy of language etc.

Still another alternate way of conceptualising an identity for information science is to utilise the metaphor of a core. As soon as one starts talking about connecting the subfields, then models of hierarchical structure are introduced. Which subfields are the most important? Are some more and some less central? Does there exist a core either in the form of a subfield or in the form of shared values/theories/ideas? If the model of a core is accepted, we may query: what is the relationship between the core and the other parts of the discipline? In what ways does it facilitate communication and the creation of an identity? It is not uncommon within information science to suggest that information retrieval serves or has served the role of a core (Ellis et al. 1999, Saracevic 1992).

However, there are ways of conceptualising the subfields of information science in yet another way. In a co-citation analyses of information science, White and McCain (1998) come to the important conclusion that: "information science lacks a strong central author, or group of authors, whose work orients the work of others across the board. The field consists of several specialties around a weak center." (343)

We would like to suggest that that all these variations in identifying information science are actually united in a way that they articulate a divergent research field. Taking this as a starting point, one might ask how this situation affects research practice within information science. In this article, we will pursue one particular dimension: "the turn ", which can be characterised as some sort of cognitive interruption within a research tradition. It must be emphasised that this very broad definition allows for several more precise interpretations and one purpose of this article is to identify some of these and compare them to each other as well as to the cognitive needs of information science. Our line of thinking is that in the research field that is divergent, with less of a common identity, it will be relatively easily influenced by changes in stronger, trendsetting disciplines. As they turn, we tend to turn with them. Furthermore, as information science is such a heterogeneous research area, influenced by so many and so very different strong research traditions, there will be many turns in many different ways. Ultimately, we feel that the articulation of the turn is a cognitive act with the intent to make the research field stronger, more mature, more congruent and one step closer to a clear identity.

In this article, it is suggested, therefore, that the divergent field such as information science is a lively breeding ground for many different attempts at turning the field toward various perspectives. However, we will close this article with a discussion on an attempt to pursue the idea of a major turn, (Ingwersen & Järvelin, 2005) where the authors have an ambition to radically integrate major traditions within the field and as a consequence convert information science to more of a convergent research field. Such a strategy is also consistent with a vision of information science becoming more mature, less influenced by other research fields and more involved with integrating the different specific research traditions that primarily have an identity within information science.

To name something "a turn" is often a rhetorical act. It is a way of bringing attention to a new way of thinking. Sometimes this act is more serious than at others times. The turn can be presented by a single author and it can proceed with very few, even no, followers. At other times it can be launched with great power, with influential researchers who already have established a network of followers.

Social status within the research field therefore matters, as does the intent of the researcher or researchers that propose a turn. However, another complication is that sometimes a move is made that could quite likely be named a turn, but it is instead called a new paradigm, a new perspective or new viewpoint.

The historical turn: the search for an identity

In a review of research on the history of information science in 1995, Buckland and Liu conclude that information science for decades have been ahistorical and "much of the historical commentary has been anecdotal, superficial, or uncritical" (400). However, they were optimistic about the future and indeed the history of information science has been a practice on the rise for the last 15 years. Rayward even talks about not one, but two "historical turns" (Rayward, 2004). The first one of these concerns the practice of utilising historical accounts to "reduce philosophical confusion", while the second is focused on the role of various interests in the development of the research field.

In reflecting on these kinds of statements, we instantly encounter a number of alternative notions of "the turn". In itself, the transformation of a field moving from limited historical reflection to quite a lot is a kind of cognitive interruption. It is a turn toward more historical reflection. However, it need not mean that we turn away from something else, it could just mean that the new strand of thinking has grown thicker. By introducing the idea of a historical turn, Rayward is suggesting something more, that the historical reflection constitutes a resource that information science need in order to become more congruent and be able to move forward. In other words, mainstream information scientists need to turn toward and reflect on the historical research in order to better understand their own practice. This kind of turn is therefore nothing that transforms mainstream researchers in the way that they include an historical perspective in everything they do, rather it suggests that they turn their interests to what historians are doing.

In evaluating the merits of this idea, it would seem reasonable to ask if such a recommendation is more urgent for information science than for other research fields? Based on the idea of information science being a divergent research field, we would be inclined to say an emphatic "yes". We could add more arguments to this affirmation. Rayward (1996) suggests that the history of information science encounters some very specific historiographic problems. One of these is that information in itself is such a wide and abstract concept with a multitude of different connotations. This is very different to the historical study of phenomenon such as geological structures, music or human rights.

