‘Our’ positionality?

“Staggered” flickr photo by Jingles the Pirate https://flickr.com/photos/jinglesthepirate/2886174816 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Statements of researcher positionality are often more closely associated with qualitative studies, which, by their nature, may not have complete objectivity as a primary goal. Recognising that the researcher is bound up within the study, rather than separate and viewing it dispassionately from the sidelines, it is important to acknowledge what baggage they bring to the study. This requires acknowledging amongst other factors, one’s gender, race, beliefs, socioeconomic status, age, cultural background, political views, and how they might influence the research as it unfolds. Though important, this is not merely a matter of what effects these factors have on participants, but since the researcher as the primary instrument of data collection, what effects they also have on how findings are presented and interpreted. It’s important to remember too, that reaching the position of interacting with participants only comes after the research has been designed and planned; one’s beliefs and background will also have an influence here too.

This post then is my first attempt to pull together the foundations of the positionality statement which will eventually find its way into my thesis. A first draft, which will be improved by your feedback 😉

Bringing a sociomaterial sensibility built on actor-network theory to this study positions me in a particular way. This eschews the notion of a pre-existent reality ‘out-there’ waiting for the knowing subject to discover and explain it. Nor is reality constructed by the distant researcher through a set of discursive practices. Instead, reality is performative, brought into being as a result of the relationships which form and reform when actors, both human and nonhuman, intra-act. As a researcher of and with teachers using Twitter then, I am entangled with a heterogenous mix of educators, software platforms, digital devices, terms of service, time zones, screens, hashtags and notifications. What emerges from the study depends on the knowledge practices which are brought to bear, but these do not solely involve a researcher, research participants and standard qualitative methods, but also an eclectic mix of other nonhuman actors. Together their relational performances constitute ‘methods assemblage’ (Law, 2004), where different realities become enacted depending on the actors which participate. One implication might be that this should not be statement of my positionality, but of ours.

In acknowledging that, for example, the interview might produce different knowledge than participant observation, by using NVivo rather than coloured sticky notes, scissors and highlighter pens, might also do the same. Collecting a bunch of tweets using DataMiner, TAGS, NCapture or Storify will produce different sets of data, will offer different manipulation tools and analysis support, and will consequently perform different knowledge. All software is ‘opinionated’ in that ‘… it encourages (and discourages) certain ways of thinking, of solving problems, of structuring ideas. Software embodies a vision of the world’ (Raymond, 2007, p. 11) and as a consequence. It too has a positionality. Unfortunately, the commercial nature of much of the software that is involved in the research endeavour means that those ‘opinions’ may be buried within the hidden algorithms and code. I think it might helpful to produce an appendix which provides an account of the different applications which participated in this study, and discuss their role in more detail as they make appearances within the thesis. I’ll be guided by Adams and Thompson (2016: 89) who remind me that:

Situating the researcher as the sole arbiter in how a research project ultimately unfolds, while superficially correct, overlooks entirely the many subtle, but sometimes profound knowledge and practice implications at stake in digital technology integration.


Although the positionality of Twitter or Google or Skype might be challenging for me to render, my own positionality ought to present fewer problems, so it is to that that I now turn. I am a white, middle-class, male from the north of England in the UK and am nearing retirement age. I am fluent in English as my first language and have only an A2/B1 CEF level of competence in French, Dutch and German. The first half of my career (twenty years) was spent teaching Physics in the English state secondary system, and the second half in various roles supporting schools and teachers in implementing digital technologies. During this second phase, as my interest in and enthusiasm for digital technologies grew, I became increasingly interested in furthering my understanding, so completed certifications Masters level (Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change) and in vendor qualifications (e.g. Microsoft Office Specialist Master). Towards the end of this period I also achieved Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technologies status.

Within the research environment, this positions me as an experienced (but former) teacher, with specialism in Physics, who is now a researcher. Anyone checking my bio before interacting will find themselves reacting differently depending on their own positionality. They might see me as more experienced or from a lower hierarchical position, as from the same phase of education or not, as having teacher status or not, as having similar subject interests or not, or as having a similar cultural background or not. My positionality is therefore both relational and contingent on the circumstances. It is dynamic and the effects it produces shift from one encounter to the next.

