Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Literature & Your PhD Thesis: A Balancing Act

mkoole, · Categories: PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , ,

I consider myself fortunate in that I appreciate reading the “old” authors in my field and adjacently related fields. I am delighted when I read something written many years ago (such as from the late 1800s or early 1900s) and discover that it is still useful or somehow applicable—or somehow provides a different view on a current issue.

Purple tulip from Ottawa (2011

But, how should a student balance the sources in the literature review? I have heard that some students are criticized because they have cited nothing older than 10 years. To an extent, I agree with such criticism because it suggests that the student may not understand the origins of the philosophical or methodological ideas upon which they draw. On the other hand, too much reliance upon the classics in the field might leave little room for more current research.

To this point, I recently stumbled upon a different and rather unique view on this issue:

There are many reasons for scientists interested in these matters to examine the long history of philosophical inquiry when beginning their empirical investigations. In many cases we may find that earlier philosophers have provided the clearest delineation of paradoxes and problems for further inquiry, even when techniques to answer them were not yet available. In other cases, attention to prior philosophical debates may provide a map of intellectual space. For example, if two independently compelling claims are logically inconsistent with one another, then models that attempt to accommodate both claims must be dismissed as incoherent. A third, “therapeutic” role for attention to the history of philosophy was suggested by Wittgenstein and has been famously adopted by Daniel Dennett (1991): we may discover that outdated philosophical models continue to underlie our unexamined assumptions about some phenomenon. Alternatively, even discredited or incomplete philosophical models may serve as sources of inspiration that point towards innovative ways of thinking about familiar problems. (Chiong, 2011, p. 1)

Something to ponder.


Chiong, W. (2011). The self: From philosophy to cognitive neuroscience. doi:

Micro vs. Macro Social Constructionism

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , ,

Here in North America, many people talk about constructivism and constructionism, but mostly from the Piaget vs. Papert perspective (also note their focus on child development). (Oh, some excellent links here: The Nature of Constructionist Learning, MIT.) In Europe, constructionism seems to focus on dialogue and relationship. The following comes from my notes mostly on Vivan Burr’s book:

Burr, V. (2003). Social constructionism (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Routledge.URL:


All forms of social constructionism see language as “performative and constructive” (p. 176).

For both critical realists and constructivists, I believe (as per the European take on it), they both see dialogue as leading to the arrival at a common Truth (leading towards an Essentialist viewpoint of some underlying, foundational reality). But, constructionists would hold that there is no ultimate Truth; rather, everyone has their own perspective on truth. Although individuals can construct ideas together, no two people will hold the exact same view on it.

From Gergen’s book (see my previous posts):

“. . . the constructivist movement, which has been centrally concerned with the way in which the world is constructed or construed by individual minds. The central message here is that our actions are based not on the way the world is, but on the meaning it has for this individual” (Gergen, 2009, p. 26).

“Although resonant with constructionist views, constructivists tend to place meaning within the mind of the individual, while social constructionists locate the origin of meaning in relationships” (Gergen, 2009, p. 26).

From my discussions with [unnamed professor]: Constructionism suggests that there are multiple valid views, but there is no ultimate truth/reality. Our understandings are shaped by language—which is an imperfect vehicle for expression. The problem with language is in the inability to accurately transmit meaning. This explains the close relationship constructionism has with “dialogue”. Derrida and Leotard (post-modernists) propose that all human concepts are relative; we can never really understand how another human being thinks, experiences, etc.

All that said, there are also different flavours of constructionism. Burr outlines the following:

Macro Social Constructionism

Foucauldian & Critical Discourse Analysis (p. 150)

  • “Discourses produce all features of being a person” (pp. 179-180)
  • Concerned with power relations and social positioning
  • Production of subjectivity
  • Power and ideology is important (p. 156)
  • Leans towards social determinism
  • Criticism: neglects the speaker


Interpretive repertoires

  • The difference between discourses and interpretive repertoires is scale (p. 169).

