Split identities: reflections on an autoethnography project

Our latest PhD assignment is to find a paper dealing with autoethnography that is relevant to our research interests and then write an analytical review of it. The clear logic is that seeing someone else do autoethnography in a way that was good enough to be published is very helpful to us as we build towards our own autoethnography research project at the end of this module. It also gave us a chance to practice doing a literature search, a focus of our study at this stage.
So I looked for autoethnography papers dealing with technology capability in relation to business careers. Then anything in relation to business or other management careers, but without success (if anyone knows of a paper I missed, please let me know!) Autoethnography is a fairly new area and perhaps one that doesn’t appeal much to management practitioners, who are not generally given to this depth of reflection,at least while in post. It is not very surprising that most autoethnography has been written by academics, and I did turn up a very interesting paper dealing with the careers of two late-entry business school academics.
The paper (Learmonth & Humphreys, 2012) uses the novel Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a framework to explore the “split personality” of academics as, on the one hand, disinterested pursuers of knowledge and on the other of professionals looking to enhance their career like any other. By writing accounts of an academic conference from those two different perspectives, they explore the split and challenge whether there is really a split at all. In truth, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two may be so intertwined as to be impossible to separate.
I am not intending here to review the paper in full, but reflect on my personal take-aways from it.
Firstly, a conscious innovation of the paper is using literature as a theoretical framework rather than a more conventional academic approach. As the authors note, it would be more conventional to use Derrida or Foucault to explore academic identity, but autoethnography is a methodology that encourages unconventional approaches and they wanted to see if it was possible. I think they have succeeded and my mind started boggling with possibilities for my project. Could I analyse concepts of identity and selfhood with the lyrics of Twenty One Pilots? Perhaps use the novels of William Gibson to frame our feelings about technology? Or perceptions of people who work with technology using The IT Crowd? Consider this exchange from the very first episode between the two members of the IT department:
Moss: You had a job?
Roy[coyly] Girl on 5th.
Moss: Did you hit it off?
Roy: Define ‘hit it off’.
Moss: Did she continue talking to you after you’d fixed her computer?
Roy: No. And while I was working, she rested a cup on my back.

Plenty of scope here to explore what we really think of digital capability, surely. I’ll see how brave I feel later on.

Secondly, the paper offers a good example of how to “actually do” an autoethnograpy project. It seems to be the sort of thing that could sprawl out of control, so focusing on a particular episode would keep it manageable. The process of multiple reflection on one event is one I have used before, and more generally applying a different interpretation to the same situation seems a promising way forward.   

Thirdly, and again linked to method, it is clear that the authors started off the project with very general research questions, which developed and changed as the project progressed. It seems at the start it was almost an experiment – let’s see what can be done – but by the end they had fairly clear conclusions about academic identity and the value of autoethnography for exploring it. In qualitative research, the questions do not always need to be precisely pinned down at the beginning. 

Fourth, the sort of dichotomy highlighted is one that many of us can identify with – I certainly can. I work for a for-profit education provider so we walk the line between being a business and being an education provider. Ultimately of course, we will only be a long-term successful business if we deliver good education so these can be reconciled, but many of the assumptions in education generally are not based on maximising profitability. One could argue of course, and many do, that in an era of fee-paying students universities have a very similar split. But it is not how many of us tend to think about education. 

Finally, as someone who has moved from finance into education, and is now doing a doctorate, I was intrigued by the way both authors had reinvented themselves as academics, and been successful in their new careers, but then found they hadn’t necessarily got away from everything they disliked about their earlier careers. As noted in a previous blog post, I made a conscious decision around 2008 to reinvent myself as someone who was “digitally capable”, which was a change from how I had generally been before. But my motives for doing so were mixed from the start – I thought it was genuinely an interesting field, I wanted to keep pace with my children, and I also thought it would be a good career development strategy. It has proved interesting, and has helped with my children but at times it has been a challenge to translate it into my career. Why that has been the case could just be my research question for my project. 

Learmonth, M., & Humphreys, M. (2012). Autoethnography and academic identity: glimpsing business school doppelgängers. Organization, 19(1), 99-117. doi:10.1177/1350508411398056

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On being “good with technology” – success, suspicion and fear

Note: This blog post is adapted from an exercise using the research tool of autoethnography – using stories to make sense of our experience and contribute to scholarly discussions.