Whilst all of the aforementioned factors which contribute to my positionality will influence the nature of this study, arguably, the one which requires closest scrutiny is my interest in, and predisposition towards digital technologies. By way of illustration, let me provide one example. In 2011 I was keen to take part in a 365 Project, however, as I often do, I was also keen to riff on that idea rather than use it as is. Instead I elected to produce a short podcast each day for a year, with each episode introducing a different Web2.0 tool.

I set up a blog through which they were delivered, tweeted a link each day and successfully completed the project on the 31st December 2012. With each five to ten minute episode taking at least half an hour to produce, in total the project took over two hundred hours during the year. This was unpaid and just for my interest, pleasure and the challenge, but also to make a contribution to the edtech circles within which I was involved. That’s what seemed to be the norm, as I saw it; people produced things they thought might be of use or of interest to others.

The above example and other (somewhat less time-consuming) activity also positions me as a ‘prosumer’ (Toffler, 1980: 265). As someone who is not simply a consumer of what the community produces, but who contributes to that economy. This once again presents me as one thing to those who might be familiar with my activity, and may even have benefitted from it, but perhaps as something else to those who aren’t aware of that activity. The follower-followee relationship might have a part to play here, with those who follow me on Twitter being more likely to be aware of my activity than those who don’t. Whether that translates into a greater or lesser likelihood that they might participate in the research is of course debatable. For Kristian, one of my interview participants, this had a positive effect:

…you’ve been on Twitter a lot and you’ve always been pretty [pause] a positive contributor, and that’s how this conversation came about.

In other situations, the reverse might have been true, but whatever the case, the data which form part of the study have been generated in a particular way as a result of my history.

With an ostensibly positive bias towards digital technologies, it would be natural to assume that I would be predisposed towards portraying the contribution of Twitter in a positive light. I have attempted however, to build research questions which are sufficiently neutral so as not to require either a positive or negative outcome. Given the posts I wrote back in the day, I shall nevertheless need to guard against the possibility of presenting an uncritical rendering of the data and what they suggest. Through the thesis, and previously through the reflexive blog posts here on my research blog, I have endeavoured to be as open as possible in providing a commentary on the decisions I made and the directions they took the research. Such reflexivity is not to forestall or counter accusations of bias, but to make plain the ways in which my research may have been affected.

Adams, C., & Thompson, T. (2016). Researching a posthuman world : Interviews with digital objects. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Raymond, S. (2006). Ajax on rails. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly.
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third wave. Pan in association with Collins.


Interviewing the nonhumans

“Researching a Posthuman World” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/39930805522 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Choosing to approach my research with a sociomaterial sensibility requires me to challenge the division between the human and material elements I encounter and with which I work. Since Twitter and the online world is highly mediated, it would be remiss, I’d argue, to fail to adequately account for the material actors. Bringing actor-network theory (ANT) to bear does not, however, mean that I should consider the social and then the material. Instead they are completely entangled and mutually constitutive (Fenwick, 2014), so what they are and what they do is not in isolation, but co-constituted. Herein lies somewhat of a dilemma, since at some points it might be necessary to talk about the effect of particular practice on a teacher or what a specific aspect of materiality (like a hashtag) achieves. What’s important though is not to forget that both of these are themselves actor-networks, or assemblages, and are also part of other actor-networks. For the purposes of analysis, it is sometimes necessary to narrow the focus to a single entity, provided we don’t forget the assemblage that is also being performed.

