Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War


Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.


The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)


Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)


Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).


Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)


(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at


Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

[3] DW Lernen is at

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

Looking Back: Herbert Marcuse

I attended a conference on computer interfaces the other week. This provided a mix of the stimulating and not so stimulating, but above all it was a break from education based research. There I found unexpectedly frequent references to the Frankfurt school [1] including one reference to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man [2]. ODM was published back in 1964. It created a stir in its day and I was prompted to recall what Marcuse had to say and ask about its relevance now.

ODM is a critique of mass society, very much focused on the USA of the 1950s and 1960s. For Marcuse the so-called consumer society was malign – we were being manipulated by mass media into wanting things we should not want and did not need. This lead us to be complicit in a comfortable consensus in which dissent and counter cultural ideas were absent. All this is summed up by the idea of society as irrational and in which:

productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence–individual, national, and international. (pp ix –x)

Thus if society is repressive (and for Marcuse it was) the problem was ‘Technology rather than Terror’; technology subdues us through an ‘overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living’. If there was hope of change it came from those outside the system, those who find themselves more marginal, for example the young, radical intelligentsia, the women’s movement. Marcuse rather portentously finished the book citing Benjamin that ‘It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us’.

Marcuse was not of course alone in offering this kind of extreme – I would say romanticised – pessimism and some of the key themes were, for example, presaged much earlier, in Riesman and Glazer’s more restrained and readable Lonely Crowd [3] and for that matter in anti-utopian novels of the period.

In my late teens I thought ODM was great (this was the mid 1970s and more than ten years after it was first printed). Here was someone from an older generation speaking to me and saying ‘yes you are right, the world you have been born into is irrational, the older generation is deluded and it is up to you to change it’. At least this is how I read the book and how it was read by any of my peers who had bothered to read it. How Marcuse intended ODM to be read is of course a different and more controversial question. There is a short clip on You Tube of Marcuse at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London 1967. This was a meet up of a counter culture constituted in the main by left wing academics and students, poets, writers, artists, plus the odd celebrity. In the clip you can see the suited figure of Marcuse offering, what seems to me, a pedantic discourse on dialectical liberation while the audience looks in a mix of reverence or polite disinterest. To be honest a fair number look half stoned [4]. It is all very odd and who knows what Marcuse makes of it.

I came back to ODM twice more. The first time was in the 1990s. I was talking to a colleague who had told me how important she still found Marcuse and I wondered why this was. I reread the first couple of chapters and could get no further. I was taken aback at how much I disagreed with it. I had an interest in technology by now and Marcuse’s views seems determinist, pessimistic and out of date. His writing was horribly sanctimonious too. For example, Marcuse lays into advertising:

the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society. Deprived of his false fathers, leaders, friends, and representatives, he would have to learn his ABC’s again. But the words and sentences which he would form might come out very differently, and so might his aspirations and fears (pp 245-6).

This resonated with me as, in the spirit of Marcuse, when we took our teenagers on holiday we would ask for televisions to be taken out of the cottages we rented in order to give us all a break from the media and indeed the adverts. (Mobile phone coverage tended to be poor and there was no wifi). However this did not leave us in a ‘traumatic void’ and I would never write about the viewers or readers of advertising as though they were idiotic in the way that Marcuse describes.

It was with low expectations that I went back to ODM. I dipped in and out and to be fair I found things to value in it. For example, the picture of technology he offers is more sophisticated than I had realised. It was not technology itself which was oppressive but our attitudes to it. In particular we had internalised an instrumental mentality through technology in which we took the goals of efficiency and output for granted. This left technological controls appearing to be:

the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible. (p9)

But Marcuse does recognise that there were other ways of using technology that ‘might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity’.

Marcuse also spent a great deal of time in ODM as elsewhere arguing for an space for independent thought and dissent, he valued:

the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies—an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior. The idea of “inner freedom” here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain “himself.” Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. (p10)

His argument is long and complex but there are echoes here of the contemporary critique that networked technology has left us with the sensation of being always online, always monitored and uncomfortable with our own thoughts.

Is there enough in my rereading of ODM to reverse my opinion of ODM? Well no and perhaps the harshest thing I can say is that ODM is an example itself of one dimensional thinking. If you are going to critique society you should deal fairly, or try to deal fairly, with the pros and cons of what you see in front of you. Show understanding but remember others will see things differently. Of course there is a space for a sustained, more rhetorical critique, but it is has got to be engaging and for me best lightened with irony if not humour. Instead ODM feels like a rant, and Marcuse’s underlying argument could be summarised as a tabloid headline: ‘We are going to hell in a handcart’.

