Critical theory in librarianship

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Pyati's paper is an example of the application of critical theory in LIS
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  • Updated.jpg 20 August 2017


See also Aboriginal health | Critical thinking | Critical pedagogy & library instruction | Feminism and librarianship | Gender, identity and agency in librarianship | Henry Giroux

"...the rise of critical theory is usually identified with the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), formed in 1923 and associated over the years with the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The institute was the home of what became known as the Frankfurt School of social thought/critique. Particularly under the leadership of Max Horkheimer during the 1930s, the institute became a focus for the radical critique both of the fabric of society (including the economy and its attendant sociopolitical formations) and the social theories that were purported to be explanatory of social phenomena..." Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.viii

Critical theory has multiple potential connotations in academic librarianship. In one sense, it draws on the German or "Frankfurt" school of philosophers from the Western European Marxist tradition. There, “critical” theory is distinguished from traditional theory according to a specific practical aim: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation " liberate human beings from the circumstances enslaving them" (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because these theories aim to explain and transform the circumstances that enslave human beings, various critical theories have evolved in connection with social movements which also identify the many dimensions of the dominant structures and discourses inherent within. Practically speaking, critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all forms.

In a 2014 study, Schroeder and Hollister look at librarians' views on critical theories with the aim to "...investigate levels of familiarity librarians have with critical theory, to determine the extent to which it informs professional practice and to examine how the social justice issues related to critical theory inform the practices of librarians who are unfamiliar with it." They used a survey method and found that librarians knew about the critical theory of the Frankfurt School but also related notions of poststructuralism, feminism, queer theory, critical race theory, and postcolonialist theories. Some librarians, lacking familiarity with critical theory, express an interest in social justice which affect librarians’ professional practices.

On critical theory in librarianship

  • In 1996, Dervin described “context” as an “unruly beast”. The contextual addition to traditional theoretical claims in information research made these theories more complicated, interesting and relevant. But context must be filled with something if we want research (yes, LIS research) to have true social relevance.
  • Critical theories have become part of the fabric of many disciplines including “education, literary studies, philosophy, management, communication/media studies, international relations, political science, geography, language studies, sociology, and psychology, to name a few” (Leckie and Buschman 2010, ix).
  • Critical theories are becoming part of the discourse in library literature, as searches in library science databases will reveal. But what do librarians mean when they speak of critical theory? Is it in reference to the Frankfurt School or to another critical theory?
  • With its roots in the Frankfurt School, critical theory has developed into a analytical framework that can be applied to research in most disciplines. As researchers, librarians have a responsibility to be critical about how we practice; our analyses serve a purpose.
  • The bottom line in all critical theory is Marxist which has developed into many varieties...“The recognition of the complex heterogeneity of people is now a core idea, and the relationship between genuine multiculturalism and democracy is established. ...critical theorists have shown that the actions of professionals are implicated in power – asymmetrical relations based on class, race, ethnicity and sexual preference”. Accepting this as a basis for theoretical claims and construction - and empirical research - brings not only legitimacy but places the researcher as an actor in the midst of society.
  • As a discipline LIS is suited to fill a space in contemporary social discourse. Focussing on issues crucial to late modernity dominated by communication technology and massive information consumption, academic librarians can examine and reveal barriers of inequality and power; in fact it is their (our) responsibility. In contemporary critical theory tools are given for us.
  • Library Juice Press publishes critical theory monographs
  • Michael Dudley, a Canadian academic librarian publishes the Decolonized librarian

Critical theory, discrimination and racism

Librarianship in the 21st century must come to terms with new critical theory, particularly critical race theory (CRT) and anti-colonialization perspectives as a basis for exploring the intersections of librarianship (and LIS more broadly) with structures of racialized power. The CRT movement refers to activists and scholars interested in studying and changing the relationship between race, racism and power in society. As such, it considers issues that conventional civil rights groups and ethnic discourses propound and yet situates them in a broader context of history, economics, community, self-interest, and even the unconscious motivations of individuals. Further, CRT questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, rationalism, and neutral principles of law.

According to Jacobs, "...a growing number of librarians are engaged with critical theories such as critical pedagogy, feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory, or post-colonialism." However, librarianship is predominantly white and the taxonomies, tools and standards that we use to organize information are steeped in a white male hegemonic culture. The information professions must contend with this structural problem through a re-engineering and reparation process of our classification systems, indexing practices and our controlled vocabularies - in short, the very nature of what we do to reify discrimination in all its forms. Without close critical analysis, we are doomed to perpetuate the historical biases and latent (or blatant) racism, homophobia and xenophobia (to name a few) in our profession. See Delgado, Jacobs and Lau below for further reading.

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