Micro Social Constructionism

Discursive Psychology

  • The “person is the user of discursive devices” (p. 179)
  • Discursive psychologists study the devices themselves and their effects
  • Privileges agency of the person (p. 183)
  • Concerned with argument and rhetorical devices
  • Analysis of talk in interaction
  • Interviews are a key way of gathering data
  • Less concerned with power
  • Criticism: only considers the text


Conversation Analysis (p. 151)

  • Smaller scale than discursive psychology
  • Gather data through observation of naturally-occurring interactions
  • Attempt to detect regularities and patterns in language use
  • Talk achieves effects
  • Less concerned with power

Micro and macro social constructionism need not compete with each other, but may be complementary (p. 175). All forms of social constructionism see language as “performative and constructive” (p. 176).



Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Fantastic Chapter: Interactivity & Interaction

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , , ,

Page, R. (2010). Interactivity and interaction: Text and talk in online communities. In M. Grishakova & M.-L. Ryan (Eds.), Intermediality and Storytelling (pp. 208-231). Berlin: De Gruyter. doi: 10.1515/9783110237740.208. URL:

As our technologies change, so does the human story and our ability to tell it. Many researchers in educational technology suffer an unending interest in how digital technologies are affecting human interaction and learning. In this chapter, Ruth Page takes draws upon the field of narratology. She looks at interaction by “bringing together sociolinguistic, discourse-oriented and literary approaches” (p. 208).

Page views interaction from three main perspectives: modes of feedback, the audience, and the storytelling process. The chapter offers an interesting table showing how exploratory and ontological factors interplay with user-text and user-user interaction. Don’t let the jargon bother you. The results of her analysis are not only accessible, but very interesting.

When someone mentions narrative, we expect text-based narratives to proceed from start to finish. We expect the text to progress through a beginning, a middle, and an end—a linear path presumably as the author intended. Many websites are, in fact, set up in such a way. We start at the top left (in Western culture), eyes moving back and forth, targeting the bottom right. The latest technologies including the ever-so-fashionable social networking sites, blogs, and wikis, enable the reader to post comments, enter into story-related discussions, click on links to related topics, and even co-author a narrative-in-progress. Now, as in more ancient times, storytellers are once again in communication with their audience whose expressions and suggestions at times shape the story itself. As Page writes: “The affordances of computer mediated communication thus blend the written mode with the conversational style and near instantaneous responsiveness characteristic of oral discourse” (Rettberg, 2008 referenced in Page, 2010, p. 209). (Page mentions Ong’s concept of secondary orality (as per his book, Orality & Literacy (1982)—a great read in itself).

Feedback Channels

Interaction with digital texts (includes audio, video, graphics, and text) can involve the manipulation of the interface through the mouse, keyboard, joystick, or other input devices. Through such means, a reader can manipulate what they see, when, and how quickly. However, additional creativity is now available in the form of content creation. Page refers to Ryan’s (2006) categorizations of interaction which is made up of four dimensions: internal vs. external and exploratory vs. ontological. “According to these parameters, a reader can participate internally as a member in the storyworld (for example by role-playing an avatar in a simulated story scenario), or they can remain situated outside the storyworld in the external mode” (p. 212). Indeed, online narratives can fit on a continuum between the following dimensions:

Exploratory interaction: readers cannot change the storyline. They can only explore. The reader has “minimal navigational control of the narrative content” (p. 221).

Ontological interaction: readers can change the story or follow different options leading to a different path. In some cases, “the reader can control the content of the narrative itself” (p. 221). Wikis that offer full administrative/write access to participants are an extreme example of this form of interaction.

Page compares the characteristics of comments fields and message walls (as seen in social networking sites such as Facebook).

Comments Fields  


Message Walls

“Always text-adjacent” (p. 216). That is, they cannot stand alone. They are always posted alongside the narrative to which they refer.



Can stand alone. May or may not refer to a particular narrative.


Implication: “The closer the commentary’s textual and thematic connection to the narrative segment, the greater the potential the reader’s interaction has to shape the evolving narrative text” (p. 216).




