It would seem that Social Constructionism and Hermeneutics could have a complementary purpose, with hermeneutics providing the methodological grounding that will encourage social constructivism to focus on the issues that matter..

horizontal rule


About Me



Information Science
Birger Hjorland 101 [pdf]
Information Poor
Social Constructionism
KM for Small Firms

Web Development

Information Science heading

Hermeneutics in Library and Information Science

Neil Pollock
1 June 2002


The possibilities for philosophical approaches in library and information science (LIS) extend well beyond positivism, social constructionism, sense-making and the cognitive approach. Birger Hjorland (Hjorland 2000, p525) lists some alternatives:

  • critical rationalism
  • feminist epistemology
  • historicism
  • Marxist philosophy of science
  • Kuhn's paradigm theory
  • postmodernism and poststructuralism
  • pragmatism
  • rationalism
  • realism, including critical realism
  • systems theory, and
  • hermeneutics and phenomenology

This paper is about the potential for the application of hermeneutics. We review its historical development, its characteristics and variations, and its application within LIS. Here is a snapshot of some ideas for the use of hermeneutics in LIS research and practice and their supporters:

  • Analysis of documents - Bendiktsson
  • Bibliographic organisation - Bendiktsson, Cornelius
  • Dynamic structures of vocabulary - Capurro
  • Information Management - Bendiktsson, Cornelius
  • Information Retrieval - Capurro, Bendiktsson, Cornelius
  • Library Practice - Cornelius
  • Library Purpose - Budd, Radford
  • Process Methodologies - Butler
  • Professional Communities and communication within these communities - Capurro
  • Reference Theory - Bendiktsson
  • Relevance - Froehlich, Capurro
  • Systems Development - Butler
  • Virtual Communities - Burnett


Hermeneutics has been called the 'art of interpretation' (Inwood). It can be translated from the classical Greek as 'to understand, to interpret, to decipher' (Hoel). Other phrase definitions include:

  • 'The theory or philosophy of the interpretation of meaning' (Bleicher).
  • 'The study of understanding' (Palmer).
  • 'The study of how context shapes and makes interpretation' (Froehlich).
  • 'Studies the transfer and interpretation of knowledge'(Hoel).

Its about interpretation, meaning and understanding. Its also about constructing an opposition to the assertion of positivism that all true knowledge is scientific. Unlike positivism hermeneutics is not a universal philosophy, it is a philosophy from and for the humanities and social sciences. It is the study of the relationships between humans and their world.

Origins and Development

The term is linked to Hermes, the messenger god. He had to be familiar with the language of both gods and mortals to correctly interpret the meaning of the gods messages and translate them in such a way as ordinary people could understand them (Butler, p286).

Our interest begins with the Reformation. German Lutherans needed to interpret the Bible free from the corruption that they believed Roman Catholicism had placed on it (Hoel, p74). Hermeneutics was extended to include the interpretation of law and classical literature. This 'classical', philologically based hermeneutics, continues to this day.

Wilhelm Dilthey 1833-1911 possessed a theological background and extended hermeneutics beyond texts to include both self and humanity. It became a tool for "humanistic scientific work" (Hoel, p75).

Martin Heidegger 1889-1976 developed the modern day conception of hermeneutics and brought influences from existentialism.

  • The act of interpretation is an innate characteristic of humans and is carried out in everyday life.
  • Interpretations involve presuppositions; 'to interpret something as a book I must be familiar with a world in which books have a place, a world of rooms, furniture, shelves, readers'. (Inwood, p387)
  • Meaning is given to words from the inter-relationships in our world.
  • Knowledge is only possible through this interaction with the day to day activity.

Edmund Husserl 1859-1938 developed the related and somewhat complementary theory of phenomenology:

  • The task of phenomenology is to understand the relationship between consciousness and being.
  • Objects are 'grasped in intuition'.
  • Most objects are not noticed - they don't need to be interpreted - because we take them for granted.
  • Phenomena only become objects for interpretation when they 'constitute' a breakdown in understanding.

