A structure–agency integrative framework for information access disparity. Rediscovery of practice in dividing society's information rich and poor

Publication Date23 Feb 2020
AuthorLiangzhi Yu,Wenbo Zhou,Junli Wang
A structureagency integrative
framework for information
access disparity
Rediscovery of practice in dividing societys
information rich and poor
Liangzhi Yu, Wenbo Zhou and Junli Wang
Department of Information Resource Management, The Business School,
Nankai University, Tianjin, China
Purpose This study aims to build an integrative framework for explaining societys information access
disparity, which takes both structure and agency as well as their interactions into consideration.
Design/methodology/approach It adopts a qualitative survey design. It collects data on the development
of 65 individualsinformation access through interviews, and analyzes the data following grounded theory
Findings A theoretical framework is established based on seven constructs and their relationships, all
emerging from the empirical data. It rediscovers practice as the primary structural force shaping individuals
information access, hence societys information access disparity; it shows, meanwhile, that the effect of practice
is mediated and/or interruptedby four agentic factors: affective responses to a practice, strategic move between
practices, experiential returns of information, and quadrant state of mind.
Research limitations/implications It urges LIS researchers to go beyond the embedded information
activities to examine both the embedded and embedding, beyond actions to examine both actions and
Practical implications It calls for information professionals to take a critical stance toward the practices
they serve and partake in their reforms from an LIS perspective.
Originality/value The framework provides an integrative and novel explanation for information access
disparity; it adds a number of LIS-relevant concepts to the general practice theories, highlighting the
significance of embedded information activities in any practice and their reverberations; it also appears able to
connect a range of human-related LIS theories and pinpoint their gaps.
Keywords Information society, Information access, Information access disparity, Information inequality,
Integrative theory, Practice theories
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Like other social science disciplines, library and information science (LIS) holds a persistent
interest in observing and explaining human differences from its own perspective, the
perspective of information access. The term information access disparityis adopted here to
express this concern. In line with the focus of previous related research, this study defines
information access as individualsaccess to human communicative products where meaning
is conveyed through the composite of words, numbers, symbols, pictures, and/or other forms
This study is funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 71273141 and
71974103). Two shorter versions of this paper were presented at The Symposium on Theories of
Information Disparity in Society and The Symposium on Theories of Information Access Disparity in
Societyheld in the Business School, Nankai University, Tianjin, China, on 25-28 October 2017 and 24-28
October 2019 respectively. The authors thank the participants of the two symposiums for questions and
comments. The authors would also like to thank the referees of this paper for their very critical and
insightful comments which inspired dramatic rewriting of the manuscript.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 28 May 2019
Revised 19 January 2020
Accepted 19 January 2020
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 76 No. 4, 2020
pp. 829-848
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-05-2019-0097
of signs, and defines information access disparity as quantitative and qualitative differences
among members of society in this regard. As these definitions imply, inquiries about
information access disparity presume a narrower conception of information, as held by some
philosophers and LIS scholars (e.g. Floridi, 2010;Farradane, 1979;Yu, 2015).
Within LIS, studies on information access disparity, as defined above, date back to the
1930s when the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago conducted extensive
research on the American populations differences in reading habits and public library use
(e.g. Carnovsky, 1935;Krieg, 1939;Ridgway, 1936;Waples, 1933). Later studies not only
continued this strand of investigation (e.g. Berelson and Asheim, 1949;Japzon and Gong,
2005;Sever and Branse, 1991;Sin, 2011;Sin and Kim, 2008;Zweizig and Dervin, 1977), they
also expanded their inquiries to other forms of information-related human differences,
including differences in media/channel choices, service utilization, knowledge acquisition (i.e.
knowledge gap), ICT adoption and use (i.e. digital divide), etc. (Childers and Post, 1975;
Chatman, 1996;Doctor, 1991;Jaeger et al., 2012;Haider and Bawden, 2007;Lang, 1988). Most,
if not all, studies show that substantial information-related differences exist among members
of society whatever aspects are examined. Starting from the 1970s, concerns about such
differences began to be voiced increasingly in information society discourse featuring such
concepts as unequal access to information, information inequality, information poverty, the
information-rich and poor. In this way, they also join the cross-disciplinary efforts to
understand and critique the broad inequality prevalent in the information society.
While documenting the pattern and scale of such disparity, existing research has also
attempted to provide explanationsfor its formation. Explanatory factors proposed within and
beyond LIS include institutionalizeddistribution of information and informationtechnologies
(e.g. Schiller and Schiller,1988;Zhao, 2007), socioeconomic inequalities (e.g. Childers and Post,
1975;Japzon and Gong, 2005;Tichenoret al., 1970), internalized social norms and world views
(e.g. Chatman, 1996,1999), and individual motivation and interest (e.g. Ettema and Kline,
1977). As Lievrouw and Farb (2003) and Yu (2011) note, most of these explanations have
followed the general social science tradition to focus either on the causaleffects of structure,
or the mental and action effects of the agent. Holistic models exist (e.g. Kim and Kim, 2001;
Van Dijk, 2005;Yu, et al., 2018), but very few provide integrative explanations that take the
interactive effects of structural and agentic mechanisms into account.
Beyond LIS, theories that lend conceptual tools for integrative explanations do exist. The
most well-known are perhaps the so-called practice theories (Nicolini, 2013;Schatzki et al.,
2001). Practice theories are a cluster of theories that emphasize the centrality of practices in
social life and social science research, where practice is defined as embodied, materially-
mediated arrays of human activity (Schatzki, et al., 2001). During the past two decades, these
theories have been applied by an increasing body of LIS research (Cox, 2012;Lloyd, 2010,
2012;Rivera and Cox, 2014;Savolainen, 2008;Veinot, 2007), to such an extent that some
scholars have begun talking about a LIS practice turn (Savolainen, 2008;Hartel, 2018;Rivera
and Cox, 2014). Albeit differing from each other markedly in concepts and propositions,
practice theories share a number of salient commonalities. They all see practice as emerging
from the repeated actions of a definable collectivity across time and space and, accordingly,
as inherently ordered and organized in specific social, cultural, and historical contexts. They
assert that it is various social practices, not social structures or individual actions, that give
rise to social reality. They also contend that practice implicates both structure and agency in
its production and reproduction. Therefore, by focusing on practice, practice theorists aim to
achieve integrative explanations of social life explanations that transcend the deep-rooted
duality in social sciences, not only between structure and agency, but also between
objectivism and subjectivism, and society and individuals.
It is because of practice theoriespotential to transcend the dualistic traditions of social
sciences that this study was initially drawn towards them as a guiding theoretical lens for

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