In highly interactive environments the relationship of the audience (reader) to the text is altered. Participants become creators and co-constructors of stories. The personal characteristics of the audience members influence narrative development. “Interpersonal and identity work achieved by conversational storytelling may vary according to the speaker’s gender, age, ethnicity; the social distance between speaker and listener and the cultural or institutional context in which the story is being told” (p. 213). As Page, suggests the readers come into relationship with the author, text, and other readers. We might say that authors and readers periodically exchange roles.

Writers often write with a kind of audience in mind. Anticipating one’s audience can be difficult in the online environment as many readers will leave little if any trace of their visit. When, a reader does leave a trace, it will likely follow expected social conventions (p. 217). Consider, for example, the acceptability of pseudonyms, avatar-selection, and expectations of authenticity in some networked environments.

Of course, audience can be controlled somewhat by access restrictions. However, Page acknowledges that “even if the storyteller has delimited the scope of their readership to persons they know, the audience might still conflate groups of individuals normally segmented in offline contexts” (p. 217).

So, how does an author choose a tone and style appropriate to an audience that she cannot anticipate?

Storytelling Process

Page discusses the difference between serial versus episodic storytelling.

Serial Narrative Episodic Narrative
  • Posted in its final, completed form
  • Unlikely to be revised and reposted
  • Comments posted after-the-fact are not likely to influence its shaping
  • Evolve over time
  • Commentary may influence revisions, reposting, and new directions
  • “Emergent in nature” (p. 219)


Biographies, histories, completed stories, reports



Fan-fiction, collaborative writing, wikis, autobiographies (episodic in nature)



I found this section particularly interesting and so I will quote it at length:

In online contexts, the serial nature of the discourse creation is assumed to keep approximate pace with the personal events being reported. Thus blogs usually report on the near (rather than distant) past events while status updates of sites like Twitter and Facebook are even closer to the present moment in their public announcement of what the author is doing ‘right now’ (p. 219).

I very much agree with Page when she suggests that the immediacy of these “autobiographical fragments” is illusory as they are not reported in “exact real time”. Further they lack “retrospection” and

. . . a pre-determined narrative design arranged around a fixed teleological [purposeful] focus, the reader’s feedback is experienced as an intervention in the present moment which stimulates the ongoing production and anticipation of future updates from the author (p. 219).

As she considers serial and episodic narrative, Page notes that “the editorial interaction afforded by wiki technology would seem to be at odds with the factors which promote the creation of coherent narrative patterns” (p. 225). Such editing is non-linear and the identities of the authors can be concealed allowing degrees of authenticity. She gives the example of A Million Penguins. As the Wikipedia article here states, it remains undetermined as to whether or not the contributors succeeded in writing a novel. (Link: The final report for A Million Penguins.) The biggest problem was that the authors did not agree on social-editing rules resulting in “wiki wars” (p. 226).


Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.



Gergen’s Comments on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , , , ,

Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

I’ll start at the end of Gergen’s comments: “. . . while fascinating in its implications, and deeply social in its perspective, this is scarcely an acceptable alternative to individualism” (p. 91). What is so disturbing about Goffman’s dramaturgical approach to identity, you ask?

In my own earlier work on identity, I used Goffman’s dramaturgical strategies extensively and found them very helpful in potentially understanding how people interact. See for example: (Also, a book chapter on this should be coming out this year.)

Gergen correctly summarizes that “Goffman’s approach . . . paints a picture of social life as a stage, where we all perform for each other, knowing at the same time that what we seem is never quite who we are” (p. 91). But, I’m not in complete agreement when he writes “Goffman’s analysis suggests that we are much like con artists, trying to con others into believing we are who we present ourselves to be . . . sincerity itself is just like another con . . .” (p. 91).

In my reading of Goffman’s book, Goffman seems to take a more neutral stance with regard to performances, recognizing that the performers may choose to be honest or dishonest:

“A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is nonetheless something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized” (Goffman, 1959, p. 75).

