Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


You can’t have one without the other

Over the last few weeks on Rhizo14, I have been troubled with the either/or nature of some of our weekly tasks. We could argue about whether or not that was intended but at least some of the students have perceived concepts as being presented in opposition to each other:  Cheating as Learning , Enforcing Independence, Is Books Making Us Stupid?

More and more I kept thinking about dualities (more of that later), and it reminded me of a heated discussion on CCK08 about networks and groups. The discussion itself has disappeared from the web, but I can find a snippet of it in an xtranormal video that I made in 2009.  The scenario it presents is a conversation between Stephen Downes and Si Si Kate who is a composite character with words taken from the forum and blog postings of Stephen Downes and CCK08 participants. Maybe here on rhizo14, it’s the relationship of apparently opposite things like trees and rhizomes, books and the participatory web that’s of concern. You can jump to the conversation by clicking or watch the video here.

Hildreth and Kimble conceived of the two types of knowledge that we have discussed here as a duality:

“Rather than seeing knowledge as opposites, perhaps we should think of it as consisting of two complementary facets: a duality consisting simultaneously and inextricably of both what was previously termed ‘structured’ and ‘less structured’ knowledge.” Hildreth and Kimble

A duality that has been nagging away at me is the duality of participation and reification identified by Wenger in his work on Communities of Practice.  I think it is particularly relevant to our experience on rhizo14, and this is an occasion when we need some theory to help us make sense of our practice when dichotomies just don’t work.  Reification is a horrible word, but we grappled with one reification of knowledge last week, the book, and it turned out that the villain of the piece still has a place in some hearts.

I took the diagram from Hildreth and Kimble, and annotated it with my idea of some the places we have been participating, and some of the ways have been reifying on rhizo14.


It’s pretty obvious to think of the reifications that structure the course – we all look for the next week’s task on P2PU.  A by-product of online participation is that it makes concrete the to and fro of conversation. We might re-read a thread in the FB group whereas if we were having an oral conversation, we would not be rewinding.

An example that springs to mind is my own product for Week 4.  I recorded a video (hoping it would be less book-like), published it on youtube, then my blog and encouraged rhizo14ers to post comments on the blog. Then Terry Elliott, put my video into Vialogue, and people have come to comment there.  I am thrilled and have a real sense of engagement  in the conversations at my blog and on Vialogue.

The duality of participation and reification really helps me to make sense of what has happened.  The question was the video more participatory than, say, a (reified) text blog post? just doesn’t make sense.  Everything was reified, my speaking (as a video), the blog post and comments, the conversation at Vialogue.  There was participation in everything but my original recording. What can shed light is thinking about the mutuality between the participation and the reified objects.

You can’t have one without the other

P.S. please don’t treat the words of the song literally – I know you can have love without marriage;)


francesbell • February 13, 2014

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  1. jaapsoft2 February 14, 2014 - 3:47 pm Reply

    Maybe I have to read Wenger to understand your point, but I do not see a very great sin in reification (conceptualize, concretize, objectify, picture, thingify) things or ideas. I would not know how to cooperate or participate without this reification. I my view we can eat it and have it. In arts reification is almost the only way to make visible and participable. (my word processor does not know these words, I hope I did not invent a new language?)

    • Frances Bell February 14, 2014 - 4:36 pm Reply

      You are absolutely right Jaap – that’s why the post is entitled – You can’t have one without the other.
      That’s why I like Wenger’s duality of participation and reification. He sees them as complementary, each able to make up for the limitations of the other. He gives computer program as an extreme example of reification (as it can be interpreted by a machine) and a poem as an extreme example of participation. The work of negotiating meaning is distributed between participation and reification.

  2. helinur February 15, 2014 - 9:44 am Reply

    It was nice to meet that old xtranormal video from 2009. It is perhaps the only document about long conversations in CCK08. An important part of our history 🙂 This time I can agree with SD when he says that the participants should rise the quality of their arguments, not only dis-/or agree. I remember that Roy Williams said that sentence in the forums. But how to do that?

    Learning can be defined and understood in many ways. Participation and reification are surely the basic concepts. (I enjoyed when you said that reification is a horrible word, I had thought it is that only for us foreigners). I have been thinking about Nonaka&Takeuchi spiral of knowledge which is in the source you gave (Hildreth & Kimble). It would be interesting to take a piece of rhizo14 discussion and interpret it using the diagram (internalise, externalise, socialise etc).