I have always had some interest in technology but it wasn’t all that strong until 2008, not long after I moved into education. I had an epiphany, particularly triggered by the astonishing growth in social media. I realised that 1) something big was happening and it would have significant impact on our world, including how we do education, and 2) if I wanted to understand my children, then aged 8 and 6, I would have to understand the technologies they would soon be using. In January 2009, I delivered the first of many talks I would give about emerging trends in technology and their impact. In effect, I was starting to build my personal brand as someone who knew about technology (personal branding is a big interest of mine).

Over ten years on, I can see it wasn’t a bad career strategy. I have moved through various roles and am still regarded as someone who knows about technology. And the bit about the world changing is now obvious to everyone. The accounting institutes are revising their qualifications to take account of digital technology and there is lots of talk throughout the profession about the importance of technology.

And yet something isn’t quite right. Facility with technology does not always match talk about it. It still seems to be ok among professionals to say, half-embarrassed, half-defiant, “I’m not that good with technology.” If technology is so critical then why isn’t it a priority for them to enhance their own skills?

There is an uneasy ambivalence that is also reflected in popular culture. The (hilarious) British sitcom The IT Crowd depicts techie types as clever but barely functional socially. Dramas such as Sense8 & Person of Interest depict hackers as a breed of superhero, able at will to access and alter any information, though still not great socially. We laugh at the nerds, but we fear them too.

So maybe I am respected for being “good with technology”, but there is some amusement, suspicion and maybe even fear mixed in there as well.

I think this story can be related to the literature about professional identity and careers. There is one paper I am familiar with (Maclean et al, 2012), which links reflexive practice to the formation of elite careers, and the same authors have also studied stories managers tell as a way of making sense of their careers and legitimising their success (Maclean et al, 2011). The work of JISC and others on digital literacy also touches on identity (JISC, 2014). I am not aware if anyone has linked these and specifically studied technology skills as an element of professional identity, whether it matters and what impact it has, but over the next few weeks I shall be trying to find out and maybe see if I can contribute something to it.


Maclean, M., Harvey, C. & Chia, R., (2012) “Reflexive Practice and the Making of Elite Business Careers”, Management Learning, 43(4) 385–404.

Maclean, M., Harvey, C. & Chia, R., (2011) “Sensemaking, storytelling and the legitimization of elite business careers”, Human Relations 65(1) 17–40.

JISC (2014), Developing Digital Literacies [online]. Available at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-digital-literacies (accessed 2 February 2019).

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Illustrating ontology and epistemology with religion

One of the issues raised in our PhD cohort discussions is grasping the key concepts of ontology and epistemology. Our readings so far on the topic are agreed on the need to understand our ontological and epistemological assumptions in order to develop a coherent research project (Cohen et al, 2011, Grix, 2010). Examples are often helpful in this sort of exercise, so I am offering this illustration in case it helps anyone.

As any readers of my other blog will know, my first degree was in theology, a subject which has fascinated me ever since, so this has been my “point of entry” to understanding the philosophical ideas. I also think it may be easier to illustrate these ideas from theology than from some other disciplines. I will add a big caveat that this is a very brief, (over-)simplifying summary as regards theological positions, and there are lots of nuances I am not capturing here. But here goes with the attempt.

In general, the orthodox or conservative believer has a foundationalist ontology – they think a God “really exists” in a way that is objectively true whatever anyone believes about it. They add to this a positivist epistemology – it is possible to know things about this God that are “true”, even if such knowledge will always be incomplete or imperfect, and of course the sources of knowledge are subject to constant debate.

Perhaps surprisingly, these assumptions are shared by the more vehement atheists. They think it is meaningful to say that God “doesn’t exist”, in a way that is objectively true and, subject to the fact that you cannot definitively prove a negative, it is possible to more or less be certain of this.

Liberal theology can be be anti-foundationalist, much less certain that we can be sure what “existence” really means in this space. The great liberal theologian Paul Tillich described the idea of the existence of God as “half-mythological, half-blasphemous”, preferring to consider God as “the Ground of Being”, or just “Being”, so the question of existence is meaningless. This usually goes along with an intepretivist epistemology, which starts with our experience of the numinous, or the sacred, and seeks to develop our thought from there. Sources of knowledge such as the tradition are to be taken seriously, but not uncritically.