While Goffman acknowledged the possibility of performances being intentionally misleading, he also acknowledged how difficult it would be to do so. Overt performances, let alone duplicity, are difficult to accomplish and demand personal energy. Overt performances require interpretations of not only how people express themselves, but also interpretations of their actions, histories, and contexts:

Performance takes energy: “The problem of dramatizing one’s work involves more than merely making invisible costs visible. The work that must be done by those who will fill certain statuses is often so poorly designed as an expression of a desired meaning, that if the incumbent would dramatize the character of his role, he must divert an appreciable amount of his energy to do so” (Goffman, 1959, p. 32 ).

An example: “‘The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his ears open wide, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything.’ And so individuals often find themselves with the dilemma of expression versus action” (Goffman, 1959, p. 33 ).

This quote is particularly poignant in expressing the seriousness of presentation mistakes: “When an individual appears before others, he knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part. When an event occurs which is expressively incompatible with this fostered impression, significant consequences are simultaneously felt in three levels of social reality [personality, interaction, and society], each of which involves a different point of reference and a different order of fact” (Goffman, 1959, p. 242 ).

In my notes on Goffman’s book, a significant aspect of his dramaturgical approach is that duplicity is accomplished through the same relational acts as authentic portrayals:

“. . . a successful staging of either of these types of false figures involves the use of real techniques— the same techniques by which everyday persons sustain their real social situations. Those who conduct face to face interaction on a theater stage must meet the key requirements of real situations; they must expressively sustain a definition of the situation: but this they do in circumstances that have facilitated their developing an apt terminology for the interactional tasks that all of us share” (Goffman, 1959, p. 255).

I interpret this last sentence in the above quote to imply that even falsehood is based upon some premise of social “reality” (pardon the use of the word reality). So, the question is to what degree is a misleading performance an untrue performance? Is this not just another element of relationship?



Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Gergen’s Comments on Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , , ,

I’m not going to spend too much time on this. I am just finding it interesting to see someone else’s take on Mead’s work—someone more knowledgeable on these subjects than I.

Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Gergen writes of Mead’s work:

“As Mead proposed, there is no thinking, or indeed any sense of being a self, that is independent of social process” (p. 89).

“Language becomes possible when people share a common set of mental symbols” (p. 89).

The generalized other: “a composite of others’ reactions to me across situations” (p. 89).


Gergen acknowledges Mead’s focus on social roles and human interdependency, yet his presentation of Mead’s body of work is highly condensed. As a result, I find myself having to consider more carefully Gergen’s criticisms of Mead’s work. Here are Gergen’s criticisms:

  1. “In spite of the relational emphasis, symbolic interactionism retains a strong element of individualism” (p. 90).
  2. “Symbolic interactionism leaves us without any way to explain how it is that a person is able to grasp others’ states of mind from gestures” (p. 90).
  3. “Finally, there is a strong flavor of social determinism in symbolic interactionism” (p. 90).

My first observation is that points 1 and 3 are somewhat contradictory: there is a strong element of individualism, yet it is highly socially determinant. This sounds to me like the two aspects are balanced. So, I’m not too sure where to go with these two points.

My second observation is that in my own reading of Mead’s work, I thought he went to great lengths to explain how we learn what others are thinking through a sort of dance of gestures. In fact, as people interact, we might say they empirically experiment with gesture and imitation. They interpret and internalize the feedback they get from actions and observations of actions. Here are some relevant quotes from Mead’s book:

  • In the introduction, Charles Morris writes: “Philosophically the position is here an objective relativism; qualities of the object may yet be relative to a conditioning organism. A certain portion of the world, as experienced, is private; but a portion is social or common . . .” (p. xix).
  • “The individual has, as it were, gotten outside of his limited world by taking the roles of others, being assured through communication empirically grounded and tested that in all these cases the world presents the same appearance. Where this is attained, experience is social, common, shared; it is only against this common world that the individual distinguishes his own private experience” (Morris, intro to Mead, 1934 p. xxix).
  • In Mead’s words: “It is not essential that the individuals should give an identical meaning to the particular stimulus in order that each may properly respond. People get into a crowd and move this way, and that way; they adjust themselves to the people coming toward them, as we say, unconsciously. They move in an intelligent fashion with reference to each other, and perhaps all of them think of something entirely different, but they do find in the gestures in which there is a co-operative activity without any symbol that means the same thing to all” (p. 55).

