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Fieldwork: understanding the habitus of digital scholars

Published in Bourdieu, Self and Identity by Cristina Costa on February 5, 2014

(c) Ell Brown

(c) Ell Brown

Just published: The habitus of digital scholars. Research in Learning Technology, 21(0).

The paper is based on my PhD research. The article looks at academic researchers’ perceptions of scholarship practices in the context of the Participatory Web. For the purpose of the findings presented in this paper, the Participatory Web was regarded as a space of active involvement, presence and socialisation of knowledge, with the potential of introducing significant changes to scholarly practice and to diversify it.

Using a narrative inquiry approach, I investigated the habitus of 10 digital scholars, and used some of Bourdieu’s key concepts – habitus, field, and social and cultural capital – as a research lens. This resulted in an understanding of research participants’ approaches to digital scholarship practices and the dispositions that characterise those same approaches which consequently tend to inform, and change, their practices.

Research participants’ accounts highlighted the influence of their online social capital (the online networks in which they participate) on their thinking and outlook on scholarly practices, especially with regards to their advocacy of openness and transparency of academic practice (in the case of this research, focusing on their research activity). In so being, research participants made apparent a set of value and beliefs that unveiled a distinct mind-set that allowed me to describe them as “digital Scholars” in light of contemporary digital technological advancements and related practices (See Weller’s work).

There are a couple of ideas that I hope to have been able to convey in this paper:

  1. Academics highly committed to using the participatory web in the context of their research practice (as the ones featured in this research) develop, or at least make visible, a set of dispositions and values that informs and/or transforms their academic habitus. The focus of this research is not on digital habitus, but rather on  how engagement on the web changes/transforms/makes visible research participants’ academic habitus, even if the participatory web becomes a prominent tool in supporting it
  2. This paper does not mean to claim that academics less visible on the web do not make use of the digital medium. What it means to say, is that academics with an active presence on the web, and continuously engaged in emergent debates in the context of knowledge/academic work, seem to develop a different (perhaps innovative?) approach as to how the participatory web can be used to maximise, network and open their research activity to a wider audience
  3. This research aims to assert that research participants’ engagement online and in knowledge networks (their online social capital) encourage the adoption of (or confirms) a set of values and principles (embodied cultural capital) which results in a new mind-set. Hence, digital scholars are more than users of the web; they display a set of dispositions and beliefs that they aim to apply to their practice to introduce meaningful change in academic work
  4. Lastly, this article looks at research participants’ habitus in the context of the web environments in which they participate and engage. Seeing the participatory web as a social space means to portray the “field” as a space fairly free of tensions and institutional regulations. This gives research participants a greater degree of freedom when putting their habitus into practice. Hence why the participatory web is portrayed in this article mainly as a space of empowerment, change and innovation. Placed in a different social context, or field, however the habitus of digital scholars might be interpreted in a different light and the participatory web might not be portrayed in such a positive way. That is what I hope to do with my next article!

Meanwhile, I would like to start a discussion around this topic via this post. I am keen to learn more about your ideas, and even critiques, provided they are constructive. The idea is that we all learn a bit more about this area as we move this debate forward.

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About the author /


Cristina is Associate Professor in Digital Education and Society in the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. After completing a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures, Cristina worked as an EFL teacher in the Portuguese Navy. During that period she developed an interest in Learning Technologies and completed an MPhil in Educational Technologies at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. In 2007 she moved to the UK to take up a post in the field of Learning and Research Technologies at the University of Salford. In February 2013 she completed her PhD study on The participatory web in the context of academic research: landscapes of change and conflicts. From March 2013 to March 2018 she worked as a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Strathclyde. She was named Learning Technologist of the Year 2010 by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).


  1. Avatar

    Hi Cristina
    this looks like a great study – I’m really interested in network practices, the different dimensions of online participation and how they might change our professional practices. I really like your suggestion that online engagement makes more than users out of us -it changes our mindsets, and social and cultural capital. I’m pondering a very simple question – does face to face engagement in networks do the same?
    The idea that power works differently in online spaces is also really interesting. This calls into question freedom and constraints to publishing – is a scholar really free to publish work on his or her own online domain before or instead of a respected journal? If they do, does this diminish the credibility of the work? If it does, is it really a “freedom” to be able to do so?
    Thanks for sharing your work – looking forward to hearing more.

  2. Avatar
    Cristina Costa

    Very pertinent points Catriona.

    In a way you are already anticipating my next paper 😉

    I guess any involvement in a given social space (network) has an impact on the individual … as minimum as it might be. This always reminds me of Durkheim’s work and his idea that individuals are a product of social spaces almost as much as they are their makers… but as Bourdieu advanced in his theoretical constructs, individuals are also capable of producing a symbolic dimension (symbolic capital, symbolic power, symbolic violence, etc.) that makes social reality, and practice, a more complex system than that of binary interactions and influences between social spaces and individuals.
    I guess that the advantage of online networks is that one is probably able to be more selective with regards to their networks and thus is likely to gravitate towards those who share common values and beliefs. This could however question the critical aspect (or lack of it) of such knowledge networks – which in itself would be another topic to explore!

    What I aimed to say is that the online networks in which research participants were involved allowed them to find the support they needed to put their ideas/beliefs/values about research into practice. In a way, they found in the online networks a support system that validates ideas and activities that fall outside of what is considered norm and is indisputably accepted in academia. That, in a way, strengthens, informs and develops their habitus as researchers. That is probably different from face-to-face networks (especially your immediate colleagues in academia) in that you do not necessarily choose who will work in your school/department, and as a result you might end up with a group of people featuring divergent dispositions towards their research practice. What remains to find out then is the following: if we place the “field” lens on academia rather than on the participatory web, will the habitus of those participants remain “intact” or will it be in conflict?
    More on that soon 😉

    I also have other ideas on how to carry this type of research approach into the areas of teaching and learning. Maybe a future project … if you or anyone is interested in it, give me a shout.

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