These assumptions might be shared by an avowed agnostic, who believes that we simply cannot know the answers to these questions, maybe not even usefully discuss them.

It is possible to envisage other combinations. Some other strands of liberal theology have a foundationalist ontology – there really is a God – and an interpretivist epistemology – but it isn’t possibly to know a great deal about this God, at least not with any great confidence. I can’t picture what an anti-foundationalist ontology and positivist epistemology would look like, but maybe it’s possible.

Incidentally, the concern with ontology in theology, as I understand it, tends to be a Western thing. The Buddhist tradition, for example, in general is unconcerned with ontology, seeing epistemology and questions of practice and behaviour as far more important.

The research paradigm of critical theory is has its parallels in liberation theology, feminist theology and the like. As documented in my theological blog (and for full disclosure) my own position is more postmodern, in particular the strand referred to as radical, or more precisely, deconstructive theology. This sees the role of theology as exposing the problems of existence rather than answering them.

It’s an illustration that certainly helps me, and maybe I will be in a position to refine it as my studies progress.

Cohen, L. et al (2011), Research Methods in Education, 7th ed., Routledge: London
Grix, J. (2010), The Foundations of Research, 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke

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Starting a PhD – reflection on research philosophy

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks as I have got under way with a PhD in E-Research & Technology-Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. This means, among other things, that the Learningshrew blog is back in business, and I will use it to share thoughts and writing that may be of wider interest.

In the first week, we have been looking at research philosophies and methods, and considering our past research experience and our own philosophy. In particular, has our approach been positivist, generally dealing with data and facts considered objective, or interpretivist, more focused on subjective experience and using tools such as case studies and language analysis.

This is the first time I have properly studied research methods, so I’m now trying to “retrofit” previous projects into this framework. If I take some of my recent, small-scale “research”:

·        In my MA, I mostly ended up looking at the discourse around learning technology and how this influenced certain practices being adopted (interpretivist). That said, the piece of research that got most external interest (by far) was applying my accounting background to how e-learning changes cost structures, which I guess was positivist in nature. The key point was how institutions might respond to changes in costs.

·        A few years ago I led the development of an MSc for accountants which explicitly used social constructionism as the basis for studying finance and accounting. I thought this was a very useful way of thinking about it. Social constructionism isn’t mentioned in this text but I guess would be an interpretive approach.

·        At one point I was planning a PhD analysing finance education which would use postmodern approaches to analyse education around banking and finance. I was convinced, and still am, that postmodern concepts such as sign value and deconstruction are much more useful for understanding modern finance than the common very quantitative approaches.

So I suppose I have used different approaches in the past and, in line with the mixed methods philosophy, I can see that different approaches can have value in different contexts. But overall I am more of an interpretivist than a positivist. I don’t think the social world is “knowable as it really is”, although we often kid ourselves that it is. Finance is a good example of a discipline that sometimes claims to express “truth”, when actually it is a fiction we collectively create to help understand certain phenomena, and completely depends on certain common assumptions. There is an old investor saying that is relevant here – “profit is not a fact, it is an opinion”.

However, as any readers of my other blog will already know, the paradigm I currently feel most comfortable with for studying social science is postmodernism. Over the last few years, I have become a fan of Jacques Derrida, and his friend and disciple John Caputo, and a few others of that type. I think it should be increasingly obvious that institutions are contingent and fragile, and approaches that destabilise meaning and expose issues are more useful than those which deny these issues. There has been some research using postmodern concepts to study finance, but not much, and nothing on finance education, to my knowledge, which seems like a gap.

But I’m really looking forward to seeing if any of this changes over the next few years.

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Manipulating emotions – the trouble with Facebook

It has not been a good few weeks for Facebook. The company has finally agreed to supply Congress with information about political advertisements bought during the US presidential campaign, apparently with Russian money and promoting inauthentic links and stories. Facebook’s weak response has been noted and castigated as a threat to democracy. But the issues go much deeper than this story, or indeed allegations of fake news and the creation of echo chambers and, I believe, the key clues lie in two academic papers. The first, with the descriptive title, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” analysed all articles published in the New York Times over a three-month period to understand the characteristics of articles shared more often than others. Controlling for as many factors as they can think of, their main conclusion is clear:

“While more awe-inspiring (a positive emotion) content is more viral and sadness-inducing (a negative emotion) content is less viral, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality. More anxiety- and anger-inducing stories are both more likely to make the most e-mailed list….Consistent with our theorizing, content that evokes high-arousal emotions (i.e. awe, anger and anxiety), regardless of their valence, is more viral.”