My judgement of ODM is, as I say, harsh. Marcuse is serious scholar who writes in a dense and erudite way. However in ODM you feel assailed rather than enlightened. Part of the problem is that he shows little engagement with empirical research other than to cherry pick evidence to support his argument. But my greater complaint is that when he writes of people he lacks imaginative empathy or even curiosity. Here he is bemoaning contemporary materialism:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality…….The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced. (p. 8)

By all means critique consumer society but show you understand why people might be happy watching television, driving cars, or listening to music on the hi fi even if you want to show there are contradictions in what they say. Unable to engage with people as they are, Marcuse resorts to finding that they are wrong and he is right:

Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. (pp. xiii-xiv)

Oh dear.

So the same book has over time given me a spirit of rebelliousness; provoked a critique and finally a more balanced view alongside an enduring discomfort. Will today’s youth find the same in Marcuse as I did? Well, he is singularly ill suited for the climate of austerity in which we live but this will change one day and I don’t see why his time won’t come again.


[1] Frankfurt school: These were theorists who were based at the Goethe University in Germany who took a critical stance capitalist and indeed communist systems in the interwar years of the last century. Leading theorists escaped with the rise of Nazism.

[2] Marcuse, H. (2013 [1964]). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Routledge.

The text can be found online at

[3] Riesman, D., & Glazer, N. (2001 [1953]). The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character. CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society” (1967) – YouTube [online]











social theory

For the past few months I have been working with academic and student researcher colleagues on a project to produce an online resource about social theory. It has raised design questions but the most interesting aspect of the exercise has been talking to academic colleagues (again academics and research students) about the role of theory in their work. Theory as a concept has always troubled me but through the project I could see how widely this ‘trouble’ was shared, particularly among new researchers. Having someone ask about  theory puts many of us on the defensive. It can easily lead to a guessing game (what is the questioner thinking when he / she uses the word theory?) or game playing (they are going to catch me out as I have not read X, or read but misinterpreted X, or not read Y who refutes X). Further, theory is never going to be straightforward as it gathers together many different assumptions about epistemology, methodology and indeed the purpose of doing social research. The same word, theory, is used to describe anything from cause and effect associations; models of economic behaviour; ethnographic description of social phenomena; justice in hypothetical situations and so on [1].

A second problem with theory is that theorisation, especially inductive theorisation, seems so vague. Nearly everyone we spoke to described experiencing insights (for some best described as ‘aha’ moments) when ‘things fell into place’, for example when several cases of similar behaviour could be grouped under a larger concept or when the relationship between two kinds of actions became clear. However these leaps of the imagination are rarely articulated by academics themselves or indeed by those writing about research methods.  This leaves the new researcher knowing that they have something very important to carry out but little in the way of advice on how to do it. So is there anything that might help in addressing the difficulties that theory seems to raise?

I think there are some core associations about theory that can be articulated [2]. First, theory points to an attempt to abstract something from the data (a model, a rich description or conceptual category) which allows for understanding phenomena in more generalizable or at least more relatable ways. Without theory you are reporting on what is happening in a local context, theorising allows you to see the potential general significance.  People we interviewed  in our project further spoke about their attention to vocabulary when theorising, finding ways to articulate ideas using a very precise and often abstract language.  They were also aware how this language worked within a theoretical tradition, perhaps a discipline tradition but equally a cross disciplinary one.

Second, theory for our interviewees was further concerned with explanation. This does not necessarily mean cause and effect explanation, explanation could as easily be focused on the actions and consequences of actions. Even if we have competing definitions of theory, the task, as our interviewees saw it, was to locate the tradition of theory in which one’s work sits. This is not an ‘anything goes’ approach but rather a requirement to argue for the value and the shortcoming of a tradition.

Third, it is possible to celebrate rather than run away from the idea of subjectivity in the process of theorisation. Social research might be as much art as science but it is a special kind of artistry based upon an intense, the only word I can use I am afraid is, engagement with both literature and data [3] . In my experience it is striking that natural scientists and mathematicians, or a least those who have been interested in reflecting on the process of research in these fields, are not only willing but enthusiastically embrace intuition and indeed the aesthetics of theorisation. As famously expressed by Polanyi [3]

The affirmation of a great scientific theory is in part an expression of delight. The theory has an inarticulate component acclaiming its beauty, and this is essential to the belief that the theory is true. No animal can appreciate the intellectual beauties of science.

I am not sure we would talk about theorisation in the same way in social research, but we could. Perhaps scientists feel more willing to romanticise theory as the popular conception (whether right or wrong) is that their work concerns hard facts and the data they are working with have an objective quality. In contrast in social research the data will always be questioned on ground of reliability, validity or whatever; to admit to subjectivity in theorisation just seems to be one more step in a shaky process.

Through the project we have a better idea about supporting theory but there is still much more to do.

[1] see from the student point of view

Kiley, M. (2015) ‘I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about’: PhD candidates and theory, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52:1, 52-63.