Hans-George Gadamer 1900-1998 is perhaps the central figure for the contemporary application of hermeneutics

He combined Heidegger's existential hermeneutics with Husserl's phenomenology

  • Central is the understanding man has in the world of daily life. All methodological and scientific understanding is secondary to this.
  • Pre-understanding (or 'prejudice') is a precondition to understanding.
  • Pre-understanding is shaped by 'tradition'.
  • Tradition is the familiar and comfortable surrounds. It is historically and socially constructed.
  • All understanding is interpretation and all interpretation takes place in the medium of language.
  • Language is the "middle ground" where understanding and agreement take place between two people concerning the phenomena of interest.
  • A web or network of relations with others helps formulate and realise the possibilities.
  • Gadamer introduced the concept of 'horizons' discussed below.

Paul Ricoeur 1913- , has been a prolific writer in the field. His focus has been on the reader and text. He is uncomfortable with the intrinsic subjectivity associated with Gadamer's hermeneutics.

  • He added 'structuralism' - social actions and situations can form a whole or part. The actions must be placed within a 'wider context of institutions and social structure' (Butler, p292).
  • All interpretation places the interpreter somewhere in the middle of a conversation which has already begun...which we try to orient ourselves to in order to be able to contribute to it (Budd, p9).
  • He has been influenced by semiotics, and has a belief of the primacy of the written word over the spoken (Bendiktsson, p217)

The Hermeneutic Circle

Understanding has a circular structure. There is a formal relation between the parts and the whole of a phenomenon. Understanding the parts can only occur after determining their relationship to the whole. Through prejudice laden pre-understanding each part will be interpreted and its meaning and relationship to the whole consolidated into an emergent understanding of the whole phenomenon. The horizons of interpreter and the phenomenon will gradually fuse (Butler p290-291).

  • We don't notice most things in life - most objects are taken for granted,
  • until we have a 'breakdown' in understanding
  • then something becomes a phenomenon.
  • Phenomena are composed of parts or details.
  • When looking at parts we anticipate the whole.
  • We use questioning based on our prejudice and pre-understanding to build meaning and relationships.
  • As our knowledge of a phenomenon grows we cycle again through a process of looking at the parts and their relationship until we get a finer understanding,
  • until the 'breakdown' is repaired.

Fusion of Horizons

"Gadamer suggested that we develop a fusion of horizons whereby differing viewpoints come to understand one other by melting into each other through developing a common language" (Cornelius, p206).

  • The horizon is everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.
  • The horizon is not fixed, it is in motion - because the tradition changes as we advance with time.
  • The phenomena under observation also has a horizon (e.g. a book's tradition will be different at any point in time).
  • The fusion of horizons is "the culmination of the act of understanding between interpreter and interpreted, researcher and researched".

Limiting the Possibilities

One of the criticism of hermeneutics is its relativism. How do we know what interpretation is the best?

"We cannot be sure that our interpretation is correct, or better than previous interpretations. Our interpretation, and our verdict on previous interpretations, is open to future revision". In interpreting a past text we explore our own pre-understanding as much of the text itself" (Inwood, p388). So it is likely that as we interpret iteratively through the hermeneutic circle we obtain a growing understanding. Further, according to Gadamer the interpretative process is constrained by:

  • Tradition - previous history and preunderstanding both limit the possibilities.
  • Reflection - we make considered judgments which limit the possibilities.
  • Intentionality - our intend purpose limits the possibilities.

Varieties of Hermeneutics

Butler and Bendiktsson have divided modern hermeneutics into types:
Philosopher Butler's Type Bendiktsson's Type
Betti Conservative Hermeneutical Theory
Gadamer Pragmatic (Constructivist) Hermeneutical Philosophy
Heidegger Pragmatic (Constructivist) is best fit Hermeneutical Philosophy
Wittgenstein Pragmatic (Constructivist)
Apel Critical Critical
Habermas Critical Critical
Ricoeur (Discussed but not classified) Ricoeur's Phenomonological Hermeneutics
Derrida Radical (Deconstructionalist)

Butler considers that Heidegger and Gadamer provide the most suitable foundations for research into information systems. Bendiktsson is concerned with text and favours Betti and Ricoeur. Burnett also favours Ricoeur for his study of virtual communities because of the focus on text. Currently Gadamer and Ricoeur seem to be most influential.

