Chapter 3: Sensibilities

Chapter 3 introductory text

The labour of knowing the world is taken up through theory and methodology. An instrumentalist view demands selecting the right methods to adequately represent reality out there. On the other hand a humanist view is more constructionist in which reality constructed through the actions of those involved. However, neither was entirely appropriate for my less anthropocentric study in which I was keen to avoid ignoring the nonhumans.

A sociomaterial approach posits that our methods help to enact the reality they seek to explore, so rather than offer separate theory and methodology sections, I sought ‘ways of rethinking knowledges, realities and methods together in the same breath.’ (Law, Ruppert & Savage, 2011)

I achieved this through an approach suffused with different sensibilities, where I take sensibility to mean an orientation to thinking, a sensitivity, a concern, an appreciation and an openness (Ruppert, 2016). The sensibilities which I brought to bear borrow from actor-network theory, ethnography and flânerie.

Actor-network theory (ANT)

Of the variety of aspects within ANT, the first which was important to my study was that nonhumans have agency – they can do things. If that seems nonsensical, think about the last time you were with a group of friends or young people and the reaction induced from a smartphone notification. By attending equally to nonhumans, my aim was to decentre, rather than devalue human intention & action. In so doing I am better able to trace how things come together, how connections are made or broken, how they persist or decompose, and the reciprocal influences entities have on one another (Fenwick, Edwards, & Sawchuk, 2011). ANT is not a theory, but more of a ‘repertoire,’ not solid, but adaptable. As such, its capacity to trace movement and connections should enable it to follow the learning practices of educators on Twitter.

Learning, from a sociomaterial standpoint

Although not entirely apparent from the brief synopsis above, I felt this now allowed me to revisit the issue of learning discussed in Hinterlands, but with that sociomaterial sensibility I wished to deploy. In the preceding chapter the literatures presented learning either as individual, cognitive process, or as a situated, collegial practice. Both views focusing on the human. A sociomaterial view However, decentres the human and is instead relational – matter and meaning emerge through the associations and connections which assemble, or don’t. What learning is, depends on how both the human and nonhuman participants accomplish it as practice. Learning does not reside in either an individual or collective; it does not exist separate from the networks of associations through which it is enacted and is better conceived as an immanent assemblage (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013). The making, unmaking, reconfiguring, expanding and contracting of heterogeneous actors during assemblage constitutes the learning process.

A sociomaterial approach therefore enables an inspection of the kinds of learning assemblage that might emerge amongst those educators who are active on Twitter, the platform itself and the mediators through which information is exchanged. Having set that out, I am now better placed to return to other aspects of that approach.

Ethnography online

Ethnography is an approach suited to answer research questions with the broad aim of exploring ‘what’s going on here.’ It’s described as both a process and a product; a form of inquiry and a descriptive account of the lives of writer and those written about. It is:

  • Carried out in a natural setting
  • Involves intimate, reciprocal face-to-face interaction
  • Accurately reflects/emphasises participant perspectives
  • Uses inductive, interactive data collection and analysis
  • Uses multiple data sources
  • Frames human behaviour within socio-political and historical contexts
  • Uses culture as the lens through which to interpret results.

Ethnography has been applied in studying the online world by a number of researchers. The Internet is treated by some as a cultural artefact, and by others as a location where culture(s) might be found. Shifting ethnography online is not without its problems: what does participant observation look like; how does one understand the field and become immersed in it; and most significantly, if one is studying culture in whatever form, how is it manifest? I’ve addressed some of these issues by adopting an ethnographic sensibility, rather than conducting a strict ethnography. It is this sensibility that helped construct the flânography.

Flânography: ethnographer meets the flâneur

In this section I first discuss a little history of flânerie, however, given that I’ve done that at length over a number of posts, I won’t repeat that here. Suffice it to say that both ethnography and flânerie share similarities, not least that they are invariably both process and product. I propose flânography as a form of ethnography which is distinct from it in the following ways:

  • It integrates a sociomaterial sensibility to adequately account for the materiality, rather than relegating tools and material practices as either products of culture, or the means through which culture is produced. In both cases the social and technical are treated separately.
  • Mobility and movement for the flânographer are subtly different than for the ethnographer. It’s not solely about traversing online space, but the way that hyperlinks enable leaps from place to place, and through time with such ease.
  • This mobility is also easily ‘mapped’ to produce pathways of experience. Like a Strava heatmap. The notion of these pathways or traversals are applied not only during participant observation, but also during the other phases of the study, during data analysis and in presenting the findings.
  • An ethnographer is invariably visible to participants, or if she hasn’t declared her role, invisible whilst in plain sight. A flânographer can be completely invisible to other participants, but this is a different, to some extent acceptable form of being covert; lurking is an accepted practice.
  • Visualisation is an important strand of flanography, not merely as the means to represent data or findings – as a product – but as a thinking and analytical process.