This conclusion should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time on social media, but it is useful to have the data. Social media companies have a vested interest in us spending as much time as possible using their tools and encourage us to post material that will be liked and shared. And the way to achieve this is simple – evoke awe, anger, anxiety or something similar. The rest will follow. The logical conclusion of this is that the most popular material on social media is the most emotive – considerations such as whether the material is useful or factually correct come a long way behind. This has always been known to journalists, of course, but social media lacks even the most cursory standards of fact-checking and material can be shared at a speed impossible in the pre-internet age. To use the Silicon Valley terminology, the fact that social media, particularly Facebook, is usually swamped with emotive and misleading material is a feature not a bug.

The second paper is even more scary but with a title that is only mildly sinister, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. To a certain type of psychologist, Facebook represents a wonderful laboratory for testing theories, and the test here is whether people who read sad or happy posts (identified by the use of certain keywords) are more likely to then produce sad or happy posts themselves (again identified through keywords). How do you test this? You take nearly 700,000 Facebook users and manipulate the newsfeed algorithms (Facebook’s top secret way of determining the order in which posts are seen) for two groups – one “sad”, one “happy” – and keep a group unchanged as a control. None of these people, of course, were aware of the experiment, which led to accusations that it breached ethical guidelines. But what is even more scary than Facebook’s willingness to experiment on its users without their knowledge is that it worked. Their summary diagram tells the story:

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 16.43.13

So there is a small but clearly measurable impact on the emotional state of Facebook users resulting from manipulation of their newsfeed algorithm. Or put this another way – we now have a company, a corporation remember, committed to maximising profits for their shareholders – with the capability to measurably influence the emotional state of over two billion people, without any of them actually being aware of it. If that doesn’t scare you, I’m not sure you have been paying attention.

The truth is, we have created a monster. The question now is whether it can be reined in before it becomes too powerful to deal with. The most hopeful signs so far have come from the European Commission, with Margrethe Vestager, the formidable Commissioner for Competition, one of the few officials willing to take on technology companies, including Facebook for making misleading statements relating to their acquisition of WhatsApp. But what will really make a difference is whether we, the general public, continue to invest our time, energy and attention in support of the company. A great deal may well depend on this.


Berger, J. & Milkman, K. (2012) “What Makes Online Content Viral?”, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XLIX (April), 192-205.

Kramer, A., Guillory, J. & Hancock, J. (2014) “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, 8788-8790.


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Why e-business changes the rules…for everything

Last week, the Financial Times reported a milestone in the growth of technology companies (paywall). For the first time ever, the five most valuable companies in the world were from this sector – Apple, Alphabet (owner of Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.  As a business educator who is also into technology, I find this fascinating. In particular, I am struck by the way these companies not only use new technology to deliver services, they have also invented new ways of making money out of them, in other words, new business models. As I will attempt to show in this blog post, these new business models have surprisingly big implications.


I had been using the idea of new business models in my teaching for a while before I came across a paper that added a whole new dimension to my understanding. According to  DaSilva & Trkman (2014), the term “business model” was first used in 1957, but featured in very few academic papers until the 1990s. Usage of the term started to grow significantly in 1999 and, with some blips, has grown ever since. The authors convincingly link this to the rise in digital technologies and e-business. In the days before the web, it was fairly obvious what businesses did – they produced goods and/or services which they then sold to customers. But the web enabled new types of businesses where it was much less obvious how they were creating and capturing value. This meant we had to start examining their business models. Some of them, such as pets.com, discussed in the paper, turned out not to have a workable business model at all. Others, such as Google, invented successful new ones and made vast profits in the process.


The authors also argue that, despite the popularity of the term, “business model”, it does not have an agreed, useful definition. But the fact that we are having this debate illustrates for me how fast the world of business has changed. The old rules simply do not apply any more. For example, the laws of supply and demand taught in every economics course are not relevant when it comes to digital goods – supply is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited and without cost. It does not cost Google anything much to deliver a search result or Facebook to supply you with a profile. That’s one reason why they don’t charge for them, instead making money by selling information about you to advertisers.