The simplified differences are:
Hermeneutical Theory/Conservative Uncover original meanings as intended by the author. Believes in objectivity - there are correct interpretations not bound by history or context.
Constructivist or Pragmatic Enter into the interpretative norms of the community. Consider the historical contexts of the interpreter and interpreted.
Critical The purpose of interpretation is emancipatory. Conventional wisdom is challenged to address issues of power
Radical or Deconstructionist "Text and social action are treated as an endless play of signs that reveal and conceal knowledge through the play of difference and contradiction"

(Adapted from Butler, p286.)

A Summary of Central Principles of Modern Hermeneutics

  • People by nature interpret the world around them and their place in it.
  • Their life world is a sum of their experiences.
  • New experience is always made in the context of the old.
  • We can understand the meaning of complex social interactions using interpretations from perspectives of daily life experience.
  • We can then understand social, political, cultural, economic, historical context that frames this experience.
  • In practice and research we move forward and back and forth between immersed observation, understanding and interpretation as we move through iterations of the hermeneutic circle.
  • A text has its own life world. By interpreting a work we change it.

The Contrast with Positivism

Positivism may be a valid epistemology for the world of physical objects and the relation between these objects and natural forces, but hermeneutics seeks the higher epistemological ground within the context of the relationship between objects and people.

There is an assumption that positivism and empiricism can be applied to any research question. For hermeneutics and phenomenology the theory and method must reflect the object under study (Hjorland 2000, p.524). Joseph Natoli claims that "the positivist's search for a socially determining factor is actually a quest for control" (Bendiktsson, p205). Budd argues that research should not be preoccupied with method but be governed by questions. He considers that positivists often miss addressing the essential questions (Budd 1995).

In looking at essence and meaning there is a strong strand ethical strand in hermeneutics in interpreting whether actions are taken for the social good. "For Cornelius, 'the validation of social theory in the interpretive account lies in its ability to change social practice for the better" (Cornelius, p205). Capurro and Froehlich have written extensively on ethics.

Applications for LIS

As way of illustration, below are summaries of how five practitioners have applied or proposed that information science apply hermeneutic philosophy.

John Budd

(School of Library and Information Science, University of Missouri)

He sees hermeneutics providing a more holistic view. We should start with meaningful questions, questions that may not lend themselves to empirical testing - such as what are the reasons for the library's existence? He states that while cataloguing rules and classification schemes are the result of interpretive acts, little in the way of interpretive research is applied in order to improve these rules and schemes

... [T]hought in library and information science (LIS) has largely been founded on the determinism that is inherent in a positivist approach to research. A reassessment would have to begin with a realization of the indeterminacy of much human behavior. Given such a realization, the thinking within LIS should be more skeptical of methods and practices that purport to offer suggestions of causality based on the examination of limited variables or aspects of a phenomenon.. (Budd 1995, p14 in web format)

Tom Butler

(Telecommunications Engineer, Telecom Eireann & Lecturer, Finance of Information Systems, University College, Cork)

Butler's focus is information system design. He has used Gadamer/Heidegger hermeneutics to "socially construct" systems development processes. A full exposition of the method is contained in Butler p.296-297. It includes iteration through five hermeneutic circles and provides a useful template for other researchers in its positioning of the researcher's horizon, the phenomenon's horizon and the parts of the whole.

Systems design seems a particularly fertile and active area for hermeneutics. The London based Journal of Information Technology is a particular forum for the humanistic focus on technology systems.

Thomas Froehlich

(School of Library and Information Science, Kent State University)

Relevance judgments are about interpretations - not systematic matching. He states that in relevance research:

"researchers are trying to study the collective set of interpretations that end-users may bring to information systems, the collective set of interpretations that place a document and surrogate document in a system, and the mediation that is supposed to facilitate the coincidence of those interpretations' (Froehlich, p130)

Thus he suggests that we study the interpretations of the user - their need and representations, creating prototype users within different domains; of the information collection and its representation; and of mediation, both by the informational retrieval system and by the intermediary.

