Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Thoughts on E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel

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Hand, M., & Sandywell, B. (2002). E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel: On the Democratizing and De-Democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, toward a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(1-2), 197–225. doi:10.1177/026327640201900110

Computer mouseThe main purpose of Hand and Sandywell’s (2002) article is to bring awareness to the social discourses that are used to paint a picture of technology as democratizing, progressive, and benign or, alternatively, as destructive, corporate-driven, and hegemonic tools. The authors suggest that these discourses are oversimplifications of much more complex phenomena. Whilst I agree with their position, I am left with some questions about their underlying epistemology. Particularly troublesome for me is their presentation of social constructionism and essentialism. First, I will examine their argument on technological determinism, then I will examine their epistemology.

Hand and Sandywell divide the positions into a utopian-dystopian dichotomy.

  Utopian Dystopian
Associated terms
  • Democratic
  • Global citizenship
  • Borderless world
  • Deregulation
  • Global village
  • Voluntary association
  • Continuous town meeting
  • Grassroots social movements
  • Computer-mediated civil interaction
  • Participative democracy


  • Global capitalism
  • Social inequality
  • Enhancement of power and wealth structures
  • Dumbing down society
  • Poverty and cyber-exclusion


Types Computer-mediated Cosmopolitanism

  • Communication that was few to many is now many to many
  • Hierarchical society gives way to flatter structures
  • Unidirectional becomes multidirectional

  • Globalization becomes homogenization
  • Have-nots cannot participate

Global Citadel Theory

  • End of the social; end of politics
  • Consumerism & capitalism
  • Hedonistic

Electronic Panopticon of Cybernetic Capitalism

  • Technocratic control and surveillance
Extreme form Technological fetishism




Hand and Sandywell, define technological essentialism as a view of technology that is intrinsically utopian-ist and dystopian-ist. Essentialist views are based on notions that technology has some underlying “essence” or characteristics that determine their effects upon society. The authors suggest that when these notions surface solutions include grafting “the ‘social’ or ‘historical’ dimension onto the technology” (p. 206). They refer to this as a kind of social constructionism that “often results in a kind of ‘balance sheet’ perspective in which ‘technical’ factors are counter-balanced by ‘social factors’” (p. 206). They then call for a more radical socio-cultural perspective that emphasizes a human-machine dialectic. They observe that some historicism abstracts machines from their contexts, and that the development of technology is contingent and situated rather than linear. In addition, they note that some historicist models suggest that technology was intentionally constructed for specific purposes with clear stages of development. And, finally, they add that historicist accounts are themselves socially constructed (see Abbate, 1999) and that essentialist accounts are aimed at prediction—that is, deterministic.

The new, radical perspective that the authors offer takes a view of technology as relational, contingent, non-synchronic, discontinuous, and power-mediated. They are critical of simply positing the social construction of technology. Social constructionism, according to Hand and Sandywell, mechanically divides the world into separate categories such as technology, society, and nature.

My understanding of social constructionism, from the European philosophical perspective, is that terminology such as technology, society, and nature are constructs. But, social constructionists do not necessarily support the view that such dualisms exist in a “real” underlying reality. Rather, the nature of existence cannot be known for certain. In a social constructionist view, knowledge is relational, and language is an imperfect medium for discussing ideas, constructs, and perceptions. Critical realists, on the other hand, are more likely to take a position of the world as constituted by “real” objects that are perceived by “real” subjects—though perhaps these subjects view the objects in unique ways. Social constructionism does not necessarily relegate meaning construction to autonomous subjects of “society”, but to a dynamic relational and reflexive interaction between subjects and society that cannot necessarily separated into dualist typologies with essential characteristics.

The authors’ proposed solution would appear to fit nicely within a social-constructionist philosophical perspective quite commensurably. Their acknowledgement of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as promoting their radical, new perspective supports my argument as social constructionists often draw upon ANT as a methodology for research. Notions of agency and socio-cultural appropriation also fit within social constructionist philosophy.

