Archive for February, 2011

Communality and Reciprocity – The Role of Language

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

If you’re not familiar with the ongoing Animate series of videos from the RSA, they are well worth a look. Whilst these short animations, based on excerpts from RSA lectures, may be fairly rudimentary, the visual annotation provides an innovative way of disseminating key concepts and ideas. I particularly recommend watching Sir Ken Robinson’s on changing paradigms if you have even the slightest interest in education.

In the latest Animate, Steven Pinker references Hollywood movies and everyday scenarios to explain the role of innuendo as a language-based negotiation of culturally defined social relations. He describes the dual purpose of language, that is; (i) to convey content, and (ii) to negotiate one of three specific ‘relationship types’, which anthropologist Alan Fiske defines as dominance, communality and reciprocity. He explains how the perceived appropriateness of a social interaction can be acceptable or anomalous to each relationship type, and is characterised by whether or not there is a mutual understanding. He goes on to argue that the visibility of this shared knowledge has profound consequences for political uprisings (which has particular resonance with current events in North Africa and the Middle East, and the role of social media.)

Hew and Hara (2007) present reciprocity as one of six motivators to sharing knowledge in online environments. Reciprocity can be direct – between a provider and a receiver – or generalised, indirectly by a third party (Ekeh, 1974). Whilst personal gain refers to increasing one’s own welfare (such as recognition, reputation and self-esteem), altruism increases the welfare of another person. Hoffman (1981) views group commitment or ‘collectivism’ as a variant of reciprocal altruism, in which the individual member increases the welfare of the community by identifying with and valuing a collective vision or purpose.

Pinker’s ideas introduce a fresh perspective to these types of discourses into the understanding of online knowledge exchange and community development, and raise a number of interesting questions. How are our participation, mutuality and reciprocity characterised by the (increasingly multimodal) forms of language apparent in our social interactions on the web? And are these defined by inherent technological cultures (‘nettiquette’ etc.) or by dominant social factors, power relations and hierarchies external to the web environment?


Ekeh, P. P. (1974). Social exchange theory: The two traditions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hew, K. F., & Hara, N. (2007). Knowledge Sharing In Online Environments: A Qualitative Case Study. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(14), 2310-2324.

Hoffman, M. L. (1981). Is altruism part of human nature? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(1), 121-137.

When everything fell into parts…

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

This weekend I’ve enjoyed reading about Young Vienna, a group of Fin-de-Siecle writers who frequented Café Griensteidl and other coffeehouses in the Austro-Hungarian capital at the turn of the 20th century. The group included Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, whose stream-of-consciousness writing prefigured Proust, Joyce and Woolf. According to Watson (2000), its coming together represented a pivotal moment in intellectual thought, at a time when the rigid sense of order defined by Newtonian physics was being challenged by the discovery of particles and quanta, and which coincided with increasingly Modernist influences in art and music, epitomised by Schoenberg’s experimentation with dissonance and atonality.

Another in the group, Hugo von Hofmannsthal suggested these epoch-defining events were defined by a shift towards multiplicity and indeterminacy. In describing his concept of ‘das Gleitende’ (the moving, the slipping, or the sliding), he declared:

“Everything fell into parts, the parts again into more parts, and nothing allowed itself to be embraced by concepts any more.”
(Quoted in Schorske, 1981: 19)


Schorske, C. (1981). Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Vintage Books

Watson, P. (2000). A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. London: Orion

Image: Reinhold Voelkel | Café Griensteidl (1896)

Non-Digital Researcher

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

My predominantly non-digital experience of yesterday’s Vitae Digital Researcher (my dodgy laptop plus erratic British Library wi-fi) was actually most enjoyable. And this is in no way a criticism of the event, which, similar to last year’s, managed to pull off the trick of engaging a large, multidisciplinary audience of doctoral students and trainers (well done to all concerned.)

In between the plenary sessions, the workshops and the keynote address from Aleks Krotoski, the programme provided several opportunities for discussion. I found myself in a lovely group of fellow academics who shared a healthy mix of enthusiasm and criticality in understanding their own social media practices. The organisers were particularly keen to encourage Twitter networking and amplification and collaborative meaning making through Google Docs. But for me, it was a useful reminder that sometimes the best conversations happen when we put down our mobile devices and close our laptops.

Student Internships Opportunity

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

I’m delighted to be involved in a new initiative with Jubilee Graduate Centre manager Tracy Sissons. We have secured funding for an internships programme, which will focus on the use of social media at doctoral level and explore opportunities for developing sustainable methods of sharing practice.

The programme builds on the workshop sessions I have been conducting in the University of Nottingham with LeRoy Hill. Crucially for me, the aims of the programme have been shaped significantly by the feedback – both formal and informal – that we received from the students and researchers who attended the sessions, and also draws on our own critical reflection of conducting the sessions, and our subsequent presentation and paper for the Future Learningscapes e-Learning Conference. To quote directly from the internships Role Description:

The experience of conducting these sessions indicated emerging and innovative practices in doctoral and post-doctoral scholarship. Yet examples of adoption and use of social media tend to be bottom-up and under-publicised in the wider academic community. Feedback from attendees indicated that opportunities for sharing good practice, in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts, are highly valued.

Essentially, we are looking at developing an online resource and a one-day event with which to showcase social media use and explore creative opportunities for critical and reflective debate. Both will be aimed at PhD students from all disciplines and will be accessible to audiences within and outside of the University of Nottingham.

We are looking to recruit two PhD students for the programme. Having done an internship myself – as a first and second year PhD student with the Visual Leaning Lab – I can appreciate how rewarding they can be, whilst recognising the difficulties in negotiating the extra workload on top of a busy doctoral schedule. Hopefully, by recruiting two interns, they will be able to develop a partnership that is collaborative and supportive.