"If one sees relevance judgments as a process of interpretive frames or hermeneutics based upon prototypical users with finite sets of criteria for relevance judgments, one may be able to evolve a better conceptual framework for designing and developing systems" (Froehlich, p131).

Gary Burnett

(Assistant Professor, School of Information Studies, Florida State University)

Gary Burnett has chosen hermeneutics as the methodology for the study of community creation within virtual communities,

"as it can provide a mechanism for understanding the ways in which participants ...build their communities through interpretive acts or, more accurately through interpretation made manifest in acts of writing in response to other writing" (Burnett, p162)

Burnett chooses Ricoeur's variation as it:

"has had the clearest emphasis on textuality and has been the mostly clearly focused of the challenges of making 'distancification' meaningful and productive' (Burnett, p163).

Ian Cornelius

(Dept of Library and Information Studies, University College, Dublin)

Cornelius argues that the interpretive method can provide a deep insight into practice. His view is similar to Budd's in that hermeneutics can be used to locate the critical questions within information practice. However his emphasis is on empowering librarians with meaningful epistemology and methodology, which they can then use to interpret, understand and thus make better decisions on their professional life-worlds. In the hermeneutic environment:

"...all participants in a practice are inevitably theorizing about their place and developing or sharing interpretations of it that reflects what they see the practice as being" (Cornelius 207-208).

"The interpretive approach offers practitioners the means to recapture research and theory in the field and to harness it to improved practice and enhanced and broader understanding" (Cornelius, p215).

He sees a distance between the theoretical work of information scientists and the daily practicalities of librarianship. He questions whether the preoccupation with the status of a LIS as science (Cornelius prefers 'information studies') has contributed to this dichotomy.

Barriers to Application

Because of its dominance and claims for an all purpose application, the positivist/empiricist research epistemology has become basic to tertiary courses purporting to teach a "science". It is so dominant that students generally have considerable pre-understanding of the approach prior to interpreting the coursework.

The barrier for Bendiktsson is not just about training hermeneutics practitioners but having enough experience to utilise it:

"...empirical methods can be successfully imparted to students, while a good historical or hermeneutical outlook and treatment of a subject can only be learned, mostly through painstaking personal effort and experience" (Bendiktsson, p203)

Similarly for Butler it is having the depth of knowledge to enable one to position the interpretation within one of the variations of hermeneutics:

'...proclaiming oneself a interpretivist does not go far enough, because of the fact that competing interpretive approaches do not share the same ontological, epistemological or methodological perspectives' (Butler, p297-298)


"..there is an imperative for researchers to understand not only the fundamental features of human Being-in-the-world, but also their own existence in their life-world" (Butler, p.298)

For Cornelius those applying hermeneutics must be also skilled practitioners centred within their domains:

"...the interpretive approach offers practitioners the means to recapture research and theory in the field and to harness it to improved practice and enhanced and broader understanding of the whole field of information studies, but this is not available to anyone. Practitioners...must of course be skilled technically in the demands of their practice" (Cornelius, p215).

The barriers are considerable but perhaps that is not such a bad thing. The widespread belief that the entry point for research is simply passion, or a good idea and someone to support a project, has produced so much research that lacks rigour and usefulness. A small amount of hermeneutical research well grounded in epistemology and conducted by experienced practitioners, is perhaps much more useful than a flood of quantitative research that misses the point.

A further barrier is likely that hermeneutics appears light on structured method. This is the nature of something that is often defined as an art rather than a science. As Butler writes "method does not supplant personal subjective judgment, nor eliminate the need for it. It is meant to aid good judgment" (Butler, p292).

The bottom line is that hermeneutics is the 'art of interpretation' - more so than the science of interpretation. It operates in an environment of uncertainly, within a complex web of parts and wholes and the availability of extensive choices - and there is no objective way to test whether it's been done well or not. Being an art it is difficult to do well, and when completed there is likely to be disagreement as to how well it has been done.