Finally, the authors propose moving towards a “deconstruction of technological essentialism” as an escape from dualism. Yet, then they propose that theorists take up a “detailed phenomenology of specific technologies” (p. 215). My limited understanding of phenomenology based on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty is a philosophical perspective and methodology aimed at discovering the “essence” of a phenomenon(-a). Hence, the authors are proposing an escape from essentialism by employing a methodology and philosophy that relies upon essentialism.

As I write this, I realize that there may be some misunderstanding of terminology. Social constructionism is understood differently in North America than it is in Europe. I take the European view of social constructionism as defined by Berger and Luckmann (1966), Burr (2003), and Hacking (2000). According to Hacking, “social constructionists teach that items we had thought were inevitable are social products” (p. 47).  He defines social constructionism as:

Various sociological, historical, and philosophical projects that aim at displaying or analyzing actual, historically situated, social interactions or causal routes that led to, or were involved in, the coming into being or establishing of some present entity or fact (p. 48). 

According to Berger and Luckmann (1966), reification is a significant process in social construction:

Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products—such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity . . . The objectivity of the social world means that it confronts man as something outside of himself. The decisive question is whether he still retains the awareness that, however, objectivated, the social world was made by men—and, therefore, can be remade by them.

To conclude, I agree in principle with Hand and Sandyman, but their representation of social constructionism is not in line with the definitions that I draw upon.


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge (p. 219). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books (Random House, Inc.).

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

Hacking, I. (2000). The Social Construction of What? (p. 272). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

When your doctoral thesis has a life of it’s own

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

Yes, I think this title says it all. My thesis just seems to motor along. I’m not sure anymore if I’m the one controlling it, or if it is whispering paths I should take. As I look upon my schedule and my proposal, however, it is pretty much going as planned with a few minor hiccups along the way.

Although I had planned to do much of the writing in 2012, it turns out that I did large portions of the methodology chapter and literature review at the end of 2011. Analysis, which I had planned for the beginning of 2012 is on target. As I look back, why did I do so much writing when I did? Two reasons: 1) conferences, and 2) it intuitively made sense. And, having already put much thought into my proposal, I was able to take some liberties.

A mossy street in SOS de los Reyes Catolicos, Spain

One of the speakers at a PhD student workshop at the Networked Learning Conference in Aalborg, Denmark back in 2010 had suggested that many doctoral students leave data collection too late. I heeded this advice. Collecting data early allows some analysis and consideration earlier in the process. Hopefully, if the project was untenable, I could shift gears before becoming too invested in one particular path. To prepare for an early data-collection, I decided to focus on the methodology chapter. In retrospect, I found this to be very helpful. A solid grounding in the methodology and methods along with consideration of issues of trustworthiness and philosophical commensurability guided the structure and performance on the interviews. I was also able to pull-together a symposium on phenomenography for the up-coming Networked Learning Conference in Maastrict, 2012.

After interviewing the participants and transcribing their comments, I shifted my attention to the literature review. At first, I considered doing some analysis prior to the literature review in hopes that the literature review would not influence my observations. But, as my supervisor pointed out, I am not doing grounded theory. In any case, I have found that the transcripts speak to me very separately from the ideas collated in the literature review. In some ways, the literature review helped to open my mind to new possibilities. It also helped me to consider my philosophical position and theoretical framework in much greater detail. And, again, I was able to submit an abstract to another conference, this one on threshold concepts in Dublin.

What I have found surprising is how many ideas have fallen into place. In my spare time—that is, when I take breaks from coding—I read some of the seminal works that I have earmarked as requiring attention. My latest discovery is Bakhtin. I can see how his work might be affiliated with social constructionist philosophy. His work resonates with me and is helping fill in some gaps in my framework. Slowly, I hope to work my way through the stack of books and journal article piled high around me.

Although this process seems in control, I do not entirely feel like I am controlling it. It’s as if something is guiding me along and presenting options–interspersed with moments of inspiration that change the course of my work subtly and continuously.

