Academic lives through a lens:
exploring and explaining the formation
of academic professional identities
using Archer’s theories
Dr. Carol O’Byrne, WIT
Presentation overview
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Portrait of the researcher as a young(er) woman
A doctoral research project (aims, context, design)
A long dark tunnel .... and the light at the end
A voyage of discovery
Applying Archer in my research
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Understanding identities
Dealing with a surprise!
Archerian analyses –potential problems and promise
Portrait of the researcher as a young(er) woman
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Prior to 2003
•Education
– BA and MA (languages,
linguistics, ‘no sociology please Carol’)
•Work – various lecturing posts in
Ireland
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2003
•Working
at WIT (4 ‘subjects’, 5
departments)
•Commenced studies for Ed.D (HE and
Lifelong Learning) with University of
Sheffield
The aims of the research
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To understand how higher education policy, created at the
macro level and mediated at the meso level of the
institution, impacts at the micro level of the individual
academic
To uncover and understand the kinds of academic identities
formed at the particular nexus of macro, meso and micro
levels under investigation
To examine whether and to what extent these identities
evolve in response to changes in the context in which the
academics in question operate
The research context
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Broad context – Irish higher
education system
Binary system
•7
Universities (autonomous)
•14 Institutes of Technology
(highly regulated – DES / HEA,
HETAC, TUI etc)
The research context
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Specific context – one Institute of
Technology
Waterford Institute of Technology
•six
academic schools
•over 5,500 full time students and 4,000
part time students
•progressive agenda
•ambitions for university designation
The research design
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Sixteen participants
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4 each from Schools of Business, Engineering,
Humanities and Science
8 from pre-1992 period, 8 from post-1992 period
(Regional Technical Colleges Act enacted in 1992)
The research design
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Life history approach (Goodson and Sikes 2001)
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Individual life stories set against contextual background
in which lives were lived to create life histories
Individual life stories collected through biographical
interviews with participants
Contextual background generated through documentary
analysis and contextualisation interviews with managers
A long dark (data analysis) tunnel ....
A long dark (data analysis) tunnel ...
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Key challenges
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The ‘BwB’ phenomenon and the need for a ‘new’ conceptual
and analytical framework to deal with data collected through
largely unstructured ‘grounded conversations’ (Goodson and
Sikes 2001 p.28)
The need for a concept of identity that made sense to me
(somewhere between essentialist and post-modernist
conceptualisations) and a model of identity formation I could
apply to understanding my data
The need to account for the main surprise in the data
...and the light at the end of the tunnel
... and the light at the end of the tunnel
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‘MM mentioned this book she was reading on the
train the other day by Margaret Archer – it might
be worth taking a look at’
Here we go again ... off to the library and then to
Amazon
...and the light at the end of the tunnel
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Structure, Agency and
the Internal
Conversation – the
start of an exciting
voyage of discovery
through Archer’s work
A voyage of discovery
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Initial reactions to Archer’s work
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EUREKA! I have found it ...
Or have I? Did I understand that properly? I think I’d
better read it again ...
Yes, I think I get it ...
EUREKA! I really have found it ...
Onset of exclamation-mark-itis!!!!!
Wish I’d read this before I did my data collection!
A voyage of discovery
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Some of the ideas that inspired exclamation marks!
Re identity :
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The idea that we have ‘a continuous sense that we are
one and the same being over time’ (Archer 2000 p.7)
The idea that we generate personal identities through
focused internal conversations (Archer 2000 p. 11)
The idea that we have the power to decide whether we
choose to accept our initial placement as primary agents
(Archer 2000 p.11)
A voyage of discovery
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The idea that we can influence ‘the extant role array and
thus the potential social identities available’ (Archer 2000
p.260) and can cause the ‘elaboration of the institutional
role structure’ (Archer 2000 p.11)
The idea of that the agent can be seen as the ‘parent of the
actor’ (Archer 2000 p.261)
The idea that, as an individual actor personifies a role, the
role itself may also be transformed (Archer 2000 p.297)
A voyage of discovery
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Re the relationship between structure and agency
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The idea that ‘the causal power of social forms is
mediated through social agency’ (Bhaskar 1989 cited by
Archer 2003 p.2)
The proposition that we can understand how social
agency manages to mediate the power of social forms if
we consider both ‘how structural and cultural powers
impinge upon agents and …how agents use their own
personal powers to act “so rather than otherwise” in
such situations’ (Archer 2003 p.3).