As becomes obvious in this kind of discussion, historical reflection and reflections on disciplinary identity are very closely related. As Rayward (2005) points out, asking questions about the identity of a subject is to ask historically contingent questions. One can once again claim that information science serves us a specific twist on the relationship between a subject and historical reflection on the subject.

This line of reasoning brings us, again, to the perhaps unsettling conclusion that both information and history are flexible, conceptual monsters which can be applied to any practice. Still, the sophisticated researcher must have some kind of grasp of both in order to do the work. You must know your identity in order to know where to turn. Therefore, it might be suitable to characterise the historical turn as the mother of other turns. The researcher must know the history of the tradition in order to judge what kind of cognitive interruption is feasible given what has been done before. Similar arguments can be made for other research traditions that basically serve to strengthen the identity of the research.

The reflexive turn: identifying weakness

A turn can be about strengthening the research field, but it can also be about weakening the field. In arguing for a new place to go, a place of cognitive strength, it is common to identify weaknesses in established traditions. It is therefore possible to imagine a turn where the most important task is really to criticise and identify weaknesses. By taking a radically different approach, it is possible to see the old tradition in a new light and generate new insights. In such cases, the strength of the new position may be of less importance in itself, more crucial is that it establishes a point outside the tradition for identifying weaknesses. In science and technology studies this was sometimes called the reflexive turn and Woolgar made this kind of reflexive identification of weaknesses into a fine art (for instance Woolgar, 1991). In an article entitled "Turn, turn, and turn again: the Woolgar formula" Pinch (1993) made this kind of approach into a joke. It was always possible, Pinch argued, to find a reflexive weakness in any account by showing that relevant alternative interpretations had been ignored or avoided. Woolgar would characterise research approaches as being driven by a formula in which relativism was applied selectively. In his article, Pinch made a new turn by identifying Woolgar's approach as being driven by a formula and then successfully applied that formula on Woolgar's own texts.

The reflexive turn: as it was introduced by Woolgar, was actually a criticism against strong theoretical approaches, the tendency of creating a convergent research field. It is often the ambition of new research fields, such as information science, to become more mature, stronger and therefore more convergent. However, the strong research traditions suffer from other difficulties, always running a risk of systematically ignoring relevant aspects. While a reflexive turn is often problematic, as shown by Pinch, every research field should really have one.

Many different turns that touch upon each other: information science as a relatively small research field

We talked earlier about aspects which make information science different and/or more complex than other research fields, something which makes historical reflection and reflections on identity more urgent. There is more to be said about this. The practice of studying information in its various forms was constructed and solidified in a social context very different from today's digital society, information age, information society, network society or whatever we want to call it. A crucial question for information science today is if the current organisation of research fields and subfields, created in another context, is optimal for studying information in its various forms today?

The most obvious mismatch concerns the way information science was created and given an institutionalised position within universities as a rather minor academic subject. As the importance of information has exploded in the last decades, the study of information has not grown in the same pace. Instead, its status, identity and territory have been threatened by stronger disciplines. Ellis, Allen & Wilson (1999) discuss this in the form of a "low power budget". Information science remains a relatively minor academic field, despite the fact that the object of its study has become a crucial vehicle for cultural, social and economic relationships/transactions.

An additional explanation for this lack of suitable growth can be that although information science has a long history, it didn't emerge as a mature (and still growing discipline) until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ingwersen (1992) identifies the years 1977-1980 as a turning point in which information science becomes more mature and well defined. Similar analyses can be made about the social relevance of information science. Saracevic (1992) reminds us that information problems changed their relevance to society. Information problems always existed, they were always present, but their perceived or real social importance changed. They were perceived as much more important in the 1970s than in the 1940s and the re-evaluation of the importance of information problems would only escalate with time.

Now, the 1970s or 1980s was not a good time to start thinking about expansion in the academic system. Research policy was at this time starting to move away from the post war ideas of great expansion. In the decades to come, government spending on research budgets would become increasingly modest and evolve into an idea of "steady state science" (Ziman, 1994). In a sense, this made it very difficult for new subjects to establish themselves as major players. Information science did indeed expand but not in relation to the shift in social revaluation of the importance of information problems.

Naturally, it did not help that during this time of potential expansion, many leading researchers in the field expressed doubts about the quality of what they were doing. Researchers such as Farradane (1980), Brookes (1980) and Shera (1983) all in their own way painted a picture of information science as a research area lacking in theories of its own and instead loaning from other, stronger disciplines, a minor cog wheel dependent on the turns of the big wheels.