Those authors seeking a hermeneutic turn in LIS are looking for a epistemological basis that the field can call its own. From this basis LIS can expand its horizons to the full and broadening field of information studies which increasingly reside outside of libraries. Ron Day explains:

"One of the difficulties LIS has had in establishing itself as a science within the modern university is the difficulty it has had in defining a methodology that is intrinsic to it. This is a result of the more primary problem of finding an object that is distinct, autonomous, and 'objective'. ...Libraries no longer constitute distinct, autonomous objects, but now are understood as specific locations within flows of information production and exchange. ....Information does not lend itself to being represented as a distinct, autonomous object. Rather, it is always partial, defined by its contexts of enunciation rather than by a positive representation"(Day, web article).

Similarly for Cornelius this epistemology must first enable LIS practitioners to fully understand their professional world and their place in it:

"One of the main problems for information studies has been to articulate a sense of itself that ties together its past, present and future as a recognised practice with an academic disciplinary component" (Cornelius,p211).

In none of the readings cited above has social constructivism been mentioned. The two philosophical viewpoints seem to inhabit quite separate intellectual domains and schools. A rare information scientist who seems thoroughly familiar with both is Birger Hjorland (Hjorland 1997). The hermeneutics of Heidegger/Gadamer has elements in common with social constructivism. It would seem that the two approaches could have a complementary purpose, with hermeneutics providing the methodological grounding that will encourage social constructivism to focus on the issues that matter.

LIS References

Bendiktsson, D. (1989). Hermeneutics: dimensions toward LIS thinking. Library and Information Science Research 11 (1989): 201-34

Budd, J.M. (1995). An epistemological foundation for library and information science. Library Quarterly, 65:295-

Budd, J.M. (2001). Instances of ideology in discursive practice: implications for library and information science. Library Quarterly, 71: 498-

Burnett, G. (2002). The scattered members of an invisible republic: virtual communities and Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutics. Library Quarterly, 72: 155-178

Butler, T. (1998). Toward a hermeneutic method for interpretative research in information systems. Journal of Information Technology, 13:285-300.

Capurro, R. (1985) Epistemology and information science. One of three lectures at the Royal Institute of Technology Library (Stockholm, Sweden), published as Report Trita-Lib-6023 August 1985, Stephan Schwarz. Ed. http://www.capurro.de/trita.htm

Capurro, R. (2000). Hermeneutics and the phenomenon of information. In: Carl Mitcham, ed.: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Technology. Research in Philosophy and Technology, 19: 79-85. http://www.capurro.de/ny86.htm.

Cornelius, I. (1996). Meaning and method in information studies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Day, R. (1996). LIS, method, and postmodern science. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 37(4). Read as: http://www.lisp.wayne.edu/~ai2398/method.html

Froehlich, T.J. (1994). Relevance reconsidered - towards an agenda for the 21st century: topic issue in relevance research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. April 124-134

Hjorland, B. (1997). Information seeking and subject representation: an activity-theoretical approach to information science. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Hjorland, B. (2000). Library and information science: practice, theory and philosophical basis. Information Processing and Management 36: 501-531.

Hoel, I. (1992) . Information Science and hermeneutics - should information science be interpreted as a historical and humanistic science? In Vakkari, P & Cronin, B. (eds.) Conceptions of library and information science: historical, empirical and theoretical perspectives. London: Taylor Graham. 69-81

Powell, R. (1999). Recent trends in research: a methodological essay. Library and Information Science Research 21: 91-119.

Radford, Gary P. Positivism, Foucault, and the Fantasia of the Library: Conceptions of Knowledge and the Modern Library Experience. Library Quarterly 62 (October 1992): 408-24.

Key Philosophical References

[not necessarily read for this work but provided as a guide to further reading]

Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, (1975)

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962 Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier, 1962.

Inwood, M. Hermeneutics. In Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Routledge: London, 1998. 384-389.

Ricoeur, Paul. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutic, II. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation. Edited and translated by John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

horizontal rule
Contact me on neiljpollock@yahoo.com if you want to share some thoughts
This page modified 14 July 2002