A voyage of discovery
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The proposition that the reflexive internal conversation is
the means by which agents actively mediate the causal
powers of social forms.
The idea that there are different modes of reflexivity and
that ‘practitioners of each of the three different modes of
reflexivity adopt generically different “stances” towards
society and its constraints and enablements’ whereby each
stance ‘goes above and beyond the manner in which a given
subject responds to any given constraint or enablement and
represents an overall pattern of response to the totality of
structural powers’ (Archer 2003 p.342-3).
Applying Archer – how I did it in my work
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Archer’s concepts applied in the analysis (or more
correctly the re-analysis) phase of the research
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Her model of identity formation was used as a lens
through which to view the data and understand the
identities formed by my research participants
Her conceptualisation of the structure – agency
relationship appeared to explain the main surprise that
emerged in the initial data analysis and so the data were
reviewed in terms of this conceptualisation
Applying Archer – understanding identities
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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Using Archer to understand identities involved
considering participants’ stories in terms of the four
strata that make up the individual subject, or in terms
of their journey around the four quadrants on the
circuit to the acquisition of social (in this case
professional) identities
The following diagram is taken from Structure, Agency
and the Internal Conversation (Archer 2003 p.124)
Public
Quadrant T4
Quadrant T3
Actor
Corporate agency
‘you’
‘we’
INDIVIDUAL
COLLECTIVE
‘I’
‘me’
Primary agency
Self
Quadrant T1
Quadrant T2
Private
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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I looked at the data and considered the participants as
selves, persons, agents and actors
Considering the participants as selves and persons
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Involved considering the participants’ stories to see if
participants seemed to have a continuous sense of self and to
identify their concerns and the projects they chose as vehicles
for pursuing those concerns
Challenges – lots of inference, questions about what
constituted concerns and the scale of (ultimate) concerns,
questions about my labelling of projects
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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Considering the participants as agents involved looking
at both primary and corporate agency
Considering them as primary agents
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Involved considering the impact on individuals of their
involuntary (?) positioning in a particular HE sector, HEI,
academic School, academic Department
Challenges – did taking up posts at WIT really constitute
involuntary positioning on distribution of resources?
Positives – these ‘locations’ were all mentioned as having an
impact on what individuals could be and do
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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Considering them as corporate agents
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Involved considering the impact on individuals of their
voluntary alignment with groups of their own choosing
including industry and professional bodies, institutional
committees, disciplinary networks, research groups etc
Challenges – actually very few in relation to this aspect!
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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Positives
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Considering corporate agency led to an important finding ie that
individuals in this context are more likely to draw strong identity
from groups they align with voluntarily – these provide coherent
conceptual homes that departments, schools etc do not
When looking at the evolution of the lecturing role over time, it
was clear that there had been significant ‘elastication’ of the role
and ‘elaboration of the institutional role array’ and this did seem to
be creditable to the actions of corporate agents
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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As actors – involved considering how individual
participants personified the academic role, in
particular
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The impact of their existing / previous identities
(disciplinary identities, professional identities) and
previous experiences (particularly outside of academia)
The impact of their personal concerns and commitments
Their approaches to the different ‘projects’ that
academics undertake (either by obligation or by choice)
Applying Archer – understanding identities
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Challenges – again, lots of inferences, questions about
the labelling of projects
Positives
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Allowed the consideration of how past roles and identities
influence current identities
Showed how and why people with broadly the same role and
pursuing the same range of projects in the same context seemed
to have different identities
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Archer’s work was particularly useful in accounting
for a surprise that emerged in the initial analysis of
the data
Overall aims of the research
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To understand how higher education policy and
structures impact at the micro level of the individual
academic
To uncover and understand the kinds of academic
identities formed in the context under consideration
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Underlying assumptions of research
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That there was likely to be some degree of variation in
individual identities
That the experiences and identities of individuals
operating in the same highly structured sectoral and
institutional context would be influenced in broadly
similar ways by that context
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Initial data analysis suggested that
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Individuals’ experiences of their common context
actually differed significantly
The policies and structures in which they operated did
not impact on everyone in the same manner or to the
same extent
Challenge: to explain these divergent experiences
of a common context
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Archer to the rescue!
