A New Wind Blowing


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Twenty minute talk for the University of Manchester School of Education Postgraduate conference (2-3 August, 2012). Introduces some methodological challenges faced in my first year of my PhD using actor network theory to explore engineer's professional knowing in the emerging sector of renewable energy

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  • Welcome and good afternoon. My name is Jenny Scoles and Im coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student at the university of Stirling. I am part of the ProPEL research network in the School of Education which is interested in critically exploring issues in professional practice, education and learning. Today I want to talk to you about some of the methodological challenges I am facing as I start to think about entering the field to collect my data. I will give you an overview of my PhD but my focus will be on how my chosen theory implicates my methodology. My theory is centred on sociomaterial ideas of knowing as the relationship between what people do and the materials they use to do the things they do! I have a few photographs that introduce these ideas, and I am keen to develop the use of photographs as a useful strategy for my data collection so I really would welcome your questions and comments at the end of this talk.
  • So, in short, my PhD is exploring the knowing practices of professionals in an emerging sector. In particular, I am interested in studying professional engineers in the emerging sector of the renewable energy industry. Renewable Energy can be defined as work relating to non-fossil energy sources for example wind, solar, tidal, hydropower. The engineers in the organisation I will be using as my case study project manage the installation and construction of wind farms around the UK. Using this industry as a case study, I aim to explore how knowing and learning can be conceptualised in an industry that is still emerging and operates in a world that is uncertain, interdisciplinary and transnational.
  • So why is the renewable energy industry so interesting to use as a case study? I have identified five key reasons why this research is necessary at this time: Firstly, there is the emergence of the renewable energy sector within a political and economic drive to promote engineering and science-related jobs and tackle climate change. Due to the emerging demands of the renewable energy sector and technological innovations, engineers are experiencing new ways of working within this sector. Work is increasingly collaborative, they have to enact or at least understand other disciplines such as law, sales, environment, and construction. Working in small temporary projects is increasing and engineers find themselves in management positions early on in their careers. However, there have been many reports from employers who feel engineering graduates from higher education institutions entering this sector are ill-equipped to deal with the demands of the industry. The higher education curriculum is struggling to reflect the new challenges of emerging sectors. The policy discourse labels this mismatch between graduates and industry needs as a skills-gap. Yet this ‘skills gap’ discourse reinforces the traditional cognitive model of knowing and learning as an individual acquiring certain competencies. It tends to ignore the practices of the professional. Therefore, there is need by educators and policy makers to really understand the actual everyday practices of an engineer working in the renewable energy sector – the micro-practices. What do these engineers actually DO every day to get the work done.
  • At the moment, my reading has led me to a theoretical framework which incorporates three main ideas. Firstly, the idea of knowing in practice. This perspective understands knowing as situated, constructed and contested and views knowing and learning as inseparable from practice. I am particularity interested in the work of Orlikowski who writes from a sociological perspective of technology and work using a knowing in practice perspective. One of her key ideas is the notion of the sociomaterial. This views the social and the material, not as separate entities, but as constitutively entangled in everyday life. Now this idea of the social and material as entangled is found in Latour’s seminal work on actor-network theory which I also I find myself drawing from to scaffold my own theoretical framework. Actor-network theory, or ANT, considers that knowledge production takes place as a result of interactions of different groups of actors. Latour would explain actors as any thing that can bestow agency and exert force. And this means that actors can be human and non-human objects. And, in this vein, non-human objects aren’t just physical tangible objects like a computer, but could include ‘stuff’ such as texts, bodies, conceptual tools, stories, spaces even bacteria. There have been many debates over what it means for objects to have agency but Im afraid I don’t have the time to go over that right now! The key thing to remember here is that these perspectives draw on a different understanding of knowing than that of the one underlying the skills gap discourse. There is a shift from understanding knowing as a cognitive acquisition of competencies by an individual learner to one of knowing in practice. My methodological choices take this shift into account.  
