Me, My PhD and my grumbles about Actor Network Theory

My name is Anna Beck and I am a second year PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow. I am currently conducting research in the area of education policy, and my research interests include: educational reform, teacher resistance, the role of international comparative data in education policy, teacher professionalism and teacher resistance to change.

As a newly added co-author of this website, I plan to update you on my developments in applying social theory to my doctoral research. These posts will probably take the form of me grumbling about some abstract element of Actor Network Theory, but I hope that there will be some success stories too! I would also like to encourage other PhD students to use this website to read about the application of social theory, to talk about their research, and to share their experiences of applying social theory to their own research. Coming from a Psychology background, I have to admit that one of the things that has baffled me the most so far in my PhD is the application of Social Theory to research methods and analysis, and I know many other students who feel the same!

For my PhD, I am researching the implementation of a recent Scottish teacher education policy, ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ (also known as the ‘Donaldson Report’) in ‘real time’, as the implementation process is ongoing. The report’s recommendations are extremely wide ranging and some are considered to be complex and somewhat radical. I am hoping to unearth some of the operational and political processes involved in their implementation and the key actors and forces which may act to drive or inhibit Scotland’s capacity for change. I am also interested in the idea of ‘re-imagining’ teacher professionalism and what lies behind resistance to neo-liberal policy. One big question that I have is, how do we bring about change in an education system that is steeped in tradition, culture and history?

At the moment, I am trying to map out the journey of policy text to practice. What is it that happens in the stages between, and how does the philosophy of ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ change as it travels through space and time? To do this, I am taking an Actor Network Theory (ANT) approach.  I find ANT incredibly difficult to explain, and I have read time and time again that to attempt to define it runs the risk of domesticating it. However, I will attempt here to very briefly outline how I plan to use it in my research.

A key assumption of ANT is that humans and non-humans are the same. Every day ‘things’ are seen as being able to exert force, join together, develop and change each other. As they ‘assemble’ together with other actors, they form ‘networks’ which travel over time and space and become more or less durable. The Donaldson Report could be considered as a ‘network’, made up of ‘things’ which are constantly shifting, its durability fluctuating throughout its implementation. These ‘things’ include people, teacher organisations, policy texts, culture, history, economics, teacher associations, ideologies, beliefs, dispositions, external forces and global pressures, to name but a few. An ANT approach allows for the consideration of these ‘things’ as powerful actors, and it can be employed to map the dynamic and temporal social, material and conceptual relations between them.

By employing ANT during the analysis stage, I will hopefully be able to identify how these actors are attracted into or excluded from networks, which linkages work between actors, and how connections are strengthened and weakened during policy implementation, i.e. what are the forces at play and how do they operate. Or at least that is the plan anyway!

Understanding how to actually apply ANT during data analysis of interview transcripts is proving to be slightly tricky… Its limited use in educational research means that there are not many examples for me to draw on! So it may be a bit of trial and error process…. probably involving me drawing massive complex maps on big sheets of paper… I’ll keep you posted.