Core of Archer’s social realist conceptualisation of
structure-agency relationship (i.e.idea that the
causal power of social forms can be mediated by
social agency) seemed to account for the
participants’ divergent experiences of their
common context
Response: Re-analysis of the data using this
conceptualisation as a lens
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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This re-analysis considered
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The projects that participants pursued as part of the
lecturing role (both obligatory and voluntary)
The extent to which these projects activated constraints
and enablements
The reactions of participants to the constraints and
enablements they activated – a key focal point!
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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The extent to which individuals’ reactions were
consistent, were indicative of a particular mode of
reflexivity (as opposed to isolated responses) and could
be seen to constitute stances
The consequences of these stances at individual,
institutional and national level
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Initial re-analysis showed
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That research participants did not all pursue the same
projects or pursue compulsory projects in the same way 
some activated constraints and enablements while others did
not
That individual participants seemed to practice different
modes of reflexivity and that these were linked to the
adoption of different stances when the participants did
activate constraints and enablements
All three stances described by Archer – evasive, strategic and
subversive – were represented in the data and were clustered
Applying Archer – dealing with a surprise
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Challenges
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Involved a very high degree of inference / interpretation
as the initial research had not even attempted to
investigate participants’ internal conversations
Checking the correctness of the interpretations
inferences was challenging (only one sociologist among
the participants!)
Positives
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The analysis made sense – to me and to others!!!
Archerian analyses – promise and potential
problems
Archerian analyses – promise and potential
problems
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Key questions at this point:
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To what extent does Archer’s work hold promise for
other researchers in the broad field of higher education
research and in the specific area of academic identities?
Where do the potential problems lie?
Archerian analyses – potential problems
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Potential problems
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Ensuring a thorough understanding of Archer’s work and
communicating it effectively in brief
Accessing and interpreting internal conversations –
learning from respondents without leading
For ‘late adopters’ (in the analysis phase) - leaps of faith
and a degree of retrospective rationalisation
Archerian analyses – promise
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Provides a persuasive explanation for the fact that
structures do not necessarily have the same impact on all of
those working within them
Highlights the importance of considering the long term
impact of the situational on the individual rather than just
considering the shorter term impact of particular aspects of
particular contexts
Suggests that research into the interaction of structure and
agency in an academic setting should examine the impact
that academics’ reactions to those structures may have
both on them and on their operating context
Archerian analyses - promise
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In this era of neo-liberalism and managerialism, in which
academics everywhere appear to be struggling to protect
their core values and their overall sense of what it means to
be a professional in the face of increasing pressure from a
variety of sources, Archer’s conviction that agents and their
actions can and do mediate the impact of structural forces
also gives us as academics a sense that we retain at least a
degree of control over our professional destinies as well as
grounds, in a context currently characterised largely by
adversity, for at least a certain level of hope.
References
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Archer, M S (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Archer, M S (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal
Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Archer, M S (2007) Making our Way through the World:
Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
Goodson, I and Sikes, P (2001) Life History Research in
Educational Settings. Buckingham: Open University Press
Contact information
Dr. Carol O’Byrne
Waterford Institute of Technology
Cork Road
Waterford
Ireland
Tel: +353 51 306354
E-mail: [email protected]
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Academic lives through a lens: exploring and explaining