Digital Identit(y/ies) – Presentation and Notes

Last Friday, I presented at the Challenging the Binaries conference hosted by the Centre for the Study of Literacies at the School of Education, University of Sheffield. It was friendly and engaging, with some excellent keynote presentations and subsequent debate facilitated by Neil Selwyn. Discussions focussed a lot on how the ‘new’ and the ‘digital’ are conceptualised within literacies studies, and – coming from outside this field – I found some of the approaches to researching digital technologies both refreshing and challenging. There is, I think, potential for greater dialogue between the literacies and educational technology fields around social media and digital practices. Thanks again to those who came to my session and contributed to the discussion. Here are the presentation and notes.

1. Introduction

Drawing on my own research into how PhD students are using social and participatory media.

Research question related to identity production and agency within doctoral education.

  • Theoretical aspects of identity – key themes from postmodernist and sociocultural perspectives
  • Methodological and analytical aspects of my research
  • Some key findings

2. Theorising / Conceptualising Digital Identity

The concept of digital identity is primarily a socio­technical construct that has evolved through a number of theoretical perspectives.

Digital or online identity generally understood as the representation of a persona that an individual presents across the digital environments in which he or she participates.

General Westernised notion of identity as a coherent, unified subject – maturation is conceptualised as establishing a consistent identity.

Digital identity is seen as multiphrenic (Gergan, 2000) – identity created through multiple subjectivities, but also performed and presented across multiple media / formats / genres.

Emergent contributions from the sociological and sociocultural literature – combining personal subjectivities with cultural forms and social relations.

3. Doctoral Contexts

Consensus that doing a PhD is not just acquiring specialised knowledge and skills, and making an original contribution to knowledge.

But constitutes a critical and transformation of identity – often the most transformative period of an academic’s professional life.

Kamler and Thomson (2006) – writing constitutes principal role of performativity in establishing scholarly identity – literature review reconceptualised as a key site of identity work.

Proposing social media as increasingly important sites for doctoral identity work.

Requires holistic approaches to develop authentic representations of ‘doing a PhD’:

  • Include academic practices beyond those related purely to thesis-development.
  • Challenge models of socialisation and enculturation exclusively within localised or disciplinary settings.

4. Usher Framework

Identity represents a hugely complex theoretical field – from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies.

Usher, Bryant and Johnson – Postmodernist educational perspective.

Schema of experiential learning – distinct social practices in the context of lifelong learning.

5. Confessional and Critical Practice

Two generally opposing social practices:

Confessional practice

Draws on Foucault’s notion of the ‘confession’ – as rituals in power relationships.

The learner is:

  • Disempowered in accepting the dominant (often solitary) model of learning.
  • Required to align her subjectivities with formal educational discourses.

Within digital environment:

  • Pedagogies are based on rhetoric of the ‘self’ – manifest in professional profiling, portfolio development, self-branding.
  • Reinforces educational binaries of formal and informal, and professional binaries of work-based and recreational activities.

Critical practice

  • The learner is a politically constituted agent able to shape her own learning.
  • Resonates with critical pedagogy – politics of self-representation.
  • Rather than adapting to specific learning contexts – these are challenged and potentially changed through discursive practices.
  • Partly played out in the digital environment.

6. Sociocultural Perspectives

Reified forms of perfomativity – social production, interaction and participation.

Identity development as a competency.

Provisional Selves – external feedback and internal beliefs – prioritise and value different activities and roles

Students assess their capacity to enact the behaviours associated with them before taking on the identity associated with that role. In effect, envisioning imagined possible or ‘provisional selves.’

Implications for socialisation and enculturation within norms and values.

Situated learning perspective – identity development is constitutive to the increased capacity to participate in multiple communities of practice

7. Figured World

Socioculturalist / postmodernist theoretical view of identity as distributed, constantly forming multiple, sometimes contradictory, selves.

Holland et al reconceptualise this as active participation in specific environments they call ‘figured worlds.’

8. Research Design

Highly qualitative, mixed-method design

Open coding and ‘thick description’

Consecutive interviews spaced at 3/4-monthly intervals – interpreting and refining participants’ perspectives.

Chose NOT to use Activity Theory notation (i.e. triangular model) – so not to compromise ‘authenticity’ of participants’ own terminology and meaning making processes.

9. Analytical Framework

Activity Theory

  • Social, cultural and historical perspective of doctoral practices
  • Culturally-mediated, object-oriented activity systems
  • Objects are emergent and partly shared, fragmented and contested

Activity Systems

  • Development of cultural artefacts
  • Figured worlds and genre knowledge

Analytical framework of interrelated activity systems – to describe shifting patterns of digitally mediated doctoral practices across multiple practice contexts and through key transitional phases of doctoral study

At operational level – objects as ‘problem spaces’ equate to interrelated doctoral practices.