In the methods section of my thesis I’ve discussed the semi-structured in depth interviews, participant observation (as it is manifest in this context), the blog posts I read and the exchanges with their authors. In reviewing this section and how it fits into the thesis as a whole, it’s clear how anthropocentric my writing was. The transcripts, blogs and even tweets were the words of the human participants … but where was the materiality? To be fair, I hope I’ve managed to surface some of that as a result of my observations and ‘following the actors,’ but once more it’s the (my) human voice that is privileged. How then to do justice to the nonhumans? How to give them a voice?Read More »

The path to Twitter is paved with …

Clearly no marks for originality, but there’s my first tweet. Those which followed illustrate that Twitter for me was more about learning with and from other educators. It still is … but I digress. As I’ve been analysing the data from my research, the routes by which people come to Twitter to support their learning are rather different. My tweet above was at 18:33 on the 19th February 2009, and was prompted by a fellow Master’s course member, Geoff, who suggested I might find Twitter interesting. The path for me then began with a course (Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change), followed by a nudge from someone whose opinion mattered. Can you remember the route by which you came to use Twitter to support your professional learning?Read More »

Never mind the quality, feel the width…

“integrity” flickr photo by drumminhands https://flickr.com/photos/drumminhands/7114464945 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In preparing for a forthcoming supervisory meeting, I’ve been asked to share what I felt were the standout insights from my empirical observations, but for each one explain how I know, how I convinced myself of that, and how I can convince others. I guess what I’m being asked here is to justify my claims to knowledge; how do I assert that my interpretations are plausible? Lincoln and Guba (1985:290) phrase it as follows:

“How can an inquirer persuade his or her audiences (including self) that the findings of an inquiry are worth  paying attention to, worth taking account of?”

For them it is about trustworthiness and the arguments which can be mounted to make the case, however, assessing the quality of research findings is far from straightforward and is contested in a number of ways. Traditionally, research quality has been judged on the criteria of validity, reliability, generalisability, and objectivity. Validity, simply put, is the extent to which an account adequately represents the phenomenon it purports to. Reliability is related to the replicability of the data generation and analysis; if different people conducted the same study, or the same person on different occasions, would the outcomes be the same? Generalisability refers to the extent what has been learned can be extended to wider populations and objectivity, to how the biases and interests of researcher and researched have been reduced or accounted for.Read More »

What do teachers do on Twitter? Emerging findings.

“Sharing” flickr photo by bengrey https://flickr.com/photos/ben_grey/4582294721 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

When teachers are active on Twitter, they participate in a wide range of practices. From the outset it is important to state how their activity is underpinned by the principle of reciprocity. When one teacher claims that Twitter helps them keep abreast of current educational research, it follows that at some point, someone else must have contributed that information. When teachers describe how they contribute ideas, share experiences and signpost resources, that might not immediately appear to be enhancing their learning. However, when taken in the round, at some point the same teachers will have benefited from others having done the same. Professional practice within this communal space is based on exchange, both giving and receiving.Read More »


One of the most frequently mentioned activities when teachers discuss their use of Twitter is ‘connecting,’ and the purpose of connecting is in order to learn. Principally, they’re seeking connections with other people, but also in order to link between different spaces, for example between Twitter and blog posts. Some of the most important connections they’re seeking to make are with other teachers, especially those who share similar interests, passions, and are of a ‘like-mind.’

Whilst connecting with specific individuals can lead to strong and trusting relationships forming and reforming, there’s a recognition that by doing so, you’re also connecting with the whole network of other connections that person benefits from; it’s a cumulative or even exponential process. Knowing the importance of making and maintaining connections, some act as brokers in bringing together people and things they think would interest or assist one another.

…or seeing someone tweeting about some subject and you think, well you need to speak to this person; those sorts of connections I think are incredibly important and that’s not really to do with the technology, it’s just about being a nice person …
(J Dale)

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Groups, communities, collectives or …?