And this leads on to a second important characteristic of much e-business. Traditional economics generally assumes the existence of a number of competing providers. When businesses get too big, they become vulnerable to challenge by nimbler rivals. Where there are exceptions, “natural monopolies” such as telecoms or water, these are closely managed and regulated to ensure they do not abuse their power.


But the uncomfortable truth about e-business may be that natural monopolies are the norm, not the exception. There is no real benefit in using competing search engines when Google gives you the best results, no reason to be on a social network other than the one everyone else is using, no reason to use other online retailers if Amazon uses its scale and marketing savvy to deliver everything you need at low prices. This is not to say that e-business is a bad thing, just that it seems to be becoming clear that the rules of economics are changing. And history shows us that when the rules of economics change, everything else changes too.


This is not my original idea, of course – there are many others exploring this territory and publishing books on it. Two I have read recently are Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future?  and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. I enjoyed both of them, partly because they range so widely over technology, economics, politics, sociology and history. This holistic perspective is surely necessary to contemplate the scale of changes underway. Broadly, Lanier is something of a pessimist, believing that “Siren Server” businesses are sucking value from the economy. A different approach, based on micro-payments and clearer ownership of information, is possible but, in his view, most probably will not be implemented until the current system has collapsed. By contrast Mason is generally an optimist, believing that the growth in the “networked economy” and non-monetary exchange shows a path by which we may deal with the challenges of climate change and demographics.


But they, and others, agree on one point. The capitalist system that has, one way or another, brought increased prosperity and wellbeing to the world over the last 200 years or so is no longer fit for purpose, and has started to collapse. The financial crisis of 2008 was an obvious sign of this, as is our inability to recover from it by using the traditional tools of monetary policy. Politically, the signs of collapse can be seen in revolts against our ruling elite, such as the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump. Such pains are to be expected if we are indeed starting to move towards a new type of economy. But if these writers are even partly right, and I think they are, then surely our most urgent task is working out what will replace our current system and, in small-scale experiments at first, starting to feel our way towards it. This, I suspect, will be humanity’s greatest challenge, and greatest opportunity, for many decades to come.


DaSilva, C. & Trkman, P. (2014), “Business Model: What It Is and What It Is Not”, Long Range Planning 47, 379–389

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Intervening: problems with values in finance

A few days ago, I attended a conference on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bordieu and its relevance for accounting. There were many things to take away but one of them was the fact that, in later life, Bordieu increasingly became an activist as well as an academic. In his 2003 work Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2, he famously wrote:

“Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake.”

He was specifically referring to sociologists, but I think the same is true of business educators and, most relevant to me, finance educators. Following the financial crisis, a writer in The Economist observed the following:

“Most of the people at the heart of the crisis— from Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers to John Thain at Merrill Lynch to Andy Hornby at HBOS—had MBAs after their name . . . In recent years about 40% of the graduates of America’s best business schools ended up on Wall Street, where they assiduously applied the techniques that they had spent a small fortune learning. You cannot both claim that your mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. . . and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign.” (Economist, September 24, 2009: on-line edition, quoted in Crossan et al, 2013)

Of course, business schools have always included at least some materials on ethics, and are even starting to consider character, as Crossan and her colleagues set out in their paper, but I do not think this goes far enough. There is a bigger issue that has bugged me more and more in my many years as a finance educator and I would express it like this:

The general assumption seems to be that finance is a technocratic, value-neutral discipline. It is taught the same way all over the world to people of widely different cultures and outlooks. Ethics in finance largely consist of reporting things correctly (sic), ensuring that controls are effective, rules are complied with and that managers discharge their responsibilities to their shareholders or stakeholders.

It does not take very much effort to deconstruct and undermine this view. Jacques Derrida argued that symbols (which include words and numbers) never have a fixed, neutral meaning. Meaning of symbols is always “deferred” into other symbols. In other words, meaning of any sort depends on a complex web of context. Financial numbers mean nothing in isolation, they can only be interpreted in a context, and that context will include values. It follows on from this that, like Bourdieu, Derrida insisted on an activist dimension to his project – “Deconstruction, I have insisted, is not neutral. It intervenes” (Positions).

To take one concrete example, the law in the UK requires directors to act in the best interests of shareholders, which is assumed to be maximising financial return. This is also the assumption behind corporate governance codes and the starting point for most financial analysis techniques. This point is further reinforced by the structure of an income statement, which culminates in the profit or loss attributable to shareholders, inherently conveying the idea that the only really important number is the return to providers of equity capital, as pointed out by Sikka (2015) and others.