[2] See several different associations made with theory in Krauze, M. (2016) The meanings of theorizing, The British Journal of Sociology, 67 :  1, 23-29.

[3] Not surprisingly C Wright Mills work on the sociological imagination is offered repeatedly as an example of doing theory, as more recently does Umberto Eco on ‘how to write a thesis’. Good as these contributions are they, perhaps the recurring references to both illustrate the very restricted range of other reported experiences.

[4] Polanyi, M. (1983) Personal Knowledge. Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 133-135.


Imagined communities

I have recently been looking at discussion of online community and I have been struck by the extent to which writers (particularly in the early days of the Internet) tended to exaggerate the ‘newness’ or uniqueness of being online. For example, many saw a sharp divide between physical community (based on face to face interaction) and online community (based on shared attachment and interests as opposed to shared location). Online communities were often, and continue to be, described as necessarily ‘sentiment’ as against proximity communities.

This divide between online and face to face does not sound quite right and becomes undermined further if we take a longer view of the idea of community. In fact it has long been recognised that we can feel close to others at a distance and that we are held together by a shared attachment and can empathise with people we have never met. One much cited book in support of this view is Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson [1].

Anderson’s interest in community was triggered by the phenomenon of nationalism. He noticed that writers tended to fall into two camps: in the first nationalism was seen as a timeless, deep rooted and natural instinct, in the second it was a social construction – something that led (but not inevitably) to the idea of nationalism as false consciousness. Anderson tried to bridge these two views. Nationalism was a historical phenomena (arising out of particular conditions, chiefly mass literacy and vernacular languages) but it had a universal appeal. He thus modified the social constructivist argument, noting that national identity felt real and deep rooted for many people. Indeed when push came to shove people really would (and do) die for their belief in an imagined national community.

‘Imagined communities’ is a good read not least due to Anderson’s wide frame of reference – he was an enthusiast about South East Asia, and Indonesia in particular. It also appeals because he was as interested in literature and language as social theory.

I was only aware that Anderson had died when I came across his posthumously published reflection of the business of carrying out research [2]. The interesting thing about this ‘memoir’ is that you can read it in two ways. First, if you like, you can see him as a member of a restricted club made up of male, liberal-left middle class intellectuals constituted in the 1960’s and beyond. Second, and the reading I prefer, is that you can see him as showing how to transcend the limitations of one’s own social cultural position by maintaining  an endless curiosity about the world and a commitment to the developing world in particular. Whatever the case imagined communities remains a stimulating read and a useful corrective for those who believe that attachment beyond proximity began with the Internet. It did not.

[1] Anderson, B.. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

[2] Anderson, B. (2016).Frameworks of Comparison, Benedict Anderson reflects on his intellectual formation, London Review of Books, 21 January 2016, 38, 2: 15-18.



Big Data and Education

Reading through contributions to debates on big data and education (see [1] – [9] below) reminds us that there are two perspectives on education: education as science and education as wisdom of practice.

Education as science is about generalisation (if x what is likely to happen?), measurable outcomes (chiefly grades, if appropriate retention too) and observable processes of teaching and learning. Education as science seeks ‘objectivity’ and appeals in particular to policy makers and organisations who want to know what is worth funding and what works.

Education as wisdom of practice is about recognising complexity. From experience teachers know that no two classes are ever the same and without wisdom gained over time they will lack the strategies and techniques to get the best out of their learners. Wise teachers recognise uncertainty both in what is being measured and how you measure it. They ask how and why people learn, or fail to learn, and build up mental pictures of their learners. They know that teaching and learning is emotional. The appeal to wisdom of practice plays very well with practitioners who understand that ‘it is always complicated’.

Big data (and learner analytics) appeal instinctively to our first group, those who see education as a science. This on the grounds that:

  • We can interrogate more data, more quickly, than ever before. For example in England the national pupil database (NPD) [1] provides a huge data file on pupil attainment, attendance and progression which can be broken down by sector, gender ethnicity, first language, free school meals and so on. It can help show what is happening and what is having an impact. To take one example it has helped us understand not just about ethnicity, but different dimensions to ethnicity, and it has recalibrated how we think about impact of multi culturalism in schools and identified an achievement gap among white working class boys.
  • We can be serendipitous. Indeed other than its size the NPD is not big data, it is a snapshot survey with predictable data fields. Of more interest to big data enthusiasts are explorations of hitherto unlinked sets of data. For example projects in several universities aim to explore what data on library usage (not just visits, but what is accessed online) have on the attainment of students [2] [3]. It is not, of course, surprising if library usage and attainment are in some way related but we have never been able to explore the association in as much detail as now.
  • We can get just in time data which can be fed back to learners, for example to ‘nudge’ students to visit the library [2] [4]. This kind of early feedback can be very important in distance learning where a host of online activity is automatically tracked. [4]
  • We can use big data in order to generate powerful models which assist decision-making at policy, institution and teacher levels. Such modelling has enabled the construction of so called dashboards for learners allowing them to compare their activity against both the performance of the group and ideal profiles [2]. Of course this monitoring has come under scrutiny for overgeneralisation. More nuanced commentators have noted that big data analysis throws up association rather than proof of causality [6] It is also essential for researchers to consider the ethics of it all [3]. Indeed ethical issues extend beyond respecting confidentiality, and awareness of the data protection legislation, to wider questions such as whether we really want to live in a society in which data on our activity is automatically generated. [7]