In summary, I propose flânography as a hybrid approach arising from ethnography and flânerie, and informed by an ANT sensibility.

A flâneur’s companions

Although the classical flâneur was a solitary figure, I elected not to wander alone and chose three concepts from ANT with whom to travel. Assemblage, multiplicity and fluidity are closely related, but subtly different concepts within ANT, and helped me to attune to different circumstances in different ways.

Assemblage is not a ‘thing’ but as Law (2004) puts it, an ongoing process:

a process of bundling, of assembling, … in which the elements put together are not fixed in shape, do not belong to a larger pre-given list but are constructed at least in part as they are entangled together.

Thinking with assemblage will reduce the temptation to think of actors, human and nonhuman, sitting in isolation from one another and coming together to be connected. They are co-constitutive, brought into being through the associations which form between them.

Multiplicity should not be confused with plurality. Reviewing the UK foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, Law and Singleton (2015) presented it not a single disease, but several. It appeared differently for the farmers whose animals were culled, for the vets who diagnosed the disease, for the local populations who lived amongst it and for the government departments tasked with resolving it. One way to consider this is as different perspectives of a single phenomenon or a single reality. A sociomaterial approach however shows this as different practices performed in different places producing multiple different realities. A different foot and mouth depending on who you are and how you and others enact it. With multiplicity on board, I remain open to the possibility of multiple realities being enacted by different assemblages.

Once the possibility of multiple realities is accepted, the next step is to ask how realities might be related to one another, and the ways in which they dovetail or interlace. This can happen through what are called ‘mutable’ mobiles – objects or texts which change shape, are flexible, adaptable and responsive. This fluidity is exemplified in a now classic study by de Laet and Mol (2000) – the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, which I discuss in this post. Having fluidity as a companion will help me remain sensitive to relations that change and mutate.

In conclusion, I’ve outlined an approach based on assuming a set of sensibilities, rather than laying out strict methodology. I also outlined how flânography constitutes a form of ethnography with distinct features, but in the next chapter will discuss in more detail how that flânography was assembled.

De Laet, M., & Mol, A. (2000). The Zimbabwe bush pump: Mechanics of a fluid technology. Social studies of science, 30(2), 225-263.
Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2013). Performative ontologies: Sociomaterial approaches to researching adult education and lifelong learning. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 4(1), 49-63
Fenwick, T., Edwards, R., & Sawchuk, P. (2011). Emerging approaches to educational research: Tracing the socio-material Routledge.
Law, J., & Singleton, V. (2015). ANT, multiplicity and policy. Critical Policy Studies, 8(4), 379-396. doi:10.1080/19460171.2014.957056
Law, J., Ruppert, E., & Savage, M. (2011). The double social life of methods. CRESC Working Paper Series, Paper No. 95 Retrieved from
Ruppert, E. (2016). A baroque sensibility for big data visualisations. In J. Law, & E. Ruppert (Eds.), Modes of knowing: Resources from the baroque (pp. 136-164). Manchester: Mattering Press. Retrieved from

5 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Sensibilities

  1. Hi Ian
    Here are some viva questions that come to (my) mind:
    Why were your sensibilities specifically informed by ANT, ethnography and flanerie?
    Which other ways (I deliberately do not use the word ‘method’) could you have chosen and combined?


    • Thanks for dropping by Martina and for your questions.
      I may not have phrased it very clearly in this post, but it’s rather that the flânography was informed by ANT, ethnography and flânerie. Or to put it another way, in undertaking this hybrid approach I called a flânography, I adopted sociomaterial and ethnographic sensibilities, coupled with those of the flâneur. But you asked why those, presumably in preference to others?
      I became intrigued by ANT before even considering applying to study for a PhD after hearing another educational researcher talk about her work. When I began putting my proposal together, ANT was first on my list of conceptual contenders, though I also considered other sociomaterially infused approaches like CHAT, complexity science, new materialisms. Given how significant ‘things’ seemed to be and that this didn’t seem to have caught the attention of previous researchers of teacher PD and Twitter, it seemed to offer a gap. (I’m intending devoting a future post to why I settled on ANT rather than the others, so I’ll leave that for now)

      Ethnography was another approach which hadn’t been brought to bear in previous research, thereby widening the gap still further, but more importantly, it was a more appropriate choice in helping me find out ‘what’s going on here?’ I was drawn, at least in the first instance, to a more open approach which (hopefully!) made fewer prior assumptions and thereby might produce fresh insights. I did consider a phenomenological approach, but was concerned I might focus unduly on the human aspects of the study; I didn’t want to lose sight of nonhuman involvement.

      Flânerie came much later when I was inspired by Deborah, one of my participants, as I outlined in the Foreword – I felt that if this was one way a participant might see her involvement in Twitter and online more generally, initially, it might also offer an opportunity for me to be participant-observer in a different way. As I learned more about the flânerie and the similarities with ethnography, I began to integrate those principles within my overall approach.


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