It is clear that there is a value system hard-wired into the way we do finance and, to my mind, the best ever summary of that system was set out by the fictional financier Gordon Gekko in his famous speech from the 1987 film Wall Street. If by some chance you have never seen this speech, I highly recommend viewing it. It is an extraordinary piece of film:

Of course, it is obvious to us now that Gekko was spectacularly wrong in his prescription for the USA, and many of us would recoil from his description, but who can deny that his approach is the morality at work in our boardrooms and trading desks? If you have an hour available at some point, a contrary view can be found in this absorbing documentary where the entrepreneur Peter Jones interviews Mark & Mo Constantine, the owners of Lush, along with Chris Dawson, owner of discount store The Range.

Lush is a rare example of a business run to maximise social good rather just profit, although along the way the Constantines have created a spectacularly successful business too. They can do this because the business is privately owned – the reason Mark Constantine declares he would never sell the business is because a publicly-owned company could not operate like this. If he sold the company, it would be absorbed by the dominant paradigm and its values would not last long.

So if we are not happy with Mr Gekko’s approach, are there some alternative approaches which can inform our finance education and practice? I think there are, and will aim to explore these in my next blog post.

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G. & Gandz, J., “Developing Leadership Character in Business Programs”, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2013, 12 (2), 285–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0024A
Sikka, P. (2015) “The hand of accounting and accountancy firms in deepening income and wealth inequalities and the economic crisis: Some evidence”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 30, 46–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpa.2013.02.003

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Getting to grips with postmodernism

I am currently working towards starting a doctorate in September and have previously sketched out some ideas for this. I am fairly convinced that postmodernism, whatever this means, has important lessons for banking and finance. It has been encouraging to discover some academics, notably Elton McGoun and the late Norman MacIntosh, who have done fascinating work in this field. But my first task has been to get my head around postmodernism itself, and this can be a daunting task. Countless books, articles and blogs have been written on the subject, and there is nothing like consensus on what the term represents. In fact, the issue is summed up nicely by Stronach & Maclure (1997), discussing the terms “post-structuralism, deconstruction and postmodernism”:

“…if these terms did have something in common, it would be that each problematizes the very notion of definition. Each blocks the escape route to a place outside language, or into metalanguage, from which its essential characteristics could be named…”

So these terms cannot be defined, but I do need to explain them, if only to myself. And I do have one advantage here, which is a background in theology and a strong interest in radical theology, which owes much to postmodernism and which I blog about elsewhere. So based on all of this, and my reading so far, here are two ways I would try to briefly explain postmodernism.

Ever since Plato, Western philosophy has been influenced by the idea that words and concepts correspond to some sort of ideal form “out there”. If we say a word, let’s say “table”, then there is a concept of tableness beyond language to which the word refers. Someone might use the word differently – for example say table to refer to a chair – but that is simply incorrect and misrepresenting the table. In theological language, when we talk about God, evil, law or heaven, we are referring to concepts that objectively exist “out there”. We will never be able to fully represent them, but they are there.

But in postmodernism there is no “out there”, or at least none that is relevant for us, and words do not refer to independently existing concepts. Jacques Derrida famously coined the term “différance” which has overtones both of differing and deferring. So the word “table” does not refer to an externally existing concept – it has meaning simply because it differs from all the other words we use and that meaning is “deferred” into other words, because we can only explain what a table is by using other words. In finance, for example, the word “value” is sometimes used as if it appeals to a non-contextual, absolute concept which we could potentially understand. However, “value”, like everything else, depends entirely on context and language.

Or here is another approach, which takes as its starting point a recent Radio 4 programme about memory called Past Imperfect. We generally assume that our memories can be relied upon, but there is a mountain of evidence to show that memories are often unreliable and it is actually not that difficult to plant false memories in people. Why is this? One expert interviewee, Professor Chris French of Goldsmith’s College, notes that the human brain is subjected to a torrent of information every second – far more than we are able to process or store. So we need to make sense of all this information by being selective about what we perceive and what we remember, so memory becomes somewhat plastic. As far as I can see, one of the ways we do this is by constructing stories, which is the way the human brain can most readily remember things. This happens in all kinds of ways – not just novels and tv dramas but the news, politics, science, songs and many other phenomena involve taking the messy, complicated, chaotic reality and turning it into stories that we can understand and absorb. I am not being critical of stories – I love stories more than most – but we need to be aware of this process.

