05-10.09.2011 Wired Up participates in ISCAR 2011



Identity and learning in extended and heterogeneous spaces: A social network approach

Purposes
Increasingly global flows of information, language, ideas, forms of capital, and people are changing the ways in which resources for identity and learning are distributed and the practices through which identities and knowledge are constructed (Appadurai, 1996; Castells, 2005). The role of media in the life of contemporary youth is rapidly expanding, with access to an unprecedented amount of media at school, at home, and through portable devices. The purpose of this paper is to examine the identity and learning networks of second generation immigrant youth (primarily Moroccan and Turkish) in The Netherlands as these networks are shaped and extended by new forms of (Internet-based) social media. Second, the conceptual purpose of the paper is to consider how the analysis of media networks and social networks might complement activity system approaches for the study of new media activity.

Theoretical Framework
This paper addresses a current theoretical problem in sociocultural studies. On the one hand, activity system or functional system approaches to identity and learning have served a significant role in conceptualizing processes of learning and identity as mediated by tools and signs, and as distributed beyond the individual person (Barab, Barnett, Yamagata-Lynch, Squire, & Keating, 2002; Cole & Engeström, 1993; Prior, 1998). Moreover, such approaches have provided a means of understanding the Vygotskian notion of the co-development of multiple histories, including that of the system (sociogenesis) and individual (ontogenesis) (Scribner, 1985). On the other hand, current forms of activity, including those mediated by new media and technologies, pose challenges for systems approaches. A primary challenge involves the increased extensibility of systems in which flows of media travel over greater distances and human-media relations are distributed in systems that extend across media networks as well as nation-states. A related challenge is to rethink system approaches so that they allow a perspective that includes multiple activity systems and the complex relations between them (Author 1, 2002; Engeström, Engeström & Karkkainen, 1995) as development and learning happen increasingly through engagement in multiple systems. Given such multiple and highly distributed systems, an additional challenge involves interpreting systemic relations not merely from an external perspective, but from the perspectives of the participants that live, learn and develop while crossing the boundaries of these systems and maintaining affiliations with multiple heterogeneous communities. In this paper, we offer an expansion of functional system approaches by conceiving activity systems as networked phenomena that extend over different geographical scales. Social network analysis provides an expansive perspective on how “community spaces” are formed and transformed through shared goals, affinities, tools, and distributed forms of production, and how individuals move across and merge such spaces as a process of (learning) transformation. Examining how immigrant youth marshal, use, create, and hybridize specific media resources (e.g., texts, images, music) media based network analyses allows us to understand how identity work produces individual identities, while simultaneously (re)producing distributed collective resources for identity work shared by others in the network (Author 1, 2004: Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998).

Methods and results
In order to map media based identity and learning ego-networks of youth, both quantitative, survey based and qualitative, interview based data were generated. A survey of immigrant and non-immigrant youth (n=1250) between 12 and 18 years was directed at mapping the online ego networks of youth, in terms of the characteristics of the five most important online contacts (the “alters”). Ego-alter relationships focused on information sharing and production, as well as on network density. This methodology allows us to assess the structure of networks in terms of their composition (age, ethnicity, gender, relationships between off and online, and geographical locations), their density, and their online exchange practices. In particular it allows to analyze how participants’ social ties and exchange practices have become distributed, how particular online communities are formed, and how the (intensity of) exchange practices are related to geographical extension. The preliminary analyses show that even if in terms of online social ties, most of the communities migrant youth engage in seem to be largely local and function as an extension of their offline peer networks. Transnational online social ties were present that allowed migrant youth to connect with their communities of origin, and translocal communities are formed that allow youth to connect around specialized topics.

In order to create more richly detailed maps learning and identity networks, social network interviews have been piloted. Network interviews of at least 60 youth will be conducted in the Fall of 2010. In these interviews, we focused on how specific online practices and joint activities helped youth to become a certain person, gain a particular status, or to gain expertise or experience in certain areas. The analyses made evident that as youth expand their social contacts online, the heterogeneity and contrasting nature of their experiences becomes fore- grounded (Coopmans, 2010). For instance, in the case of Omar, a Moroccan boy, his social network allows him to maintain affiliations with multiple communities and access sometimes contrasting resources from multiple national origins. He has an online network that centers around knowledge about Islam, and is also involved in social activities in the neighborhood in which older Moroccan boys train younger boys. His online network is strongly connected to his offline Mosque network in the neighborhood but his online network extends this local network at a national level. The Internet is a resource to fulfill his information needs with respect to the Islam and news in general, and to compare and contrast news resources from both Morocco and the Netherlands which he sometimes find contradicting. Also, the case of Ishanne, a Moroccan girl, points to the multiplicity and heterogeneity of her online affiliations. As she expands her online network through different social networking sites, while apparently in search for romantic relationships, she connects with different communities, sometimes incognito and sometimes suddenly revealing her identity. She occasionally experiences this identity work as a “hassle,” as she has to behave according to different normative conventions associated with each of these audiences, as well as making sure that her contacts and communications remain concealed for some, but are open for others.

Significance of the Study
In order to understand new forms of activity, distributed online and offline, locally and transnationally, a network perspective on identity and learning is useful, and provides a productive expansion of activity system approaches. Media and social networks provide one means to consider identity and learning processes as relational and as distributed across shifting associations of people as well as cultural objects. This constant contact with multiple networks, which represent different cultural spheres, and rapid crossing of boundaries, leads to an almost simultaneous experience of community spaces. The analysis of social networks shows the complex identity management as well as information management work that the simultaneous presence of diverse fields of influence provoke. Gee (2004) has termed those individuals successful at managing identity movements and transformations across social worlds “shape-shifters,” while Lankshear and Knobel (2003) describe new learners in an information-driven society as those whose “knowledges” will come from their ability to cross multiple disciplines and forms of expertise. These knowledges and ability to manage identity relations across different communities includes flexibility and ‘inter-semiotic’ skills (author 2) which may also be related to the ability to distance from local realities and develop a more global orientation, in which multiple local realities are included.

References

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