Faculty and students in the Information Work Research Group (IWRG) at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin study information work. When people do information work, we seek to understand why, how, where, and with whom these people do their work, and what happens when they do. We want to understand what the work is about in the present, how it was different in the past, and where it might be headed in the future. As the only research group in the library and information studies community dedicated to the study of information work, we are uniquely positioned to prepare students to be scholars in this field.
What Is Information Work and How Do We Study It?
It is surprising difficult to give a single, precise definition of what information work is. It is somewhat easier to know what definitions do not work. For example, information work is not defined by the company one works for. One might regard Microsoft as an information company, but not all employees who work for Microsoft do information work. For example, the people who mow their lawn are not doing information work. Information work is also not defined by job title or occupation. One might think that a software engineer does information work. This may be true much of the time, but neither a software engineer nor any other occupation does information work all of the time. Since the middle of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of workers in the West, from across many occupations, have done tasks that one might regard as information work as an element of their job, but no occupation does information work all of the time.
Our approach to the study of information work is both empirical and analytic. We go to the workplace to study many examples of what we regard to be information work. As part of our research there, we might identify the characteristics associated with that work. If there is a master set of characteristics that apply to all and only information work, so much the better – we have a definition. However, there is good reason to believe that most cases of information work will fit many but not all of the characteristics we can identify. In that case, we regard something as being information work if it fits most of the characteristics, even though any two instances of information work may differ slightly in their set of characteristics. It may also be possible eventually to classify different kinds of information work depending on which of these characteristics fit.
Drawing Upon Three Scholarly Traditions
Fortunately, our group does not have to start from scratch at this study. There have been three significant groups of scholars who have already studied aspects of information work, and we draw from all of them. One group has examined information technologies, such as computers and networking technologies, whether they are stand-alone or embedded in a system. These scholars pay attention to the performative aspects of people who build, apply, manage, maintain, or theorize about these technologies. A second group of scholars has focused on the work that is carried out in traditional information institutions – such as libraries, archives, and museums – that have as their organizational function collecting, preserving, interpreting, and disseminating various specific kinds of information. A third group of scholars have studied so-called knowledge workers, which might include all of the workers mentioned above but also include, for example, consultants, doctors, or engineers. These scholars have used the theories of social science to examine work in organizational settings. Our work builds upon these three traditions of scholarship.
How We Work with Our Students
As part of this preparation, our faculty work intensively with our doctoral students, engaging them in reading groups and research projects before they embark on their own studies. At the master’s level, we design and teach courses in information work and we engage students in projects of their design. We share with our students our expertise in the social sciences, including sociology, organizational studies, communication studies, science and technology studies, political science, public policy, and history.
- software development (including free and open source software)
- offshoring and outsourcing (more generally, the distribution of information workers)
- professional preparation and socialization of information workers
- gender, racial, and ethnic issues in the information workforce
- integration of information work and information technology into various application domains, e.g., the auto industry, science, and educational settings
- computer-supported cooperative work
- social media and work
- the trajectory of information work careers
- ethics and information policy
To Learn More:
Please contact any IWRG faculty member; our contact information appears under IWRG Faculty.