This, perhaps is one reason why another great postmodern philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard (1984), wrote:

“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives…”

We need to tell ourselves and each other stories – that is part of being human – but at the same time we need to treat them with a bit of suspicion. All stories are incomplete and told from a particular perspective, there is always another way to tell a story and that might be illuminating. To take just one example of a novel that illustrates this superbly – An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, set in seventeenth-century England, tells the same story from four different perspectives. It makes for a gripping read, but should also provoke us to think about the nature of storytelling and how we perceive reality. All four accounts are contradictory and none can be fully relied upon. The title is a quotation from Francis Bacon that refers to the process of deciding what is really the situation but the book itself subtlely subverts the very idea of getting at “the truth”. So can we ever rely on human perception to tell us “what really happened”? Finance uses plenty of stories too, often in numerical form which gives them a spurious sense of accuracy, but we should always be aware that a story is a partial incomplete account, and will differ if told from another perspective.
So I am starting to explain postmodernism to myself with these narratives but of course there are plenty of others. However, they do illustrate, to me at least, why the postmodern perspective is still needed so badly in finance and elsewhere.
Lyotard, J-F (1984) Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans Bennington, G., Massumi, B. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Stronach, I. & MacLure, M. (1997) Educational Research Undone: The Postmodern Embrace. Open University Press, Buckingham. 

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Reflections on the DigiKnow conference: digital awareness, online presence and going political

Earlier today, I was privileged to be a keynote speaker at a student conference organised by the University of Gloucester called “DigiKnow”. I kicked it off with a presentation on digital literacy and capability, for which the slides are attached. Using a metaphor from the Matrix, with gratitude to Tara Brabazon, from whom I got the idea, I wanted to encourage attendees to “take the red pill” and be thoughtful about their use of technology, instead of simply taking what they are given. There were a number of interesting questions, one of which picked up on my mentioning how much I learn from my teenage children. I was asked whether I was concerned about children having too much technology, and the short answer is no because technology is simply part of life. In my view, they need help from their parents to learn about responsible and safe use of technology, rather than having it banned altogether. Having said that, this is a personal matter and I know other parents take a different view. It intrigued me that this issue came up again in the Q&A session at the end of the day. There is a lot of anxiety among parents and society at large about children using technology and perhaps there is a need for better support and guidance here. It certainly needs to be more nuanced than “don’t use social media”, which is too often the message and does not get us anywhere.
I attended several interesting sessions including a brief review of copyright issues, which are something of a minefield and difficult to cover in a short talk. One point I was not aware of is that educational institutions often hold licences for use of specific material, but only for study purposes. This means that a student who posts their assignment on a blog, for example, needs to check whether they breach copyright on any external material they have used. At lunchtime there was a professional photographer taking photos for students to use on their LinkedIn profiles. This seems like an excellent idea as the quality of the photo is critical for a good profile, and having a professional involved makes a big difference. We then heard from marketing consultant Luan Wise, who provided useful tips on using LinkedIn. This had me mentally resolving to update my profile, in particular my “headline”. This defaults to your job title and place of work which is not always that informative, and I have never changed this. I will shortly!
We then heard from Mark Gosland from Gloucestershire Police Force about online security and safety. I consider myself pretty good on security but Mark has outdone me. Not only does he have two-factor authentication for key accounts (which I also do), he does this using a cheap phone which he doesn’t use for anything else. In other words, to hack my gmail account you would need to guess my password (which is generated by Lastpass, so pretty much unguessable) then steal my phone (and guess the password to that). For Mark, even if they stole his phone this wouldn’t work. I’m impressed. The final presentation was from librarian Johanna Anderson on “Your digital tattoo”. The word “tattoo” is chosen deliberately rather than the more usual “footprint”, because a footprint fades but a tattoo remains forever, just like your online material. This was timely advice for students who will be seeking employment shortly. Employers will often find out what they can about you online, it’s wise to manage this information. On the plus side, a positive online presence can have all sorts of benefits, as it has for Johanna, who was even offered a book deal on the basis of her blog.
Finally, there was a group Q&A, which pulled a number of themes from the day together. I was impressed at the questions that showed a lot of reflection on the big issues raised. One student simply asked “Do you think it is still possible to have a private life?” This is a big question. At times, I feel relieved that I grew up in an era when you could make mistakes in your teenage years and they would generally be forgotten. Now that so much growing up happens online, it will not be forgotten, an issue which I try to help my kids navigate. Mark Gosland gave his personal opinion that we have “sleepwalked” into a situation where we are under constant surveillance and our privacy is being eroded, but as citizens and voters we have the ability to ask questions and change this. I strongly agreed and ended up talking about the fact that I have recently joined the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on these issues, and advised anyone who is conceDigiKnow keynote presentation 200116 – Daniel Clarkrned to seek more information from them. This is what can happen – when you take the red pill sometimes you feel compelled to try and change things. We covered a lot of ground today, from practical ways to use social media to large-scale changes to society, and lots of points in between. Definitely a day well spent.