    I wrote one post about the knowledge in interactive practice disciplines. It dealt with the topic using the three epistemic styles: not only rational and empirical but metaphorical as well. The intuitive mind works on both sides of your circle : participation and reification. Intuition is necessary when we look at the future and make decisions or predictions ..

    I prefer dialectics and leave duality behind – tensions are an essential part of embracing uncertainty. We live in the middle of numerous tensions, don’t we?

    I love this discussion. If only I had words and proper English. Next week I’ll be a grandmother and live with my 4 yrs old grandson. I believe that I learn a lot of his pondering. But I’ll miss the last week of rhizo, I have to participate on it afterwords. It is possible I know. See you

    • francesbell February 15, 2014 - 10:18 am Reply

      I am going to reply quickly to try to catch you before you go to be full-time grandma ( I am very jealous). What serendipity! Before I read your reply I was just thinking of an example to explore – and it involves a grandma. For now I will just reply to your point about the xtranormal video. Rhizomatic thinking and the duality of participation will help, me at least, to explore the connections between CCK08,#rhizo14, participants, ideas, blog post, forum posts and lots of things. It fascinates me that the video captures fragments of conversation spread across spaces some of which still exist and some of which don’t. The contributors are named but not linked to the contributions. Like you, it takes me back to some particular conversations on CCK08, and triggers fresh thinking. Very like a rhizome.

  3. mdvfunes February 17, 2014 - 5:11 pm Reply

    Dear Frances

    I have now navigated the floods and arrived at a hotel with a lovely fire. I had free time to engage with your post rather than just read through for confirmation that I ‘knew’ what you are talking about as i did yesterday. Yes, I knew the theory and yes, I know the ideas but of course I had no clue as I had not truly listened when I first scan read it. I wanted to take time with it and so I had to wait to respond. Now I have, I can only say Bravo!

    When I teach this idea in offline life, I often disappear up my backside explaining the theory 🙂 You have shown me how a light hand and pragmatic application of an idea can make it come alive. Life works in dualities and of course it is tough for our rational minds to accept the irrational or for our love of life to accept death.

    I love the summary with the song – and your health warning to avoid being misunderstood!

    And I love the Extranormal. Humans so like to nail things down and so much of the time we ‘un-nail’ one thing only to nail something else down as truth. Your point of the flow between reification and participation as a meta description of conversation and meaning making bypasses the need to frame polarising questions.

    I thank you for this thoughtful post.

    • Frances Bell February 17, 2014 - 6:11 pm Reply

      Thanks for taking the time, under very difficult circumstances, to read and comment on my blog post. I have sensed some resistance to Wenger’s work at #rhizo14 and I think that is regrettable. I am finding that this part of the theory is extraordinarily useful even though I don’t believe that rhizo14 is a Community of Practice. I am also looking at some of danah boyd’s work but more of that later.
      I always found that students did much better with a theory if they could start by applying it to contexts they could recognise from their own lives.
      I am glad that I included the xtranormal video as I think that dualities might be way to revisit Stephen Downes’ view of Groups and Networks.
      If you find a better ‘duality’ song – do share;)

  4. Books, print, recordings & conversations (#rhizo14) | You're the Teacher
  5. Christina Hendricks February 18, 2014 - 2:48 am Reply

    This is such a thought-provoking post, Frances, thank you! I hadn’t heard of this duality between reification and participation in Wenger’s work, because the only thing I’ve read by Wenger is a short article on communities of practice. I’ve heard so many interesting things about his work that I’m now inspired to buy his 1998 book.

    The point you make in this post is one I was kind of struggling towards, but didn’t have the theoretical framework to hang it on. The point about the mutuality between the reified and the participatory aspects of learning is a very interesting one. I can see that both enrich each other: it can be helpful to have anchor points in a conversation, such as texts or videos we’ve all read/watched/listened to, and sticking just to those reified objects isn’t good enough; participation makes them come alive. I tried to flesh out my own thoughts along these lines, forming just as I was reading your blog post today, in a post I just finished, here.

    I wonder if one can’t have one without the other, though, or if they are just better together?