Recently Stephen Downes released an updated version of a graphic outlining how groups and networks differ in what he proposes as ‘The Semantic Condition,’ a network design principle. He helpfully explains how the diagram was produced in this video:

In addition to the criteria he uses to distinguish between the two ways in which people might organise or aggregate, what attracted my attention was the appearance of Twitter within the arguments. One of the aspects coming through in the data from my research, is how educators on Twitter describe the ways in which they come together. The most common term people seem to use is community, but group, tribe and network also appear. Although these terms are conceptualised differently, I suspect in most cases, a particular term is used simply because it happens to be the favoured choice, rather than having an awareness that there is a distinction between it and the others. If I was to explore this more carefully, I might be able to tease apart the ways in which people see these different terms, but suspect that what for one person is a community, could just as easily be what a tribe is for another. It was from wondering how these different groupings are distinguished from one another in the literature, that I was attracted to Stephen’s graphic.Read More »

Schrödinger’s … medical condition?

“The Body Multiple” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/38894472832 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

One of the touchstone references regularly encountered when reading sociomaterial accounts is The Body Multiple by Annemarie Mol. Since we didn’t have it in our Uni library and because it seemed so important, I took the rather rash step (for a Yorkshireman) of buying a copy. Although it took me a while to fully get to grips with the concepts therein, I now know why it is such a classic. I really should have reviewed it on the blog, however my small but select bunch of educational readers might not have found much of interest in an ethnographic text of medical practice … or perhaps they would. Put far too simply, it’s an ethnographic telling of how the arterial disease, atherosclerosis, is enacted in a hospital. Enacted, yes, because this is tale of ontology and how reality comes to be.

The messages in The Body Multiple resurfaced for me this week as I cycled into Uni., pondering the events of a few months ago, back in August (2017). I’d been invited by my local health centre for a Health Check. No biggie; just one of those things to which people of ‘a certain age’ here in the UK can benefit from. If I had my cynical head on, then I might say my clinic had invited me in order to meet its targets, or to reduce the likelihood of me becoming a future financial burden on an ever more stressed national health service. Since I’m feeling much more generous, I’d say it’s to help spot early symptoms of diseases which might make my later life less pleasant, or even foreshorten it. The check requires you to provide blood and urine samples, then re attend a week later for a nurse to go through the results with you and suggest lifestyle changes if necessary. I wasn’t worried; my last check six or so years ago indicated nothing more than cholesterol levels slightly above those recommended by the medical establishment. In the intervening period, I made adjustments to my diet and was confident I’d now be within the margin. What I hadn’t expected was the phone call from the clinic the day after the blood tests, asking if I could make an appointment to see a doctor, and could I come in the following day.Read More »

Visualising assemblage

Having decided to attempt to describe certain phenomena on Twitter as learning assemblage, I now find myself in somewhat of a quandary. Earlier yesterday, whilst teaching a group of undergrad BEd with Science QTS students about circular motion, we were discussing the importance of sketching free-body diagrams to aid understanding and problem solving. So perhaps it’s the scientist in me that generates the proclivity to want to summarise situations by using visualisations of one sort or another. A quick scan through the back catalogue of this blog will reveal many examples, however I now find myself struggling and somewhat dissatisfied.

I’ve recently been drafting vignettes in which I describe groups and activity on Twitter as assemblage, but I feel the need to produce a visualisation which captures a sense of what that is. The problem of course is that I’m trying to render assemblage, a dynamic process, as a static representation. But why should that be a problem? That’s precisely what I’ve been doing when producing physics free-body diagrams isn’t it? Representing a dynamic situation through a static diagram?

“Marble loop” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/24447353008 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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“Can Twitter learn?”

“Can Twitter learn? Can a tweet learn?”

“Twitter Expert” by mkhmarketing https://flickr.com/photos/mkhmarketing/8540535352 is licensed under CC BY

Two questions one of my supervisors posed in the feedback on a recent draft thesis section I’d submitted. Despite knowing this was playfully provocative, I’m only too well aware that I need to be able to answer questions like this, whatever their intention. In response, I first need to clarify what learning is within the context of my study. Although there’s an imperative to lay that out within my thesis, I haven’t yet done so because I’ve been wrestling with how learning is conceived through a sociomaterial perspective. What better time to grasp that nettle?

What constitutes learning is often unproblematically taken for granted amongst most educators, however, during twenty years of teaching I can’t recall ever discussing it explicitly as an isolated concept. Read More »