Digital praxis and online identity

The below is modified from a reflective piece written for CILIP Chartership. As I was writing, I was interested in and thinking about motivation for engagement in online or digital spaces, and particularly social media. I began with framing in the CILIP Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB), which presents social media as tools relating to IT and communication technologies. I wanted to think beyond this framing and consider the aspects of connectedness and formation of online identity which social media can develop and foster.

Recently, Lawrie Phipps, Donna Lanclos, and Zac Gribble released the experimental Digital Perceptions reflective tool which allows for a critical reflective exploration of one’s own perception of online identity compared with others’ perceptions. I absolutely recommend trying this out to help develop a critical perspective on your practice of being online—or for some of us, Extremely Online.

In a brief discussion with Lawrie I noted Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis as, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” which he worked into a piece ‘Toward digital praxis: just thinking out loud’, as:

I want to engage people with their practice, encourage reflection and action on both their existing practices, and the digital structures and background against which their digital self (Identity?) is perceived by themselves and by those with which they engage.

I feel it is this awareness of structure and context, and moreover a critical understanding of power, political structures, and ownership within those digital contexts that is essential to such reflection and action. To inform this, I draw on a model of reflection from heath and social care in which practitioners and academics have worked to create a body of knowledge and theory that combines reflection with critical theory, reflexivity, and social theory. This use of social theory has all the interesting implications one might expect…

This model for reflection appeals to me because of its appreciation of uncertainty and ambiguity in praxis, and a central concept of, “finding better ways to practice based clearly on different ways of thinking” (Fook and Gardner, 2007 p.67). This goes beyond the idea of corrective actions or ‘lessons learned’ of project contexts, and provides a critically-aware lens that offers deeper understanding of classic models of reflection such as Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s (1974) single-loop and double-loop learning.

Digital Perceptions Johari window showing my ‘Arena’ and ‘Blind Spot’ quadrants.

Ahead of using the Digital Perceptions tool I had considered power and ownership at some length, which is one reason I use a self-hosted WordPress blog and free culture licenses for longer form writing. I consider a “domain of one’s own” an important form of online presence for developing not so much a personal brand, but a digital identity that reflects who I am professionally and also a way of verifying identify using services such as Keybase.io. One reflective element informed by my use of the Digital Perceptions tool is any ‘curation’ of online identity is transparent to others, in both positive and negative ways. This leads me to question how this presentation of identity can ever be authentic, and how subjective others’ perceptions of one’s identity are. For this reason I find suggestions that one is just being one’s authentic self online reward a more critical examination; ultimately I see this contraction as an example of mediation of structure and agency.

Personally, I have found critical frames drawn from sociology and cultural studies helpful in understanding social media and have been particularly informed by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration (1984). Returning to an IT or tool-focused interpretation of social media, I argue this is a limited and limiting view. Social media can be understood not just as ‘a technology’ or ‘a medium’ but always a social system, constituting networks formed by an interplay of social and technological structures and human agency which shape each other co-constitutively. Without initially planning to, I saw how social media can be employed to develop interconnected networks of both “strong ties”, that is the professionals I know well, and “weak ties”, that is the acquaintances who I know a little or who are connected to people I know. My experience of introducing myself to someone at an event or conference that I follow on Twitter, or as a reader of their blogging, is now long established. I discovered this has some theoretical underpinning in Mark Granovetter’s (1973) argument that networks of weak ties better transmit ideas and innovation:

…whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance […] when passed through weak ties rather than strong.

Granovetter feels this important in the spread and uptake of new ideas that challenge the status quo or are otherwise ‘risky’ and discomforting. Considering social media as networks and social systems, my interest lies in the potential for connection with these new ideas—in terms of both positive benefits such as innovation but also negatives which might be understood as risks to be managed. My understanding of the uncertainty and risk in social media communication draws on Stuart Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model of communication—wherein an ‘audience’ is not a passive receiver, but play an active role in decoding messages based on their experience and social contexts and is moreover in an intensified situation of immediate and unmediated communication.

