Bringing ideas to life

Interactive Grumbles: Bringing my BERA 2013 paper to life

Published in Mobilities, Research Students by Anna Beck on October 21, 2013

Question Finger
This post has emerged from a paper that Mark Murphy and myself presented (with input from Jim Conroy) at BERA 2013. The overarching idea behind the paper was to show, using my research as an example, some of the difficulties faced by new researchers in selecting appropriate social theory.

To jazz things up a bit, we used some of the presentation time for a quick question and answer session: Mark asked the questions, and I attempted to provide some sort of logical answer. This meant that I could outline my reasons for using ANT, but in a more interactive way. We would like to continue this method of presentation through Q&A on the site, making use of the comments section, in an attempt to make blog posts and past conference papers more interactive.

I’ll start with a summary from my part of the BERA paper…

My research focuses on the development and implementation of policy in Scotland. I am tracing a new teacher education policy, Teaching Scotland’s Future (also known as the Donaldson Report), in real time, as it comes into existence and becomes embedded (or not) in Scottish education.

The three aims of my research are to:

  • Map the journey of the policy agenda
  • Identify internal and external forces at play which act to drive forward, inhibit or modify the original agenda
  • Locate ‘power’ in the policy making and implementation processes

Teaching Scotland’s Future was published in January 2011 and contains 50 recommendations for the improvement of Scottish teacher education in its entirety. The agenda has been further developed and implemented in partnership by two groups (the NPG and the NIB) consisting of representatives from key bodies in Scottish education. The journey of the policy is partly dependent on the collective action of, and decisions made by, these actors, the majority of whom can be considered as powerful policy actors.

Within the NPB and NIB, there has been a range of vested interests, values and positions in flux; making an already complex process even more complicated. It is the intersection of all of these different interests and forces (internal and external) and the power play between actors (at an organisational level) that I am interested in. It is important to note that I am not looking at the interests and values of individual people – I am looking at the way in which bodies (publicly and privately) position themselves in the process and how their positioning impacts on the journey of policy. I have gained some insight into this through interviewing members of the NPG and NIB, and also through analysing a range of documents such as working papers, political announcements and press releases.

Social phenomena are, by their very nature, uncertain and fluid. John Law (2004) warns that if we want to truly capture this we need to use ‘messy methods’ that allow us to ‘know’ the indistinct and slippery without trying to grasp them too tightly.

ANT is one such method. If you’ve read my other posts you’ll know that I have had much difficulty in accepting ANT for what it truly is. But despite its inherent imperfections, I have come to love it… or at least I have come to love parts of it.

Regarding ANT as a toolkit, I have made use of particular ideas and concepts that have proven useful for my research. I will attempt to briefly outline the main three here:

  1. One of its central ideas is that everything is always in a state of flux – things, objects, people and the connections between them are changing all the time. It acknowledges that nothing remains stable, and this is certainly the case with policy implementation.
  2. It refuses to place things into categories and in doing so, suggests that human agency and intent are not to be privileged in analysis (this is the one claim that I have found most difficult to accept!).
  3. It allows us to see a policy agenda as ‘unfinished’, admitting that as a policy moves through levels of society, it is modified in some way by the people or things that it comes into contact with. This is known as the ANT translation model of change (Gaskell & Hepburn, 1998), which asks us to refer to our focal actor as a token. As the token travels through space and time, it is either ignored or picked up by actors who see their interests translated within it. When these actors pick it up, they shape it to their interests, thereby modifying it in some way.

The token in my research is the main agenda set out in the original ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ report. It appears that key bodies in Scottish education are using their positions within the policy process to support, modify and silence sections of the agenda depending on their interests and goals. This is the nature of policy processes in Scottish education and ANT is allowing me to get closer to it.


Come on Mark Murphy (and anyone else), hit me with your questions!!


Feature image by Tsahi Levent-Levi, CC. 

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About the author /


Anna is a final year PhD student in the School of Education, University of Glasgow. Her main research interests centre on educational change and policy making/implementation. With a background in Psychology, she is particularly interested in the way in which teachers shape and engage with educational change.


  1. Avatar
    Mark Murphy

    Excellent post Anna – here is my first question: I know you now say that you ‘love parts’ of ANT (that was a slow-burning kind of love for sure), but really, would you still use ANT as the main theoretical framework if you were to start all over again? Be honest now …

  2. Avatar
    Cristina Costa

    Hi Anna,

    thank you for this post. I like your honesty re: the research process… in that it really is a messy process! We should say this more often so that people don’t think it “only happens to them”. This is usually not acknowledged in the thesis, thus often leading to a lot of anxiety, until one realises that that “messiness” is an integral part of the process of doing research.
    I am very interested in your research topic too, because I am a big fan of the Donaldson report. I remember reading it when I got my first job interview – not a job offer 🙂 – for a lecturing post in Scotland. I was positively surprised with the fresh look and approach on education and I kept mentioning it in my presentation!