  6. Frances Bell February 18, 2014 - 6:34 pm Reply

    Thanks for the reply – I have already read your post and am off to comment on it very soon. I think we could possibly have one without the other – maybe reading a book that you chose on your own, read on your own, then never discussed with another soul. But some would say you are still having a conversation with the author. And it doesn’t sound like much fun, doing all that on your own.
    It does seem to be that this way of looking at at things helps focus on the process – what anchors the conversation, what branches out from the reified object, and what difference that makes.

  7. tanyalau February 20, 2014 - 12:39 pm Reply

    Hi Frances, just wanted to comment on your observation about the video you posted – in particular the ‘real sense of engagement in the conversations’ that flowed from it. The video certainly struck a chord with me – and I’ve been thinking about it a bit in relation to the various art that has been created throughout rhizo14. I loved your video and was compelled to participate in the conversation because it was such a personal account – it was intimate, conversational – it felt like you were right there with me, telling the story. Narrative, storytelling is so powerful…campfires have been mentioned a bit during rhizo. For me, the connection between the campfire and rhizo is the storytelling, the narrative. It’s happening on our blogs > blog posts are (for the most part) our personal interpretations of the content, questions, the course, often framed in the context of a personal story. A video like the one you created is qualitatively different to just a text post – yes they are both reifications, but the video has voice, imagery, immediacy – it brings the audience so much closer to the person behind the post.
    So storytelling, personal narrative via video as perhaps something that encourages participation?
    I’ve also been thinking through rhizo14 that possibly art and play also acts entry point to participation..although it’s something that as adults we’re probably not always that comfortable with – it’s drummed out of us so early in our childhoods and actively discouraged as we grow older (something else I’ve been reflecting on during rhizo14, and as a parent of a 3 year old – really starting to notice how often I say ‘stop!’ when really, all he’s doing is playing. Trying to actively stop myself from doing that now…). Wow this has turned into a bit of a ramble…well, hope you got something out of it anyway – deep appreciation of your video, if nothing else!

    • Frances Bell February 20, 2014 - 1:26 pm Reply

      I agree – storytelling is ancient and enduring and can encourage participation. I loved doing the video, got much personal pleasure from making it and hope others would enjoy it. In making it I deliberately chose how I made it and where I published it. I considered other creation platforms that might have been more creative but rejected them for reasons that follow. I hoped it might encourage rhizo14 people to participate in a conversation with me – and it did – thank you all. But I also wanted it be reified so that I could find it later and share it with family (so it’s on my hard disk as well as on Youtube and Vialogue. In terms of durability – I would rate it as follows – My hard disk, Youtube, Vialogue. And none of those are likely to last as long as the books I was talking about. Eventually all reified objects are lost: participation is a vital human endeavour but not all participation ‘counts’ in the same way. Your participation/play with your son is vital to his wellbeing and development. I am rambling now but just wanted to let you see into how I think about participation and reification – there is no master. Video isn’t better than book or talking – it’s just different and can be experienced differently.
      I found this very short video of my late brother on my email and shared it with my family on Facebook – very precious

      • tanyalau February 21, 2014 - 11:05 am Reply

        Interesting that you talk about sharing it offline too – when you only know people online you almost forget that they have a whole separate lives offline, in ‘real life’ – especially when you’re interacting with people in fairly intense experiences like these. Thanks for sharing that video of your brother – I can imagine how special it was to have found that.

  8. Simon Ensor March 2, 2014 - 5:32 pm Reply

    Hi Frances
    After reading your entry in the ‘autoethnographical’ thing I was prompted to come here and I am glad I did. I am fascinated in this ‘reification’ concept and feel that the separation between ‘participation’ and ‘reification’ is unhelpful and masks other complexity.

    As an English language teacher/learner I am particularly interested in ‘ecological approaches’ to language learning derived in part from Gibson’s ideas on perception of affordances.

    Have been listening to Dave Cormier talking about words having bubbles of meaning – this for me rings true and I have the impression that our lenses of perception are constantly guiding our action between repulsion and attraction depending on various axes of ‘drive’.

    The dichotomies between oral culture and books strike me as more about power than learning.

  9. francesbell March 2, 2014 - 6:00 pm Reply

    Simon, please forgive me if I am misunderstanding you. I don’t subscribe to dichotomies between oral culture and books,as my posts have demonstrated. If people are promoting this, then I suspect, as you say, it’s about power rather than learning. But we have spent a lot of time talking about this false dichotomy on #rhizo14 – we could have cut to the chase and talked about the power games, but we didn’t, did we.

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