This lack of expansion space, probably can serve as an explanation for why information science contains such a wide diversity of small subfields. In another more generous funding context, they would have surely all been given their own discipline and the space to develop apart from each other. However, as they have all stayed within the information science umbrella, it makes for an interesting, multidisciplinary intellectual setting.

The setting described in this way is a breeding ground for the import of new trends and indeed various turns. Still, the whole research field will not turn as one, rather like cogwheels they will turn in different directions and speeds. As the research field is so crammed together, they will tend to scrape into each other.

Does this make historical reflection and other types of reflection more urgent than in other fields? We would think so.

The cognitive turn and the cognitive viewpoint

Without doubt, the most influential turn in the history of information science has been the cognitive turn of the late 1980s. The cognitive viewpoint is often in information science literature linked closely to "the cognitive turn", which however must be seen to be a broader phenomenon, in a fundamental way influencing many disciplines, among them information science. In information science, the cognitive turn is most frequently described as a drawn out procedure that starts in the 70s and is concluded in the 80s or early 90s. German researcher Rafael Capurro (1992, 86) suggests that it took place as early as 1972 "and it became particularly clear" (86) in 1982. David Ellis, in his discussion of a cognitive paradigm in information science (1992) would instead see early work being made in the late 1970s.

Ingwersen (1992) identifies the central point of the cognitive viewpoint to view all processes involved in information retrieval, human as well as nonhuman, as cognitive. The main task is therefore to bring these cognitive structures into accord with each other and create a balance between system processes, authors, system designers, information workers and users. However, the cognitive viewpoint has been under fire from researchers for not taking into account social aspects of information processors (Capurro, 1992, Frohmann, 1992, Vakkari, 1994).

The turn of direction

In 1992Saracevic stated that an obvious question is to ask from which end we should address the major research problems in the field: from the human or technological vantage point? "Is the technology by itself a problem or is it a solution? Or both?...Or are the human aspects (knowledge, knowledge records, communication, social, institutional, and individual contexts, information use and need...) fundamental on the basis of which technological solution are to be built?" (20) He added that the prevailing philosophy seemed to be that it was easier to teach humans to adjust to the machine then to adjust the machines to humans.

Saracevic paints a picture of an either or dilemma. Either we build on the technology and integrate psychological and social aspects into our understanding or we build on the user. Saracevic does not talk about this in terms of a turn, but it is still an interesting variation of the metaphor. Saracevic's approach is essentially the same topic as the cognitive turn/cognitive viewpoint, which entails seeing human cognition and machine cognition as basically the same. However, from the vantage point of Saracevic, if we interpret him correctly, such a position is problematic since there is a basic conflict on whose terms integration will be done. An exchange between different social worlds will not be characterised by "win-win solutions", but by one side moving into the domain of the other and in this process totally reconceptualising the object of research. This image is given to us by Frohmann (1992) in his criticism of the cognitive viewpoint, linking claims of universalism to theoretical imperialism.

The discussion of direction has of course been continuously discussed since Saracevic wrote his text in 1992. Hjørland (2002) has promoted a socio-cognitive viewpoint inspired by a pragmatic turn in which human actions and activities are seen as the most basic entities. "In this way socio-cognitive views in many respects turns the cognitive view upside down. They are interested in individual cognition, but approach this from the social context, not from the isolated mind or brain. They are not working inside-out, but outside-in." (258-259)

A turn in direction described in this way can be said to be a fundamental turn, one which moves the field away from a divergent identity and toward a more integrated and convergent identity. Interestingly enough, the cognitive viewpoint can also be discussed as such a fundamental turn.

The turn according to Ingwersen and Järvelin (2005)

Ingwersen and Järvelin in their ambitious and important book The Turn: Integration of Information Seeking and Retrieval in Context (2005) are daring in their attempt to move beyond boundaries and take into account interest of all research traditions. The authors take inventory of all possible criticism against the cognitive viewpoint and device counter strategies for each one. They also admit past mistakes in a refreshing way that is rare in academic texts.

However, the general outlook taken in the book is actually the very opposite of what we usually take to be a turn within research. It usually means to take on a new perspective, such as the cognitive viewpoint. Instead, the aim of The Turn is to be all inclusive, to construct a perspective that is, well, actually not a perspective at all, but aims at taking into account everything at all times. In a way, if implemented, this can indeed be the big turn, the one that ends it all. If everything is included in your position, then you have nowhere else to turn. It is an attempt to turn away from the model of a divergent field into more of a convergent model.