I find this potential for transmission of ideas most effective in two professional contexts. First, when participating in conferences where Twitter can represent a back-channel of what delegates are really thinking about the issues under discussion, and more simply in getting practitioners’ immediate reactions and views from events I am not attending. Related to this, perspectives on conference presentations and discussion can be broadcast outside of the auditorium, reaching wider network and amplifying key points. It’s an open question to me as if those reactions and perspectives are more authentic and more honest than those offered in-person—or just hotter takes. Second, I have found participation in Twitter chats an effective way of bridging connections between disparate social groups, engaging new people, and experiencing new ideas in a relatively serendipitous way. I put much of these positives, and associated negatives, down to a network effect among a self-selected group of participants; and have seen these chats provide an initial spark for new professional relationships and working collaborations.

Reflectively, I am aware of the role of privilege in social media use and consider this in my digital practice. It is easy to breezily state that as I have not known professional life without at least early forms of social media being present, opting out would be unnecessarily limiting and self-defeating. This is one area the Digital Perceptions tool can’t help with; as it is not intended as a diagnostic tool it is down to us to ask critically reflective questions. For example, I have both the time, space and technical knowledge to make effective use of social media in a relatively safe and secure way and remain connected enough with different social media networks that I have been able to leave networks such as Facebook. Though I may consider social media in its broadest sense as essential to information work as the earlier generations of technology I use, we also have to look around and consider who is not represented and present in these networks—and why.

References

Argyris, C. and Schön, D.A. (1974) Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practising critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity.

Granovetter, M.S. (1973) ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360–1380. doi:10.1086/225469.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and Willis, P. (eds.), Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128–38. London: Hutchinson.

Reflective practice and critical reflection recommended reading

I was recently asked by colleagues for some recommended reading on reflective practice in general and critical reflection in particular, and as several people asked me to share this I thought I would do so here.

Reflective practice in general

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.

A classic text, and one that should be seen in Schön’s context of time, place, and employment. Heavily critiqued and interpreted in the last 30+ years; I’d argue understanding reflection-in-action vs. reflection-on-action remains core to effective reflective practice and that this is still a challenging work when considering professional technical skills for practitioners.

Finlay, L., (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/resources/pbpl-resources/finlay-l-2008-reflecting-reflective-practice-pbpl-paper-52

For me Finlay is the best starting point for a review article on reflective practice. Written for the Open University PBPL CETL (which dates it if you remember CETLs…) but presenting, effectively, a wide-ranging literature review on reflective practice useful to anyone. Very helpful for an overview of different approaches or ways of doing reflective practice.

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice : writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

A useful overview of reflective writing. Its utility to you may depend on your view of the importance of narrative, but worthwhile if you have any intention of writing reflective pieces on your experience.

Brookfield, S. (1994) ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenology of adult critical reflection’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 13 (3) pp.203-216. doi:10.1080/0260137940130303

An interesting exploration of negative aspects (the ‘dark side’) of critical reflection for adult learners. Recommended reading for how to avoid or overcome these issues in practice. Sadly not available OA or free-to-read.

Argyris, C. (1991) ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’, Harvard Business Review, (May/June). Available at: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn

On challenges of applying Argyris and Schön’s single-loop vs. double-loop learning to professional practice.

Drucker, P.F. (1999) ‘Managing oneself’, Harvard Business Review, (January). Available at: https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself

Not pitched as about reflection, but contains useful nuggets on ways of thinking about development. Warning: contains some problematic ideas and sweeping statements.

Critical reflection or critical reflective practice

I take critical reflective practice to mean particularly the ‘two stage’ approach of analysis and deconstruction followed by reconstruction and change developed and articulated in the 2000s by Jan Fook, Fiona Gardner, and Sue White, alongside contributions from many other researchers. Their particular combination of theoretical underpinning and practical method is the one I prefer because it chimes with in with my own values and preferred approach to thinking about professional practice.

These researchers scaffold their approach with four theories, this list is paraphrased in part from Gardner (2014) and Fook and Gardner (2007):

  • Reflective practice itself, including an idea of experience or practice knowledge that I would describe as praxis, eg. articulated in Fook and Gardner (2007 p.24), “[R]eflective practice can be seen as a process of researching practice theory, by developing it directly from concrete practice”
  • Reflexivity, emphasizing a consciousness of how users perceive themselves and us, and how we perceive ourselves and each other in context as practitioners and researchers
  • Postmodernism and deconstruction, in this case particularly emphasizing concerns with attitudes to and influences of power
  • Critical social theory, including an emphasis on social justice as a concern