Conducting interviews with the not-so-disembodied

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Online Interviewing
James, N., & Busher, H. (2009). Online interviewing. See:

I finished this book yesterday at my favourite coffee shop. Lo and behold, I had neither computer nor paper to jot down my notes. So, I pulled out my HTC TYTN II and hand-wrote some notes [I have not yet succumbed to the i-Revolution of the evil geniuses at Apple]. I sometimes carry a little fold-out Bluetooth keyboard and type notes in mobile Word, but alas I was completely unprepared.

James and Busher’s (J&B’s) book did not treat interviews in the same ways as Olson and Fontanas & Prokos did. There were some similar themes regarding ethics and the balance of power between the interviewer and the participants. And, J&B discussed the importance of the researcher understanding his/her ontological and epistemological stance. But, the main focus of this book, in my opinion, on the nature of the online environment and how it affects the construction and understanding of discourse in online interviewing. As such, the book is ideal for those of us who are studying online identity formation and maintenance. Including this book amongst my readings of interview methods was a good way to round out my investigation.

The authors regularly use the word disembodied in referring to the human experience online. The word crept into much of their text in each chapter possibly indicating their own private orientation towards online interaction. For example, J&B write:

This chapter [four] therefore discusses how knowledge is constructed in a disembodied, anonymous and textual environment . . . (p. 43)

Further, the body itself is discussed:

The centrality of the body plays a critical part in developing and maintaining social encounters. It influences the ways in which researchers and participants construct their identities and those of the other (Giddens, 1991) and how they assert their agency to make sense of the ‘territory’ (social space) of the social interaction in the face-to-face encounter. (p. 32)

I do not disagree with the importance of the body as we are all physical beings “thrown” into a physical world. Interaction within the physical world shapes how we understand life. However, I grow concerned when social scientists suggest that the ways humans interact online is fundamentally different from how they interact in other environments. Interaction in any environment is mediated—in a face-to-face milieu, this might be through light and sound waves. Mediation will affect the cues people perceive and their sense of time and space (p. 10). Sense of time and space will alter how they interact: what people say, how they say it, and why they say it—when, where . . . The meanings of interaction will shift for the actors as they send and receive cues through different times and spaces. These factors are of much interest to qualitative researchers (p. 23).

So, normally, I would take the repetition of the word disembodiment as a warning sign. Gladly, I found that the authors also offer different perspectives of the online experience:

. . . if researchers are to understand life online, they have to understand that participants’ experiences are connected and shaped by cultural and social elements that are both real and virtual, public and private and online and offline. (p. 11)

Some online researchers have argued that to understand life online you need to understand the broader context because ‘being online and being offline are intersecting and interweaving experiences’ that are influenced and shaped by cultural and social elements (Rybas and Gajjala, 2007 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34). Identity is fluid and potentially multiple on the Internet, but people similarly engage in these practices in other areas of their lives and did so prior to the existence of the Internet. In other words there is a ‘connected space’ in which individuals exist online and offline simultaneously (Kendall, 1999, p. 6 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34).

Why is it important to avoid (or acknowledge) the online-interaction-is-disembodied-bandwagon? Because it has significant underlying implications for the way researchers and practitioners shape their online research and online learning environments. By recognizing that the humans-behind-the-screen are actual beings with continuous identities rooted in physical, cultural, and social environments, we can begin to understand why they might react to given situations the way they do. (Note: I do not suggest that we can ever fully understand the intentionality of others.) J&B warn researchers about the “false notion of sameness”, the idea that because people share time and space online they also share values and understanding (p. 47).

. . . participants are likely to assign different valences (strengths) of power to each other, possibly incorrectly. This is because the valence they assign will depend on the cultures from which they come, not the culture in which the others are located. (p. 45)

Further, (and I love the terminology):


But, one should not forget that the lived reality of a person is also supplemented by ‘there and then’. Everyone carries with him/her a physical, cultural, and social history.

A related, but equally important and oft-abused word is fragmented. The disembodied folks often also suggest that people interacting online have fragmented identities:

The identities that emerge from these interactions—fragmented, complex, diffracted through the lenses of technology, culture and new technocultural formations—seem to be . . . more visible as the critters we ourselves are in the process of becoming, here at the close of the mechanical age. (Stone, 1996, p. 36 cited in J&B, 2009, p.72)

Fragmentation is a notion that I would also flag as problematic. The fragmentation is really only from the perspective of an audience for a given performance—not that of the actual individual typing on his/her keyboard. As I write this, I assure you, I have a very integrated sense of identity; my whole history is at my disposal. Just because I don’t share all of my history does not mean I am in any way fragmented. But, I do acknowledge that your computer monitor might show me as somehow diffracted.