  • In order to explore knowing in practice, it makes sense to adopt an ethnographic approach because it too is situated, enacted and performed. To understand practice we have to spend time watching it and asking questions to understand the professionals’ reality. And in this watching, through an ANT lens, things previously invisible in everyday work practices become visible. For example, things like a mobile phone, a management policy document, or a climbing harness can be thought of as actors. This is where the human and non-human comes into play. Its not that the mobile phone itself as a brute object has agency, it is the relations it enacts that brings about the force of practice. So for instance, a mobile phone can enact the practice of communication and networking. Entering into a busy organisation, keeping everyone on side and at the same time, harvesting the data that I need, is a daunting prospect for me as a new researcher. As Latour famously states, ‘one must follow the actor’ in order to understand the micropractices. I find this quite a challenging concept to put into practice. Part of this challenge is to know which actors to follow because, of course, I want to follow the actors who will reveal the professional’s knowing to me. By this I mean, how do I decide what non-human objects are important in these professionals knowing in practice? I have decided that I can’t decide at this point which non-human objects are important. Indeed, only when I have observed and interviewed my participants will I have a better sense of what non-human objects are important. I also intend to frame the interviews around the idea of photo elicitation. In this, my participants will be invited to take photos of the objects of their everyday practice. These can then be discussed in the interview, in a non-directive, collaborative way, to explore in more depth how objects are used in their practices to either inhibit or produce work. Playing with the idea of photo elicitation as part of preparing for going into the field, I have selected 6 of my own photographs to reflect on how an ANT perspective can help me to see knowing.
  • These next few slides are photos taken by a project managing engineer who recently planned and built a wind farm. Talking about these photos allowed the engineer to explain to me how seemingly mundane objects in their everyday work practices became important entities in getting their work done. These photos highlight a few useful concepts that are borrowed from my theoretical approach of ANT. Firstly, the concept of a boundary object can be seen here in these photos. A boundary object is an entity shared by several different communities of practice but viewed or used differently by each of them. Boundary objects can be very useful and powerful in negotiating social and professional relationships in practice and this impacts engineers knowing. The photo of the dog here exemplifies a non-human object that became crucial to negotiate the practices of constructing a windfarm. To build all-important social relationships, the engineer had to develop an interest in the livelihoods of the landowners. He ended up doing this through informal discussions with the landowner about his dog. This conversation and relationship became the negotiation point through which they gained trust and thus secured access to the land. In the next photo, he evidence of grouse poo in the local area is a great example of Goodwin’s professional vision. Goodwin shows us how the ability to see the things that matter in any profession is not a property of eye or brain, but is instead a discursive practice that is distinct to a particular professional discipline. The idea is that, as we become part of a professional discipline, we are trained to look at and see a certain set of phenomena in a particular way. It is not until the environmentalist visits the site and points out the bird poo that this becomes an issue for the engineer. As black grouse are a protected species, the environmentalist was looking for grouse poo in order to either forbid or allow the construction of a wind farm. Evidence of poo will help him conserve a species, whereas evidence of poo for an engineer is disastrous as it will halt the build of the farm. As an engineer, he does not know black grouse are protected so quickly has to learn about environmental policy. Therefore the poo could be seen as a boundary object negotiating the practice between two professions and causing a power imbalance as bird trumps windfarm in the environmental policy top trumps.
  • This slide shows how objects can afford and invite interprofessional relationships in practice and how this impacts engineers knowing. A mobile phone here contrasts sharply with the management plan that is set in writing. The management plan represents knowing as how it should be enacted but the mobile phone shows how important mobility is to engineers and the fluidity of their ways of doing and knowing. With the use of a mobile phone, the engineer can literally be mobile: on site, in the office or in between. The constant access to new information from different actors through instant emails, conversations and texts means that workarounds to the management plan are often necessary and can be implemented immediately. The table here in the temporary site office also is evidence of the mobility of engineer’s knowing. It demonstrates the temporality of the project and the nature of interdisciplinary work. It invites the different professionals involved in the project to sit down and collaborate around a fixed point. Information from site managers, construction workers, lawyers can all be shared and negotiated with the engineer.
