Information behaviour of women: theoretical perspectives on gender

Published date19 January 2010
Date19 January 2010
AuthorChristine Urquhart,Alison Yeoman
Subject MatterInformation & knowledge management,Library & information science
Information behaviour of women:
theoretical perspectives on
Christine Urquhart and Alison Yeoman
Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine whether there is a need to consider gender or sex
differences as variables in information behaviour research and, if so, how?
Design/methodology/approach – A metasynthesis approach is used. A preliminary framework to
categorise information behaviour research on women is developed by integrating main themes from
feminist research and information behaviour research. Within each category, studies are compared
and contrasted, to identify similar and divergent themes. Themes are then compared across categories,
to synthesise the main concepts.
Findings – The categorisation works for most studies, apart from a group of studies on health
information use, communicating risk and decision making. The meta-synthesis indicates the
importance of concepts such as situation (as mesh), intermediaries (as node with connections), and
connecting behaviour. Gender-related or, rather gender-ascribed, constructs, such as concern for
others, not gender alone are likely to be important variables in information behaviour.
Research limitations/implications – The meta-synthesis is a top-level synthesis, as the number
of studies prohibited a more detailed approach. Further meta-synthesis of a few high quality research
studies would help to confirm the findings.
Practical implications – The synthesis illuminates a different perspective on information
behaviour: the network of information users rather than the individual information seeker.
Originality/value – The synthesis integrates some feminist research themes with information
behaviour research, and the findings have implications for general information behaviour research.
Keywords Information strategy, Sex and gender issues,Women, Feminism
Paper type Research paper
The aim is to examine whether there is a need to consider gender or sex differences as
variables in information behaviour research, and if so, how. In many studies of the
seeking and use of information by different groups, gender (sex) may be recorded as a
demographic variable, but with no further examination of different behaviour that may
be associated with women rather than men. This is, as Hupfer and Detlor (2006) point
out, puzzling, as many studies have indicated sex differences in spatial orientation,
attitude towards computers, and verbal skills – all factors that might influence
information seeking preferences on the internet and use of electronic information
services. In other research, by virtue of the group chosen (e.g. battered women,
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors would like to thank the peer reviewers for their constructive comments and to
acknowledge the financial support provided for the PhD study by the Arts & Humanities
Research Council (
behaviour of
Received 29 August 2008
Revised 9 April 2009
Accepted 15 April 2009
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 66 No. 1, 2010
pp. 113-139
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/00220411011016399
lesbians, or the role of specialised libraries for women), there is more emphasis on
gender issues in the sense of behaviour and attitudes associated with women, and
characteristic of women. Women are often designated to be the primary providers of
childcare and frequently have responsibility for managing the home and household.
The situations they face on a day-to-day basis and the quality of their interactions with
sources of information, both informal (e.g. peers) and formal (e.g. health and social care
professionals) may therefore differ from those commonly faced by men. Feminist
methodologies, which presume a distinctive approach to inquiry and methods, may
have influenced the research approach in these studies. This paper first examines how
current themes and trends in feminist research and information behaviour research
may relate to each other. A preliminary framework to categorise information behaviour
research, is then developed. The value of such a framework is debated by applying it to
information behaviour research studies that have included women or studied sex or
gender differences. Within each category the main debates are identified and some
emergent ideas noted. Discussion of these themes across the categories leads to
conclusions about the ways a feminist perspective has helped to uncover som e
neglected aspects in information behaviour research and how gender, or gender-related
factors should be considered.
Developing a preliminary framework
Case (2007) suggests, in a review of information behaviour research, based partly on an
earlier critique by Dervin, that current trends reflect a realisation that human
information behaviour is more complex and interpersonal than previously assumed for
research purposes. Context is important, information seeking is a dynamic process, and
more information is not necessarily better. Information seeking is not necessarily
problem solving, and information behaviour on the web and social networking sites
may be less to do with making sense of a situation than diversion and entertainment
and everyday life information seeking becomes a more dominant theme in information
behaviour research. The themes in current information behaviour research appear,
according to Case (2007) to include contextual factors, interpersonal information
seeking (informal sources), everyday life information seeking and the dynamic process
of information seeking. Context may be studied quantitatively, including demographic
factors, or qualitatively (Case, 2007) but it is important to distinguish two different
perspectives. Context, may be viewed as context “has” certain influencing variables, or
context may be viewed as the result of interactions – context “is”, just as the debate
about organisational culture contrasts the culture ‘has’ proponents from the culture “is”
proponents (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, p. 638)
Hammersley (1995, pp. 45-65) identifies four themes in feminist methodology. The
first is the gender asymmetry in power relations and the assumption of the more
powerful group (men) as the more representative of human experience. The second is
the importance of personal experience as opposed to scientific method, contrasting the
female way of knowing with the masculine knowledge of scientific experiment. The
third theme rejects the hierarchy in the researcher and research subject relationship.
The fourth theme is the goal of the research as emancipation. Ten years on, these
themes are still apparent. Evaluating the titles of the 20 most recent items in a search
on the Web of Science in March 2008, using the string (feminist AND social AND
method*) suggested that the same four themes could broadly be use d to categorise the

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