Continuing my series of posts discussing potential viva questions, I want to take a look at the theoretical underpinnings for my study. I know there’s a bunch of questions which could delve into how actor-network theory (ANT) informs or sits alongside my study, but I think this is probably a better place to start. Asking me why I chose ANT and which other theories or conceptualisations I’d considered but rejected seems like a perfectly reasonable question.
I was introduced to ANT a little while before even thinking about PhD study. As a long time listener (and sometime contributor) to Radio Edutalk, I was fascinated by an episode in which PhD student Anna Beck was discussing her research tracing the implementation of the Donaldson Report. She briefly talked about using actor-network theory to help understand how change is brought about in education more generally, and specifically though the Report. Given the attention it drew on ‘things,’ I wondered whether ANT might be useful in helping me to better understand and/or explain the issues of integrating educational technologies within education; my job at the time involved such matters. As I searched around for more information on ANT, it soon became clear how fuzzy a concept it was for someone like me who at the time had a very different worldview.
When I began drafting a research proposal to study teachers’ learning practices on Twitter, my first thought for a theoretical framing was Communities of Practice, to which I already been briefly exposed. From there it was a short hop to Communities of Inquiry, personal learning networks, connectivism and rhizomatic learning. What seemed apparent, even at this preliminary stage however, was how important technology was in mediating activity through Twitter. Given its sociomaterial underpinnings, I now began to wonder whether ANT might have something helpful to say. As is often the case when you begin to explore a topic more deeply, related concepts begin to emerge; in looking into ANT, I also became aware of activity theory (in full, cultural historical activity theory or CHAT). In my original research proposal I suggested contenders to frame my study might come from this list of concepts. Clearly, later I had to settle on one.
I was well aware that many teachers described their activities on Twitter as taking place within a community:
Exploring how community was manifest and how people benefited was clearly an option, but community of practice or community of inquiry? I think I could have made a case for either, but this ground had already begun to be tread (CoP – Davis, 2015; Wesely, 2013; CoI – Sinnappan & Zutshi, 2011) and rather than extending previous work, I was looking for fresh insights. I was taken by the notion of PLNs and had written informally about my experiences on a number of occasions, but they are currently undertheorised. I’d also dallied with connectivism and rhizomatic learning, but as theories, these too are in their infancy. Quite an opportunity to make a contribution one might opine, but without a back catalogue of research on which I could draw, I felt ill-equipped at this stage of my career to make that leap. Even so, what all these contenders lacked was an adequate mechanism through which I could explore technology’s part and thereby bring materiality to the fore. For that reason I turned instead to consider the sociomaterial approaches of ANT and CHAT.
I could easily have been drawn to CHAT; researchers didn’t appear to be using it to explore teachers’ activities on Twitter. It seemed suited to helping me answer the questions which were emerging given how:
CHAT is a practice-based and practice-oriented theoretical framework that focuses on tool-mediated actions by collective actors as well as socioeconomic relations within and between institutional contexts over time. (Foot, 2014)
And how the three core ideas went some way towards aligning with the way I was thinking:
- humans act collectively, learn by doing, and communicate in and via their actions;
- humans make, employ, and adapt tools of all kinds to learn and communicate; and
- community is central to the process of making and interpreting meaning and thus to all forms of learning, communicating, and acting. (Foot, ibid)
I found these principles more attractive and and certainly more lucid than the literature surrounding ANT, whose language and ideas often seemed impenetrable to me at that stage. There’s obviously a ‘but’ coming down the line here. Two in fact. As I described earlier, ANT had got to me first and the way it considered the social and material as co-constitutive and entangled was more seductive than as tools which are used (CHAT). It was a completely different way of thinking and might therefore afford me the chance to tease out those fresh insights I was avidly seeking. Secondly, I wasn’t convinced that the ‘activity system’ approach that CHAT advocated would fit what I’d already encountered as a participant on Twitter. It seemed too structured to deal appropriately with what I perceived to be a much more chaotic environment. So I settled on ANT and began a long and continuing battle to understand it well enough for it to help me better describe and understand teachers’ learning practices with Twitter.
Thinking about how best to conceptualise my study didn’t stop with ANT. Reading around the topic made me aware of other broadly sociomaterial approaches including complexity theory, new materialisms, and practice theories. Each of these would have framed the study in different ways and brought forth different knowledges. These are neither better nor worse approaches than ANT, just different. Given it had taken me the best part of a couple of years to become sufficiently comfortable reading ANT texts, let alone applying the principles therein to my study, I had neither the intellectual nor temporal resources to switch to an alternative theoretical framework. Do regret starting out with ANT? Not in the slightest, for two reasons. I think the struggles I’ve had coming to terms with ANT’s ontology have given me an extra degree of resilience and faith in my capacity to get there … even if it takes a while. Secondly, adopting an ANT sensibility has produced a different understanding of teachers’ practices on Twitter when compared with the research which precedes mine. What would be fascinating I feel, would be to bring one of those other sociomaterial approaches to the data I and my participants produced and see how it might frame Twitter PD in another way entirely. As I wrote earlier, in Jackson and Mazzei’s (2011) terms, ‘Thinking with theory.’
Davis, K. (2015). Teachers’ perceptions of twitter for professional development. Disability and Rehabilitation, 37(17), 1551-1558. doi:10.3109/09638288
Foot, K. (2014). Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Exploring a Theory to Inform Practice and Research. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 24(3), 329–347. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2013.831011
Jackson, A. Y., & Mazzei, L. A. (2011). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. Routledge.
Sinnappan, S., & Zutshi, S. (2011). Using microblogging to facilitate community of inquiry: An Australian tertiary experience. Proceedings of ASCILITE 2011, 1123-1135.
Wesely, P. M. (2013). Investigating the community of practice of world language educators on twitter. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(4), 305-318. doi:10.1177/0022487113489032