Full details of the internships are here.

On #phdchat – some initial thoughts

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

This post is an early contribution to an exploratory exercise in collaborative writing following recent discussions with fellow Twitter users @jennifermjones, @martin_eve and @FlyGirlTwo. In discussing the activities associated with the recently established Twitter hashtag #phdchat and its emergent postgraduate student following, we hope to use our own online spaces to create an open dialogue for critical reflection that others (not least ‘phdchat-ters’ themselves) can contribute to and develop.

#phdchat is a themed, hour-long session held every Wednesday at 7.30pm UK time, with associated asynchronous chat through the rest of the week, and – at present – limited activity on other platforms (a wiki and a Facebook Group). For a more detailed overview, and an account of its brief history, see Martin’s excellent introductory post.

Many of the increasing number of studies into Twitter have adopted modes of enquiry based on largely quantitative and data mining methods, which provide very useful indicators of participation activity, frequency and interactions, often utilising easily accessible visual forms of dissemination. Microblogs like Twitter present researchers with explicit environments that lend themselves – perhaps too easily – to a network-based research paradigm that can reduce user relationships and interaction to nodes and clusters without adequately addressing the complexities that underpin such activities.

By critiquing such methodologies we can also problematize the over-emphasis on digital artefacts as a singular indicator of social media use. Whilst I realise active participation is fundamental to the web 2.0 rhetoric, we should recognise that the production and re-appropriation of digital artefacts do not necessarily represent the full picture of social media engagement and interaction. For example, I contributed to a recent weekly chat in between cooking tagliatelle and watching football on TV.

Several studies have attempted to develop more qualitative models for analysing tweets, including boyd, Golder et al.’s (2010) look into retweeting practices, whilst others (for example, Priem & Costello, 2010) adopt a mixed methods approach, supporting quantitative data with participant interviews. I’m sure there are other examples in the growing body of literature.

I encountered the difficulties in categorising Twitter use myself when, as part of my PhD pilot study, I attempted to develop a taxonomy of tweets based on individual participants’ use of Twitter in relation to their doctoral practices. Mutually inclusive categories were defined by:

  • Type – e.g. open, reply, retweet. direct message etc.
  • Orientation – e.g. crowdsourcing, notification, backchannel etc.
  • Feature – e.g. (includes) RT, link, hashtag etc.

In addition, I examined relationships within participants’ Twitter networks (followers and followees) by:

  • Location – to identify collocated and distributed research networks within and external to faculties and institutions
  • Academic Discipline – to identify modes of ‘locating’ in the research field, enculturation and boundary crossing across disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts
  • Academic Hierarchy – to identify peer support and participation and recognition in the research field

I’m not suggesting that even modified versions of these imperfect models would be appropriate for examining #phdchat, but it is useful to consider how such approaches might contribute to an understanding of emergent practices.

Discernible themes in #phdchat are naturally influenced by the pre-determined topics of each of the weekly chats, though it is not uncommon for participants to go ‘off-piste’ in their discussions. Whilst recurring themes related to ‘doing a PhD’ are clearly evident – such as specific academic practices (literature review, writing up etc.), theories and methodologies, and use of technologies – we also need to recognise that many of the tweets indicate phatic, empathic and socio-affective forms of conversation. It may well be these elements of peer support that represent the real value of this growing community.

This is only a start, but it’s getting interesting…


boyd, D., Golder, S., & Lotan, G. (2010). Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter. Proceedings of HICSS-43.

Priem, J. & Costello, K. L. (2010). How and why scholars cite on Twitter. Proceedings of ASIST 2010.

Learning, Media and Technology Doctoral Conference

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Good News. I’ve had my abstract accepted for the Learning, Media and Technology Doctoral Conference at the London Knowledge Lab on the 4th of July. I’ll be submitting a paper (4000-6000 words) for the online conference proceedings at the end of May. Reviewed papers will be considered for publication in a special issue of the Learning, Media and Technology journal. In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

The proposed paper describes current doctoral research into how a small sample of social sciences, humanities and interdisciplinary PhD students are adopting and using social and participative media (web 2.0) in their academic practices. The study uses a qualitative, mixed-method design of observation of online activities, participant-reported accounts and successive in-depth interviews. An Activity Theory-based analytical framework of interrelated activity systems is used to describe shifting patterns of practice across multifarious academic contexts and through key phases in the doctoral experience.

The study adopts holistic perspectives of (i) doctoral practices, that legitimises academic activities beyond those related purely to thesis-development and established models of participation and enculturation, and (ii) of social media, responding to the multiplicity, interrelatedness and transiency of web 2.0 tools and platforms. In doing so, it recognises the self-efficacy and heterogeneity of PhD study in the negotiation of multiple socio-technical research communities and networks, and the complex role social media can play in identity-formation and induction into doctoral scholarship and academic professional development.

In addressing the significant gap between the potential of web 2.0 and the reality of low adoption rates and lack of widespread use, the paper proposes that dominant discourses and idealised concepts within the educational technology and media communities do not necessarily reflect the majority of doctoral students’ engagement with social media. Rather, key incentives, disincentives and barriers created by tensions with embedded research cultures within and without the faculty, and inconsistencies in training opportunities and shared practice, heavily influence and disrupt patterns of adoption and use.

The paper will also describe how the dissemination of the activity systems analysis is facilitating the ongoing participant interviews, enabling a negotiated understanding of participants’ use of web 2.0, and encouraging a shared, critical and reflective dialogue for the development of effective social media practices.