Transitions theory and liminality in information behaviour research. Applying new theories to examine the transition to early career academic

Publication Date08 Jul 2019
AuthorRebekah Willson
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Transitions theory and liminality
in information behaviour research
Applying new theories to examine the
transition to early career academic
Rebekah Willson
Department of Computer and Information Sciences,
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
Purpose Transitions as a focus of study have been missing from information behaviour research. The
purpose of this paper is to explore the topic of transitions their characteristics and influences, the related
concept of liminality and Transitions Theory and what it can contribute to the field of information
behaviour. This exploration includes the application of liminality and Transitions Theory to an empirical
study of participants making the transition from doctoral student to early career academic.
Design/methodology/approach In addition to an extended literature review, this paper reports on a
qualitative study that used constructivist grounded theory methodology for data collection and analysis.
Early career academics were followed for a five- to seven-month period and data were collected using
interviews and check-ins. Transitions Theory and liminality were used to guide the analysis.
Findings Three important findings were highlighted: the complicating effects of being in a liminal space on
information behaviour; the changing information needs of those undergoing a transition; and the importance
of comparison as a way of using information to understand new situations. A revised model of Transitions
Theory (Meleis et al., 2000) is also proposed, to incorporate information behaviour.
Originality/value Thispaper demonstrates thatby examining informationbehaviour over longer periodsof
time and by making transitions a focus of research, new understandings and insight can be gained into
what informationindividual needs, how theyfind, share and use that information.This research demonstrates
that informationbehaviour research adds importantelements to the study of transitions and,conversely, that
transitions (and Transitions Theory) add important elements to thestudy of information behaviour.
Keywords Academic staff, Grounded theory, Information behaviour, Liminality, Transitions,
Transitions theory
Paper type Research paper
Transitions are periods of change, rarely orderly or simple but rather complex processes
experienced over time and space. Due to their association with developmental stages
(e.g. puberty, adulthood, old age) and major life events (e.g. marriage, illness, starting work),
transitions have been the subject of much study. It is at points of transition that values,
views and ways of being in the world are challenged and require individuals to actively deal
with the resulting changes. Whether anticipated or unanticipated, chosen or compelled,
viewed as positive or negative, all transitions require redefinition of situation and self.
Accompanying this redefinition are changes to personal resources and habits. All of this has
implications for information needs, seeking, use, sharing and practices.
Transitions have been an area of study in many disciplines, including counselling,
industrial and organisational psychology, human resources, education and nursing.
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 4, 2019
pp. 838-856
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-12-2018-0207
Received 10 December 2018
Revised 18 February 2019
22 February 2019
Accepted 24 February 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The author wishes to thank the participants for taking time out of their busy schedules to participate in
this research. The author would also like to acknowledge the financial support received for this
research, including a Doctoral Fellowship, Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada
(Award No. 752-2014-0499) and an Australian Postgraduate Award International Postgraduate
Research Scholarship (Charles Sturt University).
Within information science there has been interest various topics, such as how masters
students are able to transition to professional practice (e.g. Oud, 2008), students
starting university (e.g. Stutzman, 2011), women during pregnancy (e.g. McKenzie, 2003),
immigrants in a new country (e.g. Caidi and Allard, 2005; Caidi et al., 2010; Kennan et al.,
2011; Lloyd et al., 2013), and patients experiencing an illness (e.g. Ankem, 2006). However,
much of the research in information behaviour examines individuals or groups of
individuals undergoing a transition at one point in time or before and after an event. While
examining individualsexperiences at one point in time is important to understanding
the information behaviour of persons in a particular context, what is often missing are the
on-going changes during the transition. While transition may be a part of the research, it is
not the focus of the study, and as such it is not fully examined. At times of transition
information needs often come to the fore. Information seeking and use may change
depending on where individuals are within their transitional experience. How individuals
and groups learn to navigate within and adapt to new contexts has often remained
unanswered. In focusing on transitions as an object of study and drawing on existing
literature, researchers can address the gap in the research literature and re-examine the
impact of transitions on information behaviour.
This paper contributes to the information behaviour literature by highlighting
transitions as an area of study and more fully explicating the concept of transition as it
relates to information behaviour research. In addition, this paper offers Transitions Theory
and the related concept of liminality as a way to better understand the information
behaviour and practices of those undergoing transitions. This paper begins by discussing
the concept of transitions and Transitions Theory, particularly as it has been developed in
the field of nursing. From there, transitions are discussed in detail, including the
characteristics and influences. The related concept of liminality is explored, as well as
the literature from information behaviour and information practice research. From there, the
researchers dissertation study will be discussed as an example of information behaviour
research focussed on transition. Findings from the study will be explored, as well as what
transitions-focused research can offer the field.
Literature review
The literature review will define transitions and discuss Transitions Theory, including the
characteristics of transition and what influences transitions. This discussion will then turn
to the related concept of liminality as a way to understand transitions. The review of the
literature will then finish by discussing information behaviour and information practice
research with populations in transition.
Transitions and transitions theory
Transitionis a commonly used term and a topic of interest to many. Because of its
popularity, the meaning of transitionis often assumed to be so readily apparent that it is
not defined (Cowan, 1991). Upon closer examination, what defines and what composes a
transition requires explication, as without delimitation, individuals could be said to be in a
constant state of transition. While transitions have been the subject of study in many fields
(e.g. psychology, organisational studies, education and nursing), often the approach taken
has been empirical rather than theoretical. Over the last 40 years Afaf Meleis and colleagues
in the field of nursing have worked extensively on the topic of transitions, developing a
theory that is based on three paradigms: role theory, lived experience and feminist
postcolonialism (Meleis, 2015). An early definition expressed transition as passage from
one life phase, condition, or status to anotherincluding the concepts of process, time span
and perception(Chick and Meleis, 1986, p. 239). Rather than prescriptive, transitions are
conceptualised as being experienced by people in different ways; they are personal rather
theory and

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