The Big Data movement is not immediately attractive for our second group, those who believe in the wisdom of practice. In particular:

  • Those using Big Data often ignore that teachers collect data all the time both formally and informally. For example teachers know which assignments seem to engage students and which do not, and they can adjust when they see pupils bored and unhappy. Above all, they have the back story about the students they teach which means that they can interpret actions sensitively and intelligently [8]. Practitioners bring an understanding of context and develop compelling metaphors for thinking and learning which inform and explain practice.
  • Big data may be big but it does measure everything. Rather it is only measuring what can be measured not what it is appropriate to measure. One, perhaps unintended, consequence is that outcome measures are dominating thinking about education but this is swamping debates about educational values, for example what should be taught and how we should assess it.
  • Those obsessing about Big Data simply miss the fact that teaching is a complex mix of different types of knowledge. Insights from data analysis often confirm what teachers have long thought and often articulated among themselves. They are left asking why no-one spoke to them in the first place.

Is there a way forward between teaching as science and teaching as art? Probably not, but:

  • First we can understand that different stakeholders might be asking different questions about data and it is quite understandable that they do so. For example one statistical association that many institutions have found is that those attending a library induction will often achieve better outcomes than those miss the induction. This is useful for managers wanting to make decisions about resourcing libraries and for course leaders in planning their courses and promoting such induction. What of course it does not tell us is how to teach a class nor should we conclude that if you attend library induction you will get a better degree. Big data might not provide a story about learning but that is fine as long as we recognise the limitations.
  • Second, we can use data as one more source of information about teaching and learning. Indeed as teachers we can misread the signs and cues and we can become highly focussed on what we do, on our performance, rather than what the learners do, both in and out of formal teaching sessions. In practice teacher performance may turn out to be less important than we think, it is the design for teaching that matters more and this is something for which Big Data can help us [9].
  • Third, we can take the Big Data movement with a pinch of salt but can accept the wider case that we should make more use of available data to inform teaching. Indeed most practitioners do understand that so-called objective data about learner activity can help, especially when explored as part of practitioner research projects. What we need is, perhaps, a Small Data revolution, in which local data is used to support practitioner inquiry before we talk about a Big Data movement.


This post was in anticipation of a one day event on Big Data at the University of Warwick.  At the event Ben Williamson presented a more disturbing view of learning analytics or at least subjected the claims made by private educational providers such as Pearson to critical scrutiny. He also noted the scale of the funding and ambition of commercial organisations to provide comprehensive profiling of learners, going far beyond the rather tentative examples of higher education. For more go to


[1] For more on the National Pupil Database in England go to:

[2] A JISC report gives a useful snapshot of learning analytics in higher education: in Sclater, N. (2014) The Current State of Play in UK Higher and Further Education published at:

[3] A parallel report looks at legal and ethical issues: Sclater, N. (2014) Code of Practice for Learner Analytics, at

[4] Opportunities for formative use of data are presented in Ferguson, R. and Buckingham Shum, S. (2012). Social learning analytics: five approaches. In: 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge, 29 Apr – 02 May 2012, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, pp. 23–33.

[5] A feel for learning analytics in respect to online activity is given in, for example, Fidalgo-Blanco, A. et al (2015) Using Learning Analytics to improve teamwork assessment, Computers in Human Behavior, 47 (2015) 149–156 though this is not specific to DL.

[6] An argument for understanding complexity is put by Beer, C. et al (2012) Analytics and complexity: Learning and leading for the future, presented at ASCILITE2012 Future challenges, sustainable futures.,colin_-_analytics_and.pdf

[7] At the time of writing there is some consternation among librarians in Japan that a newspaper breached confidentiality by publishing the names of books that novelist Haruki Murakami, 66, took out as a teenager from his school library, this all seems rather innocent:

[8] This is argued robustly by Buckingham Shum, S.  Learning analytics: white rabbits and silver bullets, University of Technology, Sydney in Williamson, B. (ed.) 2015. Coding/Learning: Software and digital data in education. Stirling: University of Stirling at:

[9] For an exploration of learning as in this data rich world try Goodyear, P. (2015) Teaching as Design in (ed P. Kandlbinder) A Review of Higher Education Vol. 2. herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-2