    So here is my question:
    it looks to me that the ideas put forth by the report in general, and the 4 capacities in particular, tie in very well with the key ideas proposed by the literature on Technology Enhanced Learning (i.e., learners as creators; active participation; context over content; authentic learning, etc…). I wonder how those “forces” you talked about are working to support or hinder (or are not interested at all in) the integration of web technologies in the classroom ( “embedding” rather than “integrating” might be an even better way to put it – and that is what I think the report hints at …at least that is my probably biased interpretation of it…) 🙂

    • Avatar
      Anna Beck

      Hi Cristina (fellow Donaldson fan)!

      Thanks for your questions and comment! Yes I was always scared that I was being overly honest about the messiness of the research process… but then I realised that it should be messy, and confusing and disturbing (and occasionally tear inducing)… and if it’s not, that’s when you worry!

      So to attempt to answer your question (but my understanding of Technology Enhanced Learning is limited!), the main forces that I have found so far that may also act as forces in inhibiting Technology Enhanced Learning are things like conservatism and resistance to change – not just in teachers, but in policy makers and individuals working in local authorities. These forces come out of a sort of collective inertia – traditions persist and people are happy to stay with the status quo… Why should we change anything if we’re doing a good job as it is? This in turn is linked to the ‘myth’ and different beliefs associated with this – ‘we haven’t needed web technologies in the classroom so far, so why should we need them now?’

      Yet there are many forces which could also act to drive the technology agenda forwards – with Donaldson (at a policy level – the bit that I am looking at), much of these are external such as international trends emerging from travelling policy, OECD discourse etc. But maybe with technology enhanced learning, the driving forces come from teachers and educators themselves, in schools and universities? In his report, Donaldson says that for technology to be successful in schools, we need flexible and creative teachers, open to modernisation.

      One biggy that I’ve found in terms of implementing Donaldson at micro level (which I’m not really looking at just now but is very interesting) is awareness and the language that is used to communicate intended/desired changes in teachers. For implementation to work, those working at all of the different levels in education need to be aware of it, and there needs to be consistency in the language used to describe it. With Donaldson, there needs to be a realisation that it is linked in with all the changes emerging from GTCS and the drive towards career long professional learning – but just now, many people see them as separate things. Maybe it is the same with creation of web technologies in the classroom, as in they need to be seen as part of the wider picture of modernisation? Or maybe they already are! What do you think??

  3. Avatar
    Cristina Costa

    ha… and I forgot to say that I like the format of your presentation. I might steal the idea! Full credits will be attributed to its original authors, obviously! 😉

  4. Avatar
    Anna Beck

    Hi Mark!

    Hmmmmm so I’ve taken a while to think about this one… Some days I do wish I could start again from scratch with a whole new theory and ditch ANT and all the troubles it causes me…

    But, I think, if I really was to start again, I would still use it! Purely because of the nature of the data I had access to. Interviews, as they were conducted in real time with the actors responsible for shaping the policy, have to be considered as stories. These stories are used to portray particular positions, and cannot be used to show the reality of policy making. It may be possible to look for undercurrents that hint at what is really going on, through comparing interview data with official discourse, but this is risky. ANT helps me to stand back a bit from this, and argues that we cannot grasp complete reality anyway – in doing so, we distort it in some way, so our data is never a true representation of what is going on, but our own construction of reality (and there may be other theories out there that would allow for this distance too).

    One thing that I would have change however is that I would have looked at combining it with other theories right from the start. Foucault is another obvious collaborator, and I read a really interesting article on using Bernstein in policy analysis….

    One theory I have looked at using in detail was Margaret Archer’s human agency, and I particularly liked Emirbayer and Mische’s chordal triad of agency… After many months of stubbornly trying to get it to fit, I realised I just couldn’t get it to work with ANT. They were like chalk and cheese, and both come from completely different ontological positions (lots of people warned me about this, but I didn’t listen!). Also, gaining access to the kind of data that is required to look at human agency in policy makers would have been extremely difficult at that time.

    But I still think, if I had more time, it would have been interesting to try… essentially, the problem is that a PhD is too short! You have to take whatever idea you have, and run with it – no time for humming and hawing.

    I do have an idea though for using Emirbayer and Mische to look at policy implementation (maybe Donaldson) in the future (if I survive my PhD and someone is daft enough to hire me), so who knows… ANT certainly won’t be allowed in to that one!

    Oh and one last thing… One major concern I have had, and still have, about using ANT in policy analysis is the usability of my findings. Some ANT research has this horrible habit of distorting quite straightforward phenomena beyond recognition, by writing in overly complicated ANT terminology, and ANT terminology is a bit of a turn off. As this is a study of policy implementation in real time, I really hope that my findings will be useful to the policy community. Distorting them with ANT speak will certainly put people off reading it – and that is the last thing I want.

    Hope this answers your question!


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