Affinity, Knowledge and Shape Shifting

It took me a while to wade through what initially felt like a monologue on 90s consumer capitalism which seemed unlike other Gee work that I’d read in my first ‘Digital Games, Play and Creativity’ module, on play, education and digital media linked to the 6 Key Features of ‘Play’ [Gee 2006].

I had to return to the text a few times before I began to see the connections to our earlier work on identity, connectivity and also back to my research on computer game design. One of the things I’ve learned through the MA so far is that articles don’t always land well on first reading [especially when juggling jobs and reading tired in the evenings!]. It can take several reads, but is worth persisting with! Phew, so what was Gee telling us?

‘Academic’ language forms one of many specialist language varieties and comprises both written and spoken language. He defines language as ‘dialogic’ in that whatever the context it communicates with an ‘assumed other’. When reading or writing, one adopts a persona that ties into a certain background (context) that dictates style, social, political and cultural norms associated with the audience or affinity group.

Acquiring academic language can lead to purely formulaic language construction that may be a ‘loss’, e.g. of emotive content or association and ‘gain’, e.g. provide clarity or a common language when working in socially specific situations, such as professional vocabulary (Halliday and Martin, 1993).

Gee highlights the acquisition of specialist language as being more effective if active, e.g. learning about being a doctor, scientist, teacher, other. He suggests that to engage in academic language, users must ‘join’ a language set and norms.

I can relate to this, growing up as an English person in Wales and my subsequent work and global travels have led to a distinct awareness of the differences between accent, dialect – context and meaning and how communication, expectations and understanding can be impacted by these.

This leads onto the topic of ‘Affinity Spaces’.! These can be embedded within business, social and cultural settings. Gee refers to all levels of users, who share affinity for a common goal, and where knowledge is distributed across the users of that space, e.g., gamers, literary fans. In some spaces, such as game forums and Helpdesk sites can provide peer2peer training in using the site, which in turn contribute to a self-regulating ‘Community of Practice’ (‘Stages of Development’: Wenger, 1998).

I’d not really thought about ‘assumed audience’ before reading this article and found it interesting to read the analysis of to TV programs such as Sesame Street that it is claimed were influenced by theories of social cognition (Alice Wilder). Gee refers to socially situated cognitive growth of children in relation to such media and how it was designed to entice parents to watch with a child. This held the assumption that through the program both children and parent will be passed educational messages that they may not necessarily get in the home. In turn, this aims at preparing them for school where their ‘real’ learning will happen.

Drucker (1999) and Gee et al (1996) suggested that such programs were aligned with children’s futures in capitalist workplaces that require ‘empowered employees capable of independent thought, and consider themselves as smart and creative people’. Problem-solvers, able to use technologies and have an awareness of community and become part of a community of practice (Wenger, 1998).

Of the programs studied, a couple are watched in what Gee calls ‘homes attuned to the new capitalism’ providing extensive opportunities for experiences and intellectual tools leading to a ‘moving on up’ track into higher education, and future opportunities. D’Souza (2001) presents an argument that this is a result of some schools only offering a basic education that parents subsequently top up, if they have the financial means and interest to do so.

Gee continues to compare the Baby Boomer generation vs. Millennial that morphs into ‘Shape Shifting Portfolio People’ (1999, 2000) i.e. people who see themselves in entrepreneurial terms. Success in such an environment is based on a belief that risk can be managed by a careful ‘building up a variety of skills, experiences, and achievements in terms of which they can define themselves as successful now and worthy of more success later’. Combined this = their portfolio.

What I’m enjoying about this MA Module: Internet Cultures with John Potter it personifies a community of practice. It has both intensive and extensive knowledge distribution [see Fig1] via our own affinity space in Moodle and extends exponentially; sharing knowledge via distributed and dispersed means [see Fig1].

Figure 1: Affinity Space Knowledge (Gee, 2004)

Affinity Space Knowledge

How? We are all writing blogs, developing an online identity and voice, feeding in experience in education and other fields that allow exploration of topics from different viewpoints. I’d like to bring in a couple of my colleagues blogs here to relate to their recent posts and encourage you to go and visit their blogs.

I could easily relate to Deborah Blausten’s ‘Notes on Jerusalem’ that talks about shifting personal identity and resonance with a culture(s) or nationality

I’m multilingual and ‘feel’ different when speaking each language and with my multi-land journey, seem to put on a new jacket wherever I go. At a recent reunion in Cardiff, a group of us shook another jacket out the cupboard and stepped back in time. Shape shifting happens all the time, different parts of who we are, the language we use, the shared knowledge, history and expectations from shared times together, even though people grow and change. Within certain affinity groups, the shared context may be an alternative version of our past selves.

Tricky concept, but one I experience often when stepping back into friendship circles in other countries with the language shift or code-switching between languages that usually accompanies it.

Likewise, in a professional capacity, the language I use to write curriculum, engage within the technology colleagues, and within our community, e.g. in writing students reports and relaying information in parent consultations responds to certain standards and professional language conventions for Computing and Education.

Another academic language context that I’ve experienced was while working at The United Nations where I worked for Unicef. Here, French is spoken, but had not anticipated the difference between professional UN-speak and regular French. Highly formulaic conventions for addressing different level personnel in the organization created almost a sub-language or ‘jacket’ that one puts on to function at a certain professional level. A huge learning curve for me initially!

Alison Owen’s Shape-Shifting Portfolio People’ reviews the same Gee paper that I review in this post

In response to

“Schools, which are not affinity spaces because their members are not grouped according to a passion or affinity for a single interest, could learn much from them.”

Alison, I’ve expanded below* how pockets of affinity can exist in schools.

“Games though? I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan. Life’s too short!”

Yes, I used to think that way, but in teaching game design I now have a different perspective. Fan or not, I believe there is broad potential for games in education; especially in a ‘training’ capacity – language learning, experiencing new roles, story visualization, and communicative multi-modal tool to express and explore ideas.

When you widen the circle of experience from design to test and play others games, ‘students learn much when they become their own teachers [and teachers of others]’ and ‘when students become teachers of others, they learn as much as those they are teaching’ (Hattie, 2012, P.88-89).

Gee et al. refers to a similar theme being present in ‘new capitalism’ (1996) ‘a team can behave more smartly than any individual in it by pooling and distributing knowledge’.

Beck (1999), Beck et al. (1994), Rifkin (2000) referred to the presence of ‘Affinity spaces’ being increasingly important in the business world, this is definitely the case in 2015, where affinity spaces often feature in education, either in real time practices within the classroom, or augmented real time through engagement and curating within digital spaces such as blogs, in online games, forums and shared media creation. Affinity spaces can be defined as a place for people to come together ‘through shared affinity for a common goal, endeavor or interest’ (Gee, 2000).

Learning to navigate and use such spaces evolves through usage, peer tutoring and ‘training’ elements within the space, e.g. in gaming, demo or narrative within the game may serve as training tools, where users are initially guided though a simplified version of the real environment. Affinity spaces such as blogs can embrace peer feedback to provide How Tos, tips and drive challenge for users. (see Action Research ‘Computer Game Design in the Primary Classroom – Exploring the Influence of Student Feedback’* Iles, 2015)

Wenger (1998) defined a business model of ‘Community of Practice’, which in my research* I found to be equally valid in the classroom. Utilizing networks and communities of practice where links and skills sharing between different people and ‘communities’ benefits organization as a whole. In 2015, this can be embraced positively in the classroom.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. Psychology Press.

MA Research


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