Reynolds, Cheryl (2017) Suffering and symbolic violence in online social learning networks. In: 12th JVET Conference 2017, 7-9th July 2017, Worcester College, Oxford. (Unpublished)

The literature on educational technology frequently fails to acknowledge that the shift from face-to-face to online learning is intensely political and deeply entwined with the complexities of everyday life (Selwyn, 2013). In contrast, this paper adopts a critical stance, exploring processes of symbolic violence within online social learning networks. The shift online introduces what Bourdieu termed the ‘hiatus’ effect: taking learners into a novel situation, which presents them with different definitions of ‘the possible, the impossible and the probable,’ (Myles, 2010, p333). Change of this kind is potentially dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it can generate a mismatch between habitus and field, which provides a point of purchase upon which symbolic violence is able to operate. Second, learners carry into the field of academia, whether on or offline, the consequences of previous educational experiences, which have often been deeply problematic in ways that continue to impact on their participation. Third, the shift into an online medium means that communication may be compromised because it is disembodied; participants are stripped of the ability to convey meaning through non-verbal communication, which Butler (1993) identifies as a vital site of resistance. Fourth, the contributions of participants are eminently retrievable by others whom they cannot see, conferring a panopticonised character to participation, which further objectifies and disempowers them in the face of symbolic violence.

Drawing on data from participants in a larger study, I argue that this violence is traceable in the conversations that occur in a social network used as part of a vocational degree in a new University in the North of England. A frequent use of Bourdieu in this kind of study is to trace domination through an analysis of hierarchical field structures rather than the utterances of participants (Myles, 2010). However, interview data and participants’ written reflections reveal anxieties about ‘how to talk’ in the online environment. Subsequent analysis of their online utterances reveal processes of allodoxia at work, in which they mimic or hyper-mimic dominant syntax. Alternatively, they fall silent in a kind of resigned passivity.

I conclude by arguing that the ostensibly democratising and empowering shift into social learning networks can, at least in some instances, serve to produce and reproduce inequality because online participation is vexed in ways that are particular to such environments.

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