  • Objects can also prohibit and exclude certain work practices. Here, for example, is a hard hat. If you’re not wearing a hat on site, work can stop. This knowing is enacted by health and safety officers, politics, supervisory gaze of management on site and restriction signs. The hat is also an object of professional jurisdiction. Power is translated through engineers wearing helmets when they visit site, they check to see who is wearing a helmet as often construction workers don’t bother. This understanding of power becomes part of the engineer’s managing practice at this moment in time. Finally, introducing new objects into the engineer’s profession allows for new learning moments. Harnesses, ropes, waterproofs, steel capped boots, and training courses afford engineers qualifications and experience to climb the turbines for inspection.
  • So to summarise, I have used the renewable energy sector as an example of an emerging industry that highlights how we, as social researchers, can understand knowing in our increasingly globalised, interdisciplianry and uncertain world. I have shown how framing knowing in a practice-based sociomaterial perspective can help problematise existing discourses that focus on a gap of skills. Thus, knowing is not focusing on the individual learner who needs to be topped up with credits, but is instead created in the relations between actions and the materials of those actions. I have demonstrated that as a researcher, collecting data on what people do, rather than what they know, is more helpful in understanding knowing in practice. The methods need to reflect this and ethnography can be a useful framework to draw from. So along with observation and interviewing, I have shown that using visual methods such as photo elicitation, could be a useful way to get at the material of knowing in practice. A practical question for me as a researcher that is still troubling me and I would like to leave you with is: What do I brief my participants with in order for them to take photos of objects without making them sit through this presentation to understand what I mean? Thank you for your time
  • A New Wind Blowing

    1. 1. A New Wind Blowing University of Manchester Postgraduate Conference 2-3 August, 2012 Jennifer Scoles University of Stirling
    2. 2. Reconceptualising the ‘skills gap’ discourse:Professional knowing in the emerging sector of renewable energyA practice-based, sociomaterial approach
    3. 3. PhD Topic
    4. 4. Situating the case study• Sector emergence• Changing profession• Dissatisfied employers• ‘Skills gap’ discourse• Micro-practices
    5. 5. Theoretical Perspective• Knowing-in-practice (Orlikowski, 2002)• Sociomaterial (Feldman and Orlikowski, 2011)• Actor Network Theory (Latour, 1987)
    6. 6. Methodology• Ethnography• ‘Follow the actor’• Interviews & observation• Photograph elicitation (Harper, 1994)
    7. 7. Photos of practice ‘stuff’Boundary objects (Star and Griesemar, 1989; Carlile, 2004)‘Professional vision’ (Goodwin, 1994)
    8. 8. Objects and sites ofinterprofessional knowing
    9. 9. Objects as inhibitors and mediators
    10. 10. Summary• Case study: Renewableenergy• Problematising ‘skills gap’discourse• Methodology and datacollection• Introducing photo elicitation
    11. 11. Any Questions?
    12. 12. References Carlile, P.R., 2004. Transferring, translating, and transforming: An integrative approach for managing knowledge across boundaries, Organization Science, 15(5), pp. 555-568. Feldman, M., and Orlikowski, W., 2011. Theorizing practice and practicing theory, Organization Science, 22, pp. 1240-1253. Goodwin, C.,1994. Professional Vision,. American Anthropologist, 96(3), pp. 606-633. Harper, D., 1994. On the authority of the image: Visual methods at the crossroads, in N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 403-412. Latour, B., 1987. Science in Action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Orlikowski, W.J., 2007. Sociomaterial practices: Exploring technology at work, Organization Studies, 28(9), pp.1435-1448. Star, S.L., and Griesemer, J.R., 1989. Institutional Ecology, Translations, and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeleys Museum of Vertebrate Zoology 1907- 39, Social Studies of Science, 19(3), pp. 387- 420.