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Taking Chatman back to prison: rethinking the theory of life in the round

Jane Garner (School of Information and Communication Studies, Charles Sturt University Faculty of Arts and Education, Wagga Wagga, Australia)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 14 December 2022




This paper serves to test the validity of Chatman’s theory of “Life Lived in the Round” within a modern prison context. In particular, it examines Propositions Five and Six of her theory.


Data regarding the information-seeking practices of Australian adult female and male prisoners from maximum-, medium- and minimum-security facilities was gathered through 106 surveys and 27 semi-structured interviews. Participants’ information-seeking from sources internal and external to the “small world” of the prison was described. The information behaviours of the participants were examined against Chatman’s theory of “Life in the Round” to determine its applicability in the prison context.


The data gathered does not support Chatman’s theory of “Life Lived in the Round”, despite that theory being developed in a prison context. Neither Proposition Five nor Proposition Six of Chatman’s theory can be supported when examined in the light of the current data.

Research limitations/implications

The inability of the data to support Chatman’s theory requires a reassessment of the applicability of the theory, at least to the prison context. As the theory was generated in part from a prison study, the foundational understandings of the theory could be questioned as a result of this current research.


Although Chatman’s theory has been examined against the information behaviours of other “Small World” communities, none of these studies have taken the theory back to the prison context from which the theory was developed. This study is also novel as its findings do not support Chatman’s theory, in contrast to other previously published examinations.



This study was conducted after the researcher gained full approval from the Charles Sturt University Human Research Ethics Committee and the Corrective Services New South Wales Research Evaluation and Statistics Team. All participants provided written informed consent before participating and were free to leave the study and withdraw their data at any time during the study. Consent to enter the Correctional Centres accessed for this study was kindly granted and supported by the General Managers of each site. The project was fully funded by a Charles Sturt University research fund.


Garner, J. (2022), "Taking Chatman back to prison: rethinking the theory of life in the round", Journal of Documentation, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.



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