I do love a good conference. And I’m happy to say I wasn’t let down by this year’s 8th International Researching Work and Learning conference “The visible and invisible in work and learning”, held, I’m proud to say, at our university’s Management Centre. The Wallace Monument towered over the venue, reminding those well travelled that they were, indeed, in Scotland [they did need this visual reminder – it was warm and sunny].
When I’m at a conference, and especially because they are often in the niche field of researching work, learning, and higher education, I often think we must look not dissimilar to the hotel convention in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (not least, at this conference, because of our mutterings about the ‘invisible’). Except, in place of our scratchy wigs, we are marked-out by our purple lanyards. Instead of sighing with relief when we free our toeless feet in the safe confines of the conference venue, we sigh instead with unadulterated satisfaction as we let free our epistemological and ontological chatterings and postulations, secure in the knowledge that we are in kindred company. And we don’t smell out the children, we just smell out the coffee breaks. Or, in this case, the Arbroath Smokies cooking during the publisher’s complimentary drinks hour:
Back to this conference. Firstly, I admit that I was star-struck with the big names that appeared (I’m still new to this…): Paul Hager, David Boud, Barbara Czarniawska, Yrjö Engeström, to name but a few. But the real interest lay, for me anyway, in the sessions that were attempting to answer the question: How do we ‘catch’ practice (in Ann Reich and colleague’s terminology)? There seems to be so much written about the ‘practice turn’ but a lot less on how empirical work is actually carried out using a practice-based perspective. The method pieces were what people wanted to hear about.
Dr Maja Korica, for example, gave an illuminating presentation about the methodological practices of making the work practices of chief execs in the NHS visible (and yet by doing so, necessarily leaving other practices in the shadows). She used intensive work shadowing as the method du jour, but noted that a single method was inadequate to do justice to the work’s complexity and called for ‘ecologies of visibilities’, or multiple methods, to make such a study rigorous.
Other presenters affirmed this need for multiple methods. Ann Reich presented her audience with a list of researchers currently doing practice research along with the methods they used to ‘catch’ practice. The list was ethnography-heavy: a few had used Davide Nicolini’s Interview to the Double technique, some analysed organizational documents to catch organizational practice memory, and others studied regimes of familiarity.
In one of my next blogs I will sketch out how I have used a ‘methodological bundle’ to try to make visible the work practices of my engineers. Bet you just can’t wait!