One challenge for us is taking these ideas out of their original context of health and social care and making them applicable to library and information professional practice. Personally, I think this is entirely possible as the idea of praxis implies:

  • Applying theory to practice deductively
  • Creating theory from practice via inductive formation of knowledge and new theories of practice

My point, is we needn’t wait for someone to write the ‘Critical reflection in library and information science’ textbook but can work on these ideas immediately. 😉

Gardner, F. (2014) Being critically reflective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner’s is my favoured introduction to critical reflection concepts and methods. It’s written to work for students and both new and experienced practitioners, providing practical examples while referencing more complex texts for underpinning theory, some of which are below.

Fronek, P. (2012) Jan Fook: critical reflection. [Podcast]. Available at: http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/critical-reflection/

Fook, J. (2006) ‘Beyond reflective practice: reworking the “critical” in critical reflection’, Professional Lifelong Learning: beyond reflective practice, Leeds, UK, 3 July. Available at: http://medhealth.leeds.ac.uk/download/1404/keynote_janis_fook

This conference keynote and podcast can be combined with Gardner’s book on critical reflection as an overview for ‘core’ reading. Jan Fook’s keynote for a medical education conference includes both the ‘what it is’ explanation and a retheorizing of critical reflection. I really like her summary on p. 14 for the focus on the political aspects:

“In reworking a theory of critical reflection, I would now articulate critical reflection as involving the ability to understand the social dimensions and political functions of experience and meaning making, and the ability to apply this understanding in working in social contexts” (emphasis in original)

The podcast interview is meant as an overview – Jan Fook’s style and enthusiasm are compelling, start here if you are unsure about where to dive in.

White, S., Fook, J., and Gardner, F. (eds.) (2006) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead: Open University.

Lehmann’s chapter 14 particularly interesting as this links a reflective writing approach to critical reflective practice; the ‘five questions’ she poses are also very useful for unpicking underlying assumptions.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practicing critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Other than Gardner (2014) I think this is the best introduction containing a more detailed explanation of the theory plus a plan for how to carry out practical reflective conversations as a group.

Vince, R. and Reynolds, M. (2002) ‘Organizing reflective practice’, Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities, Copenhagen, Denmark, 28-30 April. Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/conf/olkc/archive/olkc3/papers/contribution115.pdf

I include this here as Vince and Reynolds link reflective practice to critical management studies as a way of developing a model moving beyond Schön. Their overall view of ‘collective reflection’ is a useful expansion of, and critique of some limits in Schön’s work.

Ghaye, T. (2005) Developing the reflective healthcare team. Oxford: Blackwell.

Does what it says: the focus is on team-based reflection in healthcare, from a UK context. Much of what is here is generalizable and I think this is a particularly good starting point for managers or leaders looking at ways of developing reflective teamwork.

Critical theory and praxis

A major attraction for me to critical reflection was how Fook, Gardner, and White combine ‘traditional’ reflective practices with critical theory. With that in mind I wanted to include a few suggestions for starting points I think are useful in this area that may help in understanding the above. Lauren’s recommended reading list below includes these and much, much more: everything from critical theory ‘big names’ to specific library and inform recommendations.

Generally I’d also recommend Foucault, but struggle to pick one particular work. If pressed I’d include Discipline and Punish due to the focus on power and how disciplinary mechanisms were extended to the 20th century (Taylorist, Fordist) workplace, and the classic chapter on panopticism. It’s what I’ve recommended to my team as a starting point.

Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M., and Buschman, J. (eds.) (2010) Critical theory for library and information science. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

In my opinion the best general introduction to how critical theory can be applied to library and information work.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

A foundational work on praxis and critical pedagogy, quotable and inspiring. Of its time and place (citations include Lenin and Mao) so should be taken as a starting point for developing ideas.

Day, R.E., (2000) ‘Tropes, history, and ethics in professional discourse and information science’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469–475. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(2000)51:5<469::AID-ASI7>3.0.CO;2-B

Free-to-read preprint available at: http://info.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/articles/tropes.pdf

Reading lists from our community

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory’, Lauren Smith, May 16. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

This blog post links to Lauren’s critical theory in LIS reading list (Google Doc) but is worth reading for additional background and the wonderful top ‘All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts’ list.