Practices and Representations: Bringing them together


Published: March 24, 2020 by Dr. Mary Ann Harlan

It is not unusual when involved in a research project to be distracted by new ideas, interesting concepts, and potential connections to the research that ultimately are beyond the scope of one’s current project. I find myself often distracted by shiny new research ideas and questions as I read for a literature review, analyze data, and write my own analysis and findings. This could be why I sometimes don’t seem to have a pithy answer to “What are your research interests?”  

On the outside it often seems that there is little to no connection between whatever the latest research project I am engaged and prior research and yet the intersections can be traced to a single concept and how that is enacted – that information is whatever is informing, that it can be embodied, cognitive, or both – and that we engage in practices related to information.

I think it is important to define how practices are conceived in my research in order to explain why investigating representations of girlhood in YA (current research direction #1) is connected to previous research on teen content creators and reading fiction for information (current research direction #2).  Practices are socially and temporally situated, they are embodied, meaning is discursively constructed, the tacit knowledge of the sociocultural structure is a lens through which we construct meaning, and they are mediated by material structures such as technology (Kemmis, 2011; Rouse, 2006; Schatzki, et al., 2001).  In other words, practices change over time as we engage with them, and as others engage with us to create a common meaning.  Furthermore, the tools we use impact how we engage in practices.  In terms of information practices this means that how we access, evaluate, use, and create information is not static and unchanging, it is influenced by others, and enabled and constrained by materiality including technology. What does this have to do with girlhood, and in particular representations of girlhood? (You can read more about the way girlhood is represented in YA literature in my article in the Student Research Journal, Challenging Girlhood).

In 2014 when the Myers family wrote op-eds on the state of diversity in children’s publishing attention was brought to Rudine Sims Bishop’s musing that literature was a window, mirror, and sliding glass door.  In 1990 Bishop wrote  that “literature transforms the human experience and reflects it back to us” (p.1), opining that it “could help us understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference” (p.2).  The understanding of the role of fiction Bishop articulates assumes that fiction is information, that it informs our understanding of ourselves and the world.  Which means that readers engage in information practices. 

Engaging with media is engaging with information. Cultural and media studies indicate that media is both a representation of experience but that it also shapes our understandings of that experience.  This is complex in YA literature as it is written, published, and promoted primarily by adults and therefore may represent adults’ understandings and concerns (Trites, 1998; Younger, ).

Analyzing the representation of girlhood in YA literature identifies the potential information that readers are encountering.  This creates a double edge sword however, in that while at the core of understanding information practices I need to describe the information, it is ultimately my analysis (an adult) and does not engage youth voice and experience.

My  most recent complete research project focused on reading fiction for information was conducted through questionnaire and interviews with 25 16-year-olds.  Here is a summary of what was important in my findings.  Readers, those who read beyond school assignments, engage in character analysis that can be conceived as identity management (the mirror) but do not necessarily use fiction as information about the world (window, sliding glass door) without social interaction around the text. Non-readers read for plot (if at all – they spend as much time seeking ways to gather information about the plot as they do reading the actual text) and if they relate to an antagonist on a surface level (the only character analysis they engage in) they can be openly hostile to the text. I would like to point out that if you ask either group if they read fiction for information the answer is likely to be no.  This is likely because as I discovered in interviewing teens both about creating content and reading they tend to have narrower definitions of information than I do – they see information as discrete, factual, and provided by a teacher or non-fiction text.

The assumption that Bishop made is not without her experience as a literacy researcher and yet… when I consistently hear it repeated in the field of library science I am left wondering – is this true? Is it that easy? What are the information practices of reading fiction in terms of understanding ourselves and our world?  This questioning increases when I read that reading increases empathy but also that we as readers are drawn to drawn towards characters they relate to therefore empathy is rooted in self-interest (Keen, 2007).  I hypothesize that it isn’t so simple: that asking what information practices we engage in when we select and read fiction may has import in problematizing assumptions in a way that can improve reader’s advisory, pedagogy, critical literacy approaches to services and programs.  We have work to do to build critical readers who use fiction as information, in ways that might build empathy, lead readers to discover something new in themselves, or about others.   Understanding the practices of how selection of story, integrating or rejecting the story, using contextual awareness when reading, and sharing to build understanding or varying views of a text can help us be more effective in positioning literature as window, mirror, or sliding glass door.  We cannot, should not do this without engaging our populations, readers and non-readers alike.


  • Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.
  • Keen, S. (2007). Empathy and the novel. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kemmis, S. (2011). What is professional practice? Recognizing and respecting diversity in understandings of practice. . In C. Kanes (Ed.), Elaborating Professionalism. London: Springer.
  • Rouse, J. (2006). Practice Theory. In S. Turner & M. Risord (Eds.), Philosophy of Anthropology ad Sociology (Vol. 15, pp. 499-540). Waltham, MA: Elsevier.
  • Schatzki, T. R., Knorr Cetina, K., & von Savigny, E. (Eds.). (2001). The practice turn in contemporary theory. London: Routledge.
  • Trites, R. S. (1998). Disturbing the universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.


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