Thankfully, J&B offer alternative views from that of Stone (1996, above). In referring to Kendall (1999), they indicate that identity is “stable and unified” and that “This stability is constructed through the ongoing dialogues and discourses emerging online” (p. 73). And, that whilst people can create different online personas, they can and do integrate these personas into their unified selves. In my view, this suggests support for a constructionist perspective of how online and offline presentations of self integrate and influence each other in a constant movement towards becoming.

How is this relevant to interviewing methodologies?

It is relevant because it suggests that there is authenticity in data collected through online interviews (synchronous and asynchronous). The concern we have with demonstrating the validity/authenticity/truthfulness of this form of data collection is similar to the validity of interview data collected in face-to-face interviews”

Individuals do not leave the body, and all its material inequalities behind when they enter cyberspace (O’Connor and Madge, 2003 referred to in J&B, 2009, p. 78).

Oh, and this is an interesting comment (great quotes in this book):

. . . we may underestimate the presence of the body in electronic communication, and over estimate the power of the body to facilitate the fact-to-face situation (Seymore, 2001, p. 162, cited in J&B, 2009, p 108).

So what have I learned?

Similar rules-of-thumb apply to both online and offline interviewing:

So, why am I still grinding on about interview methods?

These were my main concerns prompting my investigation about interview methods:

To what extend would I contaminate the interviews by expressing opinions?

Do I want pre-reflective responses?
(See p. 26)


More on the qualitative interview: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude . . .”

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

Fontana, A., & Prokos, A. H. (2007). The Interview: From Formal to Postmodern (p. 148). Left Coast Press, Inc.

In referring to the setting of some interviews: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude if one is doing a study of nude beaches.” (Douglas and Rasmussen, 1977 cited in Fontana & Prokos, 2007, p. 43)

It was the perfect day to spend reading on the deck. I sat in the shade of my umbrella with my kettle, teapot, silver tea strainer I purchased at the Mittal tea shop in Sunder Nagar Market in New Delhi in 2003, and a fresh book on interviewing. Fontana and Prokos’ (F&P) book is really only 113 pages in length. It’s a pleasant read replete with interesting examples.

I appreciated their quick highlights of the history of interviewing. The historic background can help readers understand some of the philosophical issues behind the selection of interview types and how a given researcher believes she must conduct her interviews and her analysis of them.

As I continue to explore the literature on interviews, I am becoming more and more comfortable with my own style. My concern for contaminating my results by inadvertently “participating” in the interview whilst playing the researcher role is dissipating. The domain of the structured interview seems to rest with those taking a more realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. Locating “pure” responses from participants to pre-formed questions and limiting the interviewer from co-constructing the conversation seem to be of greater concern in structured interviews. (Hmmm . . . The post-modern unstructured polyphonic interview (p. 53) also attempts to minimize the influence of the interviewer, but involves recording multiple participants speaking freely to a topic. According to an example, the participants seem to be recorded separately. The researcher is expected to avoid using her own words and interpretations. The reader must do his/her own interpretations.)

I am more of a relativist and constructionist. As such, I am comfortable with the notion that my very presence is a valid part of the process. The important thing is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and document it. The researcher must be reflexive (p. 63) and transparently so. F&P in referring to the work of Hertz (1997) note that “we (as authors) express and write our stories, which data we include and which data we exclude, whose voices we choose to represent and whose voices we choose not to represent” (p. 63).