In this last quote, this seems akin to Gergen’s contention that “meaning is achieved through coordinated action. Thus we may say that we understand each other when we effectively coordinate our actions—drawing from traditions in ways that are mutually satisfactory” (p. 111).

At this point in my reading, I see the foundations of Mead’s work and social constructionism more commensurable than suggested by Gergen.


Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. (C. W. Morris, Ed.) (Vol. 13). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Still investigating social constructionism: Gergen

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , , ,

Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Do social constructionists take a relativist stance? Yes. Do they argue that there is no underlying or foundational reality? No. According to Gergen, our relationships allow us to make sense of our world(s). “Relationships stand prior to all that is intelligible” (p. 6). There is a reality. But, it is through our cultural and linguistic traditions that we perceive and interpret it. The exact nature of the reality or Truth is not what is sought (or possible to discover).

His example of the desk is helpful: “In my world the desk is solid, mahogany coloured, weighs some 180 lbs, and is odourless” (p. 7). But, depending on one’s traditions, these statements are arguable. He provides these examples:

  • Atomic physicist: The desk is not solid.
  • Psychologist: The desk has no colour as colour is merely our interpretation of light waves on our retinas.
  • Rocket scientist: The weight of the desk depends on the gravitational field.
  • Biologist: To a dog, the desk is likely a cornucopia of scent.

All of these hypothetical individuals come to these views by virtue of their traditions—that is, their relationships within their socio-linguistic cultures: “Understandings of the world are achieved through coordinations among persons—negotiations, agreements, comparing views and so on” (p. 6).

Gergen appears to agree with Hacking in that our understandings of the world may be expressed in many different ways. (Hacking refers to this as contingency (1999, p. 72)). There are multiple options. We need not call a quark a “quark”. We may have chosen a different word or taken a different approach to describing the quark-phenomenon. There are or could be equally viable alternatives: “. . . no particular language is privileged in terms of its picturing the world for what it is; innumerable accounts are possible” (p. 22).

Our relationships affect how we perceive the world because they influence what we look for and what we consider possible. Gergen mentions Berger and Luckmann’s phrase “plausibility structures” which lead us to view some things as “natural, taken for granted reality” (p. 23).

Gergen also broaches the issue of Cartesian dualism: internal vs. external, mind vs. body, individual vs. collective, etc. In the dualist way of thinking, the mind (subjective) is separate from the world (objective). Along this line, our mind (as we express it through language) mirrors the experience of the external world (p. 42). This way of viewing the world has become accepted in much of the Western tradition as the common sense way to approach the world and guides what we take for granted.

Common-sense categorizations presumably capture the basic essence or “intrinsic qualities” of sets of individuals or aspects of our reality (p. 52). In our day-to-day, practical experience, these categories can be very useful and allow us to interact quickly and without thinking. But, they can also be constraining and imprisoning, locking us into certain modes of behaviour. Consider, for example, what happens to people who are labeled mentally-ill. Social constructionists seek to examine taken-for-granted concepts. When they do, they often cause discomfort. As anti-essentialists, they open up to scrutiny to categorizations of people and the world.

Gergen also indirectly alludes to Hacking’s looping effect: “if informed of a research hypothesis in the human sciences, people can typically choose not to confirm it” (p. 60). Hacking would say that people are of an “interactive kind” (1999, p. 32)—that is, they are aware of what is said about them and react to that knowledge.

More significant to my own work so far, Gergen also mentions Harré’s Positioning Theory.” The concept of positioning calls attention to the fact that you are positioned to be a certain kind of person by each of these individuals [within specified contexts] . . . your identity is dependent upon how you are positioned” (p. 70). [Note the importance of relationships in the development and maintenance of identity.]

See also: My previous notes on Hacking.