A good DP research question.

More specifically, Potter (2004) organized discourse analytic questions around four themes: (a) practices within institutional settings, (b) construction of facts, (c) respecification of psychological terms, and (d) prejudice and ideology. In that this article’s focus is on applying a DP framework to psychological concerns, I focus more carefully on the third theme Potter identified. Some questions that might be asked include: What does a memory do in some interaction? How is a version of the past constructed to sustain some action? How are accounts constructed using cognitive entities? How do participants perform particular acts within the constraints of given discursive rules (e.g., classroom cultures)? How are emotional descriptions used to justify actions or blame?

~Lester, 2011, p. 286

There is a great deal that I take for granted at this point in my academic career. Among them:

  1. Knowledge is non-neutral, contested, and the product of cultural/historical circumstances.
  2. Learning unfolds most fortuitously in social contexts.
  3. Talk is situated and people quite rarely say what they mean, so when we analyze talk (from both a research and personal perspective).

When I first arrived at IU and was exposing myself to these new ideas, I found myself trying to take on the most radical versions of these positions. For example, a radical version of sociocultural theories might posit that there is no mind. In the intervening years, I have rebounded to live closer to my initial instincts about teaching, learning, and talk.

I bring this all up because I have been struggling with to what extent a discursive psychologist would consider the mind. This was evident in a question I asked last week: would a DP scholar say that talk does not neutrally reflect the work of the mind, or that it does not at all reflect it? An initial read of DP made me think that they reject the existence of mental furniture. But a more nuanced read reveals that such a position would be untenable. DP relies on the idea that there are patterns and conventions associated with how we interact in the world. In order to believe that there is rhyme or reason or rationale associated with our talk, one needs to agree that there is a cognitive link between how we talk and what we say.

So the most reasonable DP claim would be that talk __________ the work of the mind. Lester (2011) walks through the series of metaphors one could use here, such as mirrors & reflections. The consensus of DP appears to be that “reflects” is the wrong word, because this implies no changes in the mediation – what is said is what is thought, more or less. Perhaps refracts is the right word. Talk refracts the mind.

How do we discuss the relationship between the talk and the thinking in research questions? Consider the relatively common LS scenario where students tinker with a scientifically-oriented kit (let’s say middle school students and soft, play-doh circuits or “squishy” circuits). Videotaping this intervention, one could ask a smattering of questions, the most obvious thing one being, “(How) did the students learn?”

My task today is to push this question until it lives simultaneously in the DP and LS worlds. There’s a pretty common agreement that talk/discourse is an important part of analyzing learning. In general, these approaches look at talk to make sense of engagement and/or argumentation, taking what is generally thought of as a “discourse analysis” approach but rarely something more specific.  But if learning is fundamentally something that happens in the mind, is it ever going to be possible to treat talk with a DP mindset and have that be potentially revealing of learning?

There may be a few ways out of this. For one, some people don’t believe that learning is fundamentally mind-related. For example, they may view learning as participation in community practice or may think that learning is so socially situated that there is no point in positing cognitive furniture.  This way isn’t for me, personally. Another way out would be to say that some aspects learning scientists care about are actually incredibly amenable to DP – engagement, motivation, and attitudes, for example.

Thinking about learning as engaged participation, which is a fair thing to do, DP becomes more relevant. How do people display/perform engagement? But from here, it becomes harder to form a more concrete research question without having the data in front of you. Anything more specific would certainly require actually knowing what is happening in the talk, which we don’t because I made this scenario up.

This brings us to an interesting point about “DP Research Questions” and what they may look like.

“It has been common in psychological research to stress the importance of formulating a clear research question before starting the research. […] However, with discursive research much of the discipline comes from working with a set of naturalistic materials – records of people living their lives in a particular setting. And many of the questions formulated for more traditional research have a causal form – what is the effect of X on Y – which is rarely appropriate for discourse work. Rather than posing a question the focus is often on attempting to explicate the workings of some kind of social practice that is operating in the setting, perhaps with the ultimate aim of making broader sense of the setting as a whole. And this often means that questions are continually refined in the course of a programme of work and a study within that programme.” (Potter, 2012, p. 20-21)

From this standpoint, of course a question like “Did they learn,” which is more or less a causal question (what is the effect of this activity on knowledge), is not great for DP. But the question of HOW did they learn certainly lives in the right sort of space, because DP may indeed serve to “explicate the workings” of, in the above, how the kits were taken up.