When Ingwersen and Järvelin discuss the new "turn", it can clearly be characterised as extending previous interests from the cognitive view, rather than turning in a new direction:

"The quite individualistic perspective laid down in the former monograph is hence expanded into a social stance towards information behaviour, including generation, searching and use of information." (Page vii)

The idea is not to turn away from the cognitive viewpoint, but rather to expand it. This is a rather different way of utilising the metaphor of a turn compared to other attempts discussed in this article. We actually find two different versions of what the turn means on the very first page of the preface. In one of these versions, it is referred to a prediction made in Ingwersen (1992) that a cognitive turn would come in the future and the framework in the new books is now said to be that turn. This would mean that the authors are involved in some kind of cognitive interruption and moving in a new direction. However, more often the authors prefer to talk about their new position as an extension of the cognitive viewpoint rather than something different. Let us therefore move over to a second version of the turn:

"We therefore chose The Turn as the main title to communicate the idea that it is time to look back and look forward to develop a new integrated view of information seeking and retrieval: the field should turn off its separate narrow paths of research and construct a new avenue." (Page vii)

A few lines later this new avenue has been transformed into a highway. As they are utilising this metaphor, it is actually not they themselves that are turning, they are extending their perspective. With this extension, they expect to be outlining a much more attractive, integrated perspective than earlier, one that everyone should be able to participate in. It is a broad highway with room for everybody. So, it is actually other researchers that they hope will turn towards them, changing the course of their traditions. In this way, traditions will be integrated and instead of there being many different traditions, all of them by themselves too weak to make a difference, there will be one strong tradition that will be able to make an impact.

It is actually possible to make a third interpretation of the turn, which is close to the second. By entitling the book The Turn, there is an implicit message sent that this is the big one, the one to end all turns. It is not any old turn, but The Turn.

However, in all these variations this is still the same cognitive strategy that Frohmann criticised in 1992, calling the cognitive viewpoint theoretically imperialistic. The idea promoted in the metaphors is obviously to either let all other traditions flow into the extension of the cognitive viewpoint or to create such a strong "highway" that all other traditions as an implication becomes marginalised. In both cases, the strategy can be called imperialistic if one wants to utilise a negative metaphor or an attempt to make the field stronger and more convergent, to utilise a more positive metaphor. However, the authors seem uncertain about the metaphor and sometimes paint a picture of a possible future where there indeed exist many perspectives, as in the closing chapter:

"We feel that this book opens up an intriguing avenue for research into IS&R. At the same time we hope that many among out (sic!) readers find the avenue equally intriguing, and those who do not, at least find ingredients for the development their own, possibly conflicting approaches to Information Science. There obviously is much to do in the area of IS&R and many approaches are welcome and possible. Progress may be achieved also from disagreement." (Page 379)

From our perspective, it would seem that utilising the metaphor of the turn in the way that is done here opens up many questions on what kind of research field information science should be. Given this divergent tradition, is it desirable and possible to create a more integrated research field? What is gained? What is lost? Is the cognitive viewpoint, which earlier has functioned as a polarising device, a suitable foundation for integration? Would such a strengthened research field be perceived as threatening and dominating to other subdisciplines within information science?

An obvious criticism is that the cognitive viewpoint builds on a foundation of the cognitive perspective extending toward the social. As such, this model would tend to alienate researchers with a sociological perspective who view cognitive dimensions as basically social. With an imperialistic interpretation of Ingwersen and Järvelin (2005), their book would seem to be an attempt to marginalise social studies of information seeking, by including them as a secondary aspect under a dominating cognitive paradigm.


This paper has discussed several different types of "turns". The most important difference can be linked to the image of research fields as either divergent or convergent. We have discussed several ideas that can be characterised as fundamental turns that would serve to move the whole field in one direction and therefore manifest a more convergent research field. An image of a stronger more convergent research field is often a hidden implication of a turn. Perhaps strategies of introducing different "turns" need to be connected to a position on what kind of research field information science should be. Do we want a field with many minor turns or do we want to move over to a more convergent research field and turn as one unit?


How to cite this paper

Nolin, J (2007). "What's in a turn?" Information Research, 12(4) paper colis11. [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/12-4/colis/colis11.html]
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