Posts Tagged ‘digital identity’

Digital Identit(y/ies) – Presentation and Notes

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

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.

Challenging the Binaries

Friday, April 20th, 2012

I’ve had my abstract accepted for Challenging the Binaries, the Centre for the Study of Literacies International Conference at the University of Sheffield on the 29th and 30th of June. The paper will expand on ideas I discussed in a previous blog post. My abstract is as follows:

Drawing on my research into how PhD students are using social and participatory media, I problematize binaries associated with online identity by adopting two generally opposing social practices from lifelong learning studies: the ‘confessional’ and the ‘critical’ (Usher et al., 1996).

In a confessional practice, the learner is disempowered in accepting the dominant (often solitary) model of learning, aligning her subjectivities with formal educational discourses to articulate her own learning needs. Corresponding pedagogies are based on rhetoric of the ‘self,’ and manifest in professional profiling and portfolio development (Tennant, 2009). Identity is seen as stable, developmental and coherent across spaces of productivity, reinforcing binaries of formal and informal, and work and recreation.

In a critical practice, identity is multiple, fluid and fragmentary. Rather than adapting to specific learning contexts, empowerment is authenticated through questioning, challenging and potentially changing them through discursive practices. The literature on critical pedagogies locates the politics of self-representation within the cultural processes of education, and sees the learner as a socially and politically constituted agent able to shape her identity construction.

Through developing authentic representations of ‘doing a PhD,’ framed within the transformative nature of the doctoral learning experience, I argue identity construction extends beyond activities associated with thesis development and models of socialisation, to incorporate student agency within and across multiple practice contexts, ranging from entrepreneurialism to student activism.


Tennant, M. (2009). Lifelong learning as a technology of the self. In K. Illeris, Contemporary theories of learning (pp. 147-158). London: Routledge.

Usher, R., Bryant, I., & Johnston, R. (1996). Adult education and the postmodern challenge: Learning beyond the limits. London: Routledge.

Digital Identit(y/ies): A Postmodernist Perspective

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

In researching approaches to digital identity, I recently came across a model which I found particularly interesting. In their schema of experiential learning, Usher, Bryant et al. (1996) describe how lifelong learning can be understood in relation to two continua (autonomy to adaptation, and application to expression) which create four specific contemporary social practices: lifestyle, confessional, vocational, and critical.

The idea of identity formation is particularly evident in the two opposing practices of the confessional and the critical:

Confessional Practice

Drawing largely on Foucault’s notion of the ‘confession’ – which they describe as a “ritual that unfolds within a power relationship” – Edwards and Usher (2001) argue that in a confessional practice, the learner adopts the dominant socio-economic environment. In a process where the “externally imposed discipline has given way to the self-discipline of an autonomous subjectivity,” (12-13) the learner is disempowered in accepting the dominant (or often solitary) model of learning, aligning his subjectivities with formal educational discourses to articulate his own learning needs. Here, the pedagogic emphasis is on self-improvement, self-development and self-evaluation, which Tenant (2009) observes is particularly manifest in learning plans and portfolio development. This promotes a modernist notion of identity; one that is stable, unified, coherent and developmental.

Critical Practice

Critical perspectives argue that – unlike in the confessional practice, where empowerment is illusory – practice authenticates empowerment through self and social transformation. Autonomy is achieved through questioning, challenging and potentially changing (rather than adapting to) particular learning contexts. Meanings are not a given, but are produced through discursive practices (Tenant, 2009). Corresponding literature on critical pedagogies emphasises the politics of representation in the cultural processes of learning and education, and sees representation of self as a socially and politically constituted agent that shapes identity formation. Edwards and Usher (2001) see critical practice as promoting a postmodernist perspective which understands culture as an ongoing process, in a state of constant flux, and recognises that identity can be multiple, fragmentary and pseudonomic.

So how does identity formation within these two practices translate to the formation of digital identities and reputations, and to the representation(s) of self on the social web?


Edwards, R., & Usher, R. (2001). Lifelong Learning: A Postmodern Condition of Education? Adult Education Quarterly. 51, 273-287.

Tennant, M. (2009). Lifelong learning as a technology of the self. In Illeris, K., Contemporary Theories of Learning. London: Routledge. 147-158.

Usher, R., Bryant, I., & Johnston, R. (1996). Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge: Learning Beyond the Limits. London: Routledge.