Social Media, Disciplinarity and Research Cultures

A number of recent activities has made me engage with the issue of academic disciplines in relation to my work and studies.

At last month’s JTEL Summer School in Macedonia, I participated in a group task based on one of the three grand challenges, Strengthening Learning Contexts. In presenting disciplinarity as a learning context, I drew largely on Tony Becher’s book (revised with Paul Trowler in 2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, which adopts a geographical metaphor to describe how historically defined academic disciplines and specialisms are perpetuated by the cultural values, norms and traditions which reside within them.

I recently came across a paper by Kuang-Hsu (Iris) Chiang (2003), in which she proposes that disciplinary diversity in doctoral education is engendered by the research training cultures, which she argues, are highly influential, not only in establishing the PhD students’ research environment, but also in their research processes and learning experiences. Taking the research training in Chemistry and Education respectively as examples, Chiang makes a clear distinction between a ‘teamwork’ structure and an ‘individualist’ structure. The social media sessions I’ve been running with LeRoy Hill at Graduate Centres in the University of Nottingham have been delivered to cross-disciplinary audiences (PhD and Early Career Researchers) from a number of Schools and Faculties. There are clear indications that disciplinary cultures may affect (though not exclusively) their attitudes to adopting and using social media in their studies.

I’ve commented before on the ‘privileged positions’ those who work in or study learning technologies have in using social media. The advantage I feel, is not so much in our familiarity and confidence with using the technologies (though that is clearly a factor), but more so in the richness of networks and communities we can rely on in which to participate. If students from other disciplines and specialisms do not have access to critical numbers of fellow academics within their fields who are using these tools – a concern raised by a number of attendees at our sessions – should we expect them to engage with social media at all?

Neil Selwyn’s excellent keynote address to the Ed-Media Conference in Toronto last week no doubt ruffled a few feathers, but his remarks serve to remind us of the clear disconnect between the potential of social media for learning and the reality of current adoption rates. If we are to engage with students and educators outside the ‘ed-tech bubble’, we can demonstrate the tools and establish best practices, but these need to be contextualised within the academic disciplines and research cultures of those we are trying hard to convince.


Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

Chiang, K.-H. (2003). Learning Experiences of Doctoral Students in UK Universities. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23 (1/2). 4-32.

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9 Responses to “Social Media, Disciplinarity and Research Cultures”

  1. Tweets that mention Social Media, Disciplinarity and Research Cultures | -- Says:

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  2. Michael Cowen Says:

    Hi Andy, my name is Michael Cowen, a soon to be new doctorate research student and I am following your lead in using collaborative web 2.0 as part of the research journey (although I see your is about actually helping researchers like me right?). My own research is changing most weeks as I read more and refine my thinking. My latest research idea is ‘Can coaching managers in immersive worlds lead to value shifts for MBA students towards sustainable business practices?’ I have much to read, do and understand but at the root of this research I hope to use action research to achieve the following outcomes:

    New elective course for MBA students
    New coaching model within immersive worlds?
    Clarification on Sustainability Values and Practices
    A System/framework that can be offered to any manager

    Now obviously immersive worlds are part of the web 2.0 paradigm but I would like to use other aspects in collaboration like Wiki’s. Would you mind helping me understand the implications of using a wiki? Don’t you worry that people take your ideas or your research for their own means? Isn’t there some pressure to create new knowledge at the end of the programme and someone might beat you to it?

    Any help or direction will be greatly appreciated. I’ve added your blog as an RSS feed for automatic posting.

    Yours sincerely,

    Michael Cowen

    PS. Are there many researchers using these tools? Is there a blog network going?

  3. virginia Yonkers Says:

    Andy, You might also want to look at Berkenkotter and Huckin, Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power. There has also been a lot of work on personal epistemology in learning, which is a related field.

    I currently am finding that each individual has different disciplines competing for dominance in their work (department, field of study, profession). I am now looking at when do each of these competing disciplines dominate.

    Michael: interestingly enough, your comment reinforces Andy’s post. I teach in Communication, Marketing/Management, Global Studies, Foreign Language Learning, and Education Departments. Business disciplines tend to focus on individuality and protecting intellectual property. Those in the Education field tend to throw ideas out to the public more, as it is ingrained in our training that there needs to be public input and interaction for learning to take place. I currently am blogging my dissertation process and Andy has a number of sites linked here that are doing the same.

  4. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Hi Virginia. It’s good you remind us of the heterogeneity of Doctoral students, which is not exclusively defined by the faculty to which they are affiliated, but also specialisms within (and potentially across) disciplines, as well as other professional roles and personal circumstances. I’ve come across genres through my Activity Theory reading, particularly in the work of David Russell, and Berkenkotter and Huckin’s book seems to be a key work. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Hi Michael. Willingness to share work in progress is ultimately a personal choice, though as Virginia suggests, this can be influenced by disciplinary research cultures. Good luck with your research.

  5. Michael Cowen Says:

    Thanks Andy and Virginia. I have a question…. are you not in the same position ultimately in that no matter what your research discipline, as one needs to demonstrate in doctorate research defense that you have contributed to knowledge? My point is that if researchers are posting their findings aka ‘throwing it out there’ in blogs and wikis, is there not the risk that a ultimately someone beats you to the post? How do you prove it is your work if someone leverages the new knowledge and publishes themselves????

    On thing I am finding is there is a technical barrier to using web 2.0, particularly as an older student :o) where do I find support to ramp up more quickly?

  6. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Certainly in the social sciences and humanities, there may be duplication of research foci but there are so many different perspectives, methodologies and conceptual frameworks out there to ensure a degree of uniqueness. I think contribution to the field is more important than claims to originality, and that can be measured in different ways.

  7. virginia Yonkers Says:

    I agree Andy, about the different perspectives. I thought I had a unique idea as I started my study. However, I am constantly finding others that have written about some of those ideas (that I thought were unique). Concerned about this and the fact that my study has not presented a ground breaking discovery or idea, he pretty much told me what you wrote Andy. Namely, that the importance is that you contribute to a body of literature, perhaps bringing in a new perspective and questions which will either change current thinking or support what is already out there (yet contributing to a deeper level of understanding).

    We all want “the big idea” but there are only so many ideas out there! And the dissertation has to be grounded in current literature, so it can’t be too different.

    Michael, in terms of the Web 2.0, a good start might be in the elearning learning blog (a consortium of blogs on elearning in the workplace).

  8. Michael Says:

    You guys are just wonferful. Take a look at a blog entry that I wrote this morning before reading your comments. I use the term “new knowledge” but I can see the variant with contribution to knowledge as being an addition in some way, and when one thinks about the different lenes and methods used perhaps it is not so hard to find that contribution. For me Web 2.0 is still on :o)

    Blog entry

  9. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Here’s another perspective in relation to the above debate:

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