Whilst Hertz (1997 referred to in F&P) acknowledges that the researcher brings many selves to the field of research, Behar (1996 referred to in F&P) “made us see that interviewer, writer, respondent, and the interview itself are not clearly distinct entities” (p. 64). (Pardon my poor citations, but I’m a little tired tonight.) The researcher must decide how to present herself knowing that the self she shows will impact upon the relationship and the co-creation of the dialogue. Then, she must reflexively work through sorting out (or accepting) the hopelessly intertwined entities that formed the discourse—and which continue to shape the discourse well after the contact between the interviewer and the participant has ended. These notions suggest a complexity to the qualitative interview that, again, must be reflected in the final report.

F&P do a clean sweep of structured, group, and unstructured interviews. F&P do not make the same distinction between semi-structured and guided interviews as Olson does (see previous entry). They simply refer to them generally as unstructured and list a number of different types. These types are listed within the categories of creative and post-modern. Within the post-modern category of unstructured interviews, one type really caught my eye: interpretive interactionism (p. 54). F&P suggest that interpretive interactionism is related to polyphonic interviews (see paragraph above), but focuses on “epiphanies” derived from transformational experiences: “Thus, the topic of inquiry becomes dramatized by the focus on existential moments in people’s lives, possibly producing richer and more meaningful data” (p. 54). What is of interest to me here is whether or not this form of interviewing would be useful in studies involving threshold concepts and liminality (see Meyer & Land’s work). In my own PhD thesis, I will be exploring identity positioning thresholds (coined this phrase for my study) experienced by doctoral students.

Moving to the online interview

As I near the first of my pilot interviews, I am wondering how the following non-verbal factors will play out online:

Proxemic communication is the use of interpersonal space to communicate attitudes, chronemic communication is the use of pacing of speech and length and of silence in conversation, kinesic communication includes any body movements or postures, and paralinguistic communication includes all the variations in volume, pitch and quality of voice. (Gordon, 1980, p. 335 cited in F&P, 2007, p. 71)

Next blog entry will focus on the online interview . . .

42 Questions in Discourse Analysis

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

Gee lists 42 questions that a researcher can ask when conducting analysis on a given text or set of texts (p. 121). I will put them into a simple table.

Tools of Inquiry

Building Tasks








Sign systems & knowledge

Situated meanings

Social languages

Figured worlds





In the table, each row represents what he calls a tool of inquiry. The columns represent the building tasks. To understand how to ask the questions, first one must understand the terminology:

Tools of inquiry

Gee refers to tools of inquiry as thinking devices.

Situated meanings – may also be referred to as utterance-token meanings (p. 63). Form = “morphemes, words, phrases, or other syntactic structures” (p. 64). Function = what the utterance is intended to say or cause. If form and function are not in balance, then we might question what is happening. “Situated meanings arise because particular language forms take on specific or situated meanings in specific different contexts of use” (p. 65). Gee notes that analysis is complex because context is always changing. But, we can view an utterance from the viewpoint of different contexts and potentially gain insights into the meaning of the interaction (p. 68).

Social languages – “different styles of varieties of language for different purposes” or different social situations (p. 28). Social languages can have their own “distinctive grammars” (p. 50). They help people recognize and create their social contexts.

Figured worlds – typical, often taken-for-granted, stories or simplified pictures of situations with “typical participants, activities, forms of language, and objects and environments” (p. 71). Holland (1998) defines them as “socially constructed realm[s] of interpretation” (cited in Gee, 2001, p. 71). They are not static. Figured worlds “mediate between the ‘micro’ (small) level of interaction and the ‘macro’ (large) level of institutions” (p. 76). People can use figured worlds to construct simulations of situations to help them understand or act in the given situation(s). People also use figured worlds to evaluate appropriateness of social activity in the world (p. 90). They can be nested, incomplete, inconsistent, and changing. (An examination of figured worlds can help to uncover taken-for-granted assumptions that guide social behaviours—review previous blog posting on Ian Hacking’s book, The social construction of what?”)

Intertextuality – the act of referring to or quoting texts outside of one’s immediate discourse. It is a “sort of cross-reference to another text or type of text” (p. 29). Words may be borrowed or switched from one social language and used in another (p. 58).

Discourses – linguistic and non-linguistic elements that combine into “characteristic ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, and believing” (p. 28). They combine to produce a “socially recognizable identity” (p. 29). [Note: big “D” discourse.] On page35, Gee emphasizes the importance of recognizability. Discourses do not necessarily have clear boundaries; they can overlap, split, meld, die, mutate, etc. (p. 38).