This semester, I hope to analyze some data from the Re-crafting Math (RCM) project. The premise is that the manipulative math ed. kits prevalent in primary math classrooms are problematic in that they (a) carry with them gendered histories of the kinds of objects to which people gravitate (i.e., historically boys have been more comfortable with the snap-block-rigidness of block-based manipulatives), and (b) they are insufficient for mediating engagement with certain more advanced mathematical ideas (e.g., topology). Therefore, the project seeks to develop textile craft-based manipulatives based on traditionally feminized crafting practices (e.g., knitting). This research is rooted in Seymour Papert’s constructionist theory of learning. It takes a pluralistic view of gender and, ultimately, seeks to broaden participation in mathematics. But it is also careful to treat knowledge and objects as entries in larger cultural-historical systems. Through this lens, the nature of crafting is key to understanding the textiles themselves; the larger communities in which cosplaying take place are non-trivial aspects of how cosplaying might be leveraged to broaden mathematics participation.

For my early inquiry project, I hope to pilot a re-crafting kit in an undergraduate class and analyze the how I discussed above. For this semester, I think I will draw on interviews (in which I was not involved) collected by the RCM project team in which non-male crafters are asked about their crafting experiences. Having not yet seen the interviews, I am curious as to how mathematical and gendered ideas get talked about, if they do.

In this case, DP is an easy fit (interpretive repertoires, etc.). This is inherently speculative work that seeks to simply understand a phenomenon better. It is not interested in causation, per se. But the question remains as to whether or not DP will be a good fit for the early inquiry project I floated above.

Is there, therefore, a difference to be had between, I don’t know, exploratory research and experimental-ish research? In LS we use the idea of design-based research to find a middle ground between these two. But what if I wanted to use DP to explore whether or not the aforementioned kit was, in whatever way, “good.” That involves a value judgment, obviously, and no research method can get you around that. I may just be back to this notion of “applied DA” that I have been thinking about for some time.

I suppose at this point I have digressed in and out of the nature of DP and so on. The question I am dancing around is this: how can we find a research question that would appeal to both DP and LS? But as I pointed out in the excerpt above, DP would probably not even think about research questions as pre-existing to data. So, is it possible (in, say, an early inquiry project) to “use DP” without “doing a DP study”? I’m not yet sure, but this is partially what I have tried to work through in this post.

I suppose DP would talk more about a research focus than a research question, and LS may or may not be up for that idea. And at some point it just becomes a semantic issue, because there’s always the not-question question, “How can DP be used to understand this learning environment?”


One thought on “A good DP research question.

  1. Lots to discuss here — very rich points. First, this….”The consensus of DP appears to be that “reflects” is the wrong word, because this implies no changes in the mediation – what is said is what is thought, more or less. Perhaps refracts is the right word. Talk refracts the mind.” This has me thinking – A LOT. I think we could do something similar around the construct of ‘learning’. Where does it lie? How do we know it when we see it? For instance, the argumentation discourse-y type literature has often said that if you talk in “this XX way” it is evidence of learning. Why? What about that talk makes learning visible to the analyst? What exactly is learning? How is it evidenced to the analyst? I think this points also to your applied DA points. Stokoe and others doing applied CA (of the ‘intervention kind’), I think, have some really important points and practices that those of us doing education-y/intervention-y type work could learn from, and, in fact, what I read in your post reminds me of the value of this applied type work. In applied DP/CA, there is a value judgment made and a suggestion is offered around ‘what counts as good talk’ or perhaps in your case how particular types of talk get you at this thing called learning.

    Your project sounds really interesting. One question — what determines, for you, whether IRs are the focus? The data type or your analytic focus?

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