Focus on development of contradictions and cultural artefacts.

10. Genres

Socio-cultural fork of Genre Studies (e.g. Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1993).

Traditions of using tools rather than artefact categorisation.

Conceptual fit with activity theory.

Development of ‘genre knowledge’ – social and dialogical process.

11. Figured Worlds

Identities are improvised:

  • within specific social / cultural situations
  • based on past experiences (history-in-person)
  • using the cultural resources available
  • in response to the subject positions

In appropriating these improvisations as heuristics they can become tools of agency and identity construction.

Figured worlds enable cultural artefact development by providing the social and cultural contexts.

12/13. Some Findings

The PhD student is characterised as negotiating multiple, wide-ranging, and potentially conflicting practice contexts.

Developing strategies across multiple contexts and sites of identity production provides PhD students with opportunities for effectively positioning themselves in sites of knowledge, resources, opportunities and influence.

Sophisticated negotiation of identity and roles – “playing the game.”

Doctoral identity construction and agency:

  • Within and across multiple practice contexts
  • Within and outside of formal institutional and disciplinary boundaries

Social media practices within and across figured worlds increase ‘authenticity.’

Diverse interrelated doctoral research cultures – (inter)disciplinary, supervisory, departmental, peer group, entrepreneurial, industry and third sector relations.

Use of social media provides spaces of authorship (Bahktin) provide opportunities for empowering and potentially disempowering this process.

14. Digital Literacies

Implications to digital literacies.

Digital literacies – highly contested term.

Beyond cognitive / functional use of digital technologies and related skills / competencies.

Towards holistic understanding of creative and critical uses of digital technologies, and social and cultural settings.

Digital identity equates to ‘ways of being’ in the digital environment

Navigating increasingly complex interdisciplinary and interrelated practice contexts.

Genre knowledge – compare with multimodal literacy (Gunther Kress etc.).

Contribution to a deeper and more nuance understanding of digital literacies – within the contexts of research practices and doctoral education.

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4 Responses to “Digital Identit(y/ies) – Presentation and Notes”

  1. Virginia Yonkers Says:

    This is very interesting ( a seems to parallel my findings about distributed groups). A could of questions I’d be interested in you developing a bit more:

    I’m assuming that most of your work was in Britain. Do you think some of your findings about identity is unique to the British or an Anglo culture or do you think they would be universal? I’m especially interested in the self-identity of a Phd student.

    You mention about mature individuals and their identity. Do you think any of your findings may differ due to age? Why or why not?

    Finally, do you believe digital literacies are dependent upon digital tool affordances, the environment that is created outside of an individual identity within digital spaces (in other words are there parallel environments and literacies that compete for an individual’s identity), and/or the different activity networks that digital environments create which creates wide ranging cognition and dissonance for the individual.

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Hi Virginia. Thanks for the questions.

    I discussed ‘maturity’ in the academic sense – developing as a researcher, and how the transition between student and independent researcher can involve multiple, fragmented and potentially conflicting identities – much more complex than apprenticeship models suggest.

    Digital literacies is a term I tend to avoid. I threw it in at the end for any responses as it was a literacies conference. I’m drawn to the socio-cultural aspects of digital literacies – beyond skills / competences etc. I think the concept of genre ‘knowledge’ is relevant here – in terms of how participants come to recognise how specific genres of social media practice can be utilised, or challenged, or become barriers for agency. I see genres here as more ‘traditions of use’ than categories of social media artefacts – that cultural and historical element fits conceptually with Activity Theory, and conceptualises the use of social media in context with other (more established) doctoral practices. I think Literacies Studies are engaging in these ideas too, but maybe using different terminology (though obviously Genre Studies has some overlap).

  3. Virginia Yonkers Says:

    I wonder if “literacies” may have different definitions depending on place and discipline. In the US, literacy is totally a cultural/sociological based activity in which competency and skills in decoding written symbols cannot be done without the cultural basis that makes up “literacy”. In fact, being illiterate means that an individual cannot participate in society at the same level (see Freire’s theories).

  4. Andy Coverdale Says:

    I’m not sure there are any great differences here within the disciplinary study of literacies itself, but perhaps how ‘literacies’ are interpreted and used (leveraged?) in different facets of educational policy (in this case, the use of technologies) may differ across regions, and for that matter, educational sectors.

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