How Identity is Conceptualized in Information Behavior Research


Published: October 15, 2020 by Dr. Deborah Hicks

Our identities play a big role in our lives. They give us our sense of self. They inform the way we interact with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers. And, they influence how we build, maintain, and even change social structures. But, for such a powerful and important part of our lives, identity can be an abstract and hazy concept. It is often used uncritically to refer to the fact that something or someone exists (the identity of a criminal suspect, for example) or as a close similarity between things (for example, dogs of different breeds can both be identified as dogs because they share characteristics). This lack of conceptual rigor means that identity can sometimes be difficult to operationalize for research. Identity, at least conceptually, has only recently become the subject of direct study in Library and Information Science, particular as it relates to our information behaviors. If identity has the ability to shape our sense of self, relationships, organizations, and social structures, it must  play a similarly important role in how we determine what information we need, how we seek it out, and how we use it. It’s for this reason I felt it was important to complete a conceptual analysis of identity in the information behavior research literature. Given the inherent ambiguity of identity as a concept, I wanted to provide structure and clarity to a complicated concept for LIS scholars.

The goal of conceptual analyses is to “improve our understanding of the ways in which particular concepts are (or could be) used for communicating ideas” and to suggest productive lines of work for future research (Furner, 2004, p. 233-234). After reviewing 30 articles, I discovered that there are five main ways identity is conceptualized in the information behavior research: identity as personal project; identity and social groups; fragmented discursive subjects; intersectional, hybrid, and global identities; and identity as self-presentation. The three most prominent conceptualizations of identity in the information behavior research were identity as personal project, identity and social groups, and identity as self-presentation. Each approach provided a novel way to understand people’s information behaviors. Identity as a personal project, for instance, provided insights into how people’s information behaviors supported and reflected their self-perception and expression. The concept of identity as social groups enabled researchers to shed light on the role of information activities in communal meaning making and boundary setting. Identity as self-presentation shared conceptual aspects with both of these understanding. For instance, it shared a focus on self-expression with identity as personal project and community formation with identity and social groups. Identity as self-presentation acted as a bridge between these two conceptualizations. By examining the information behaviors associated with the way people present themselves online, researchers were able to illustrate how people incorporate their social identities into their personal identities.

Identity as fragmented discursive subjects and intersectional, hybrid, and global are emerging conceptualizations in the information behavior research. These conceptualizations capture the information behaviors of people whose identities are not currently well represented in the information behavior literature and offer the opportunity to add nuance and new perspectives to older information behavior models. In particular, these conceptualizations highlight the need for information research in general to move beyond simply acknowledging the complexity of identity and to begin to account for it in study design.

The study of identity provides a way for information behavior researchers to examine the meanings and values that people attach to their information activities. Through examination of identity, attention can be brought to how people use information to shape their identities and in turn how their identities shape their interactions with information. These insights can help us design better information services and meet the needs of users in meaningful ways. It can also help us, as information professionals, understand our own perspectives on information so that we can clearly see how it effects the way we interact with our communities and clients.


Furner, J. (2004). Conceptual analysis: A method for understanding information as evidence, and evidence as information. Archival Science, 4, 233-265.


Conceptualizing identity

Provocative work. I continue to be interested in formations of institutional identity of users - especially how libraries envision the identities of young people - and implications for service. Perhaps we should roll this into a larger discussion?!
~anthony bernier

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