Conversations – Gee uses this word with a big “C” to refer to “all the talk and writing that has gone on in a specific social group or in society at large around a major theme, debate, or motif” (p. 29). He adds later, “They are the products of historical disputes between and among different Discourses” (p. 56).


Building Tasks

For each building task, Gee suggests that a researcher can ask the following questions:

Given what the speaker has said or the writer has written, and how it has been said or written, what

  • [things, people, practices, identity(s), relationships, connections, disconnections, sign systems, languages, social languages, ways of knowing]

in this context are relevant and significantand in what ways are they significant? How is the speaker or writer trying to

  • [give significance to things, enact things, depict things, recruit things, use things, connect things, disconnect things, privilege things, disprivilege things]?

Note: From my perspective, the building tasks of identity, relationships, and connections can be very difficult to separate. In particular, I see identity as highly integrated with relationships.

Questions from combining the tools of inquiry with the building task

Here is how Gee phrases the questions from the table of 42:

Significance: “How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to build relevance or significance for things and people?” (p. 121).

He asks the same question for each building task.

So, my question is what elements of this do I take with me when I do my phenomenographic study? It is definitely helpful in expanding the way I will read the interview transcripts. Gee’s book is also helpful for me in developing my transcription protocols. Now onto Wetherell et. al.

Discourse analysis & a constructionist approach to phenomenography

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

Gee, J. P. (2011). An Introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (3rd ed., p. 224). New York, NY: Routledge.

I am exploring the use of discourse analysis (DA) alongside the constructionistt phenomenographic methodology that I will be using on my PhD thesis. So, I have started with what has turned out to be a nicely written introductory text by James Paul Gee.

As my first love in academia was languages and linguistics, I feel very comfortable with Gee’s text. In fact, it feels much like a homecoming. I now understand why social constructionist philosophy has become, quite unintentionally, so significant in my doctoral work. In this book, Gee’s own philosophies about language are made clear:

In the broadest sense, we make meaning by using language to say things that, in actual contexts of use, amount, as well, to doing things and being things. These things we do and are (identities) then come to exist in the world and they, too, bring about other things in the world. We use language to build things in the world and to engage in the world building. (p. 16)

To an extent, I try to contain my excitement upon reading this until I can fully ascertain that Gee does not cross the line into critical realism—the idea that there is a reality out there, but we can only see it from our own limited perspective. (I know that this is an oversimplification.) The danger of this crossing could have been perpetrated in Gee’s treatment of the other “stuff” related to language such as non-vocalized behavours, appearances, enactments, social institutions, and props—the context of language (p. 35).  However, Gee appears firmly rooted in the social constructionist camp. Consider, for example, how he refers to knowledge:

. . . the physics that the experimental physicists “know” is, in large part, not in their heads. Rather, it is spread out (distributed), inscribed in (and often trapped in) scientific apparatus, symbolic systems, books, papers, and  journal, institutions, habits of bodies, routines of practice, and other people. Each domain of practice, each scientific Discourse . . . attunes actions, expressions, objects, and people (the scientists themselves) so that they become “workable” in relation to each other and in relation to tools, technologies, symbols, texts,  and the objects they study in the world. They are in sync. (p. 36)

In this example, a given discourse exists and creates and recreates itself including the scientists who engage in the discourse. This recognition of the cyclical relationship between language and perceptions of reality is, in my opinion, a cornerstone of social constructionism.  Later on the same page, Gee uses the word instantiation with reference to the power of language to create a constantly shifting and abstract world. This, too, dramatically buoys a social constructionist position. (Interestingly, Gee suggests reading Bourdieu, Clark, Engeström, Foucault, Hacking, Hutchins, Latour, Lave & Wenger, and Wittgenstein—all of whom have constructionist leanings or whose work has been foundational to constructionism.)

Before I outline how I will use DA to support my phenomenographic research, I will first post my notes on the main concepts of Gee’s book. But, that is for tomorrow.

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

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.