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New beginnings, the fragility of finance and postmodernism

As 2015 draws to a close, I am more than usually excited about the coming  year. This is because, after nine years with BPP, I am moving on to a new and very different job. It is never easy to move when you have spent that long with an employer, and anyone who has read previous blog posts will know that they have been absorbing years where I have learned a lot, and developed a strong interest in technology and its implications for education. I am proud of many things achieved at BPP, and there are many colleagues whom I will miss greatly.
However, an opportunity has arisen that seems almost too good to be true. We moved to Shrewsbury four and a half years ago because we fell in love with the town. At that time, my job was to write material for accounting courses, and do some teaching and project work. I could mostly work from home and teach in Birmingham. Then an innovative project brought me into BPP Business School and the world of higher education, continued homeworking and more travel. Also, although I did not know it at the time, plans were being drawn up for Shrewsbury to get its own university, initially a campus of Chester University. Skipping a few stages to get to the present, last summer I was offered a job as Senior Lecturer in Accounting & Finance at the University Centre Shrewsbury. The first undergraduates started in September and I will start work there in mid-January.
This is a different venture at many levels, and one of the exciting aspects of working at a brand new and growing institution is that things are sure to change quite fast. It is also a condition of my appointment that I gain a doctorate, so I will be enrolling on this next September (about 25 years after I first contemplated a doctorate, as it happens – these things come around eventually). After so many years in finance, management and education I have many ideas about what to study. I am also a firm believer in open scholarship, so in that spirit I will share my current thoughts on the research here with anyone who is interested.
At BPP I led the development of a programme called the MSc Financial Leadership, which is for qualified accountants and explicitly based on the idea of social constructionism. This is the perspective that much of our world does not have objective existence but is created by societies through language, law and custom. For example, a company does not physically “exist” and can only act through its agents. Other “legal fictions” include marriage, government and, importantly for accountants, money. Money only has value because the law says it does and we all believe it. The MSc programme is aimed at raising awareness in accountants that virtually everything they deal with in their work does not have objective “existence” – it is socially created, therefore historically conditioned and subject to change.
Where this idea gets really interesting is in the industry where, one way or another, I spent much of my practitioner career – banking. Because banking takes social constructs and legal fictions to a whole new level. We often like to think of our bank balance a bit like the scene in Harry Potter novels where he goes to Gringotts Bank and can see the vault with his treasure in it. Somewhere, we feel, there is a little pile of money on the bank’s vaults with our name on it. This is nonsense, of course. All we have is an entry in the bank’s ledger to say that they owe us money, and a belief that, if we need the money, they will pay it to us. But if any more than a small fraction of depositors want their money back at any one time, then the game is up, the bank will fold and our balances will be exposed as fictional. This is a lesson we all saw played out with Northern Rock in 2007.
When explaining this to students, I like to say it is literally a confidence trick. It all works fine as long as we believe in it. But if we stop believing, it is finished. The whole financial system is held together by pure belief. That is why the Northern Rock crisis was resolved by the government underwriting them. We all believe the government, at least for the time being.
If this doesn’t scare you, at least a little bit, you aren’t paying attention.
There is something very postmodern about this situation, as John Lanchester and others have pointed out. Our bank balances are symbols which refer only to other symbols, and are ultimately guaranteed by another symbol, but one that is potent enough that we all trust it. This situation is not discussed very much because it is too scary and all those with a vested interest in the situation (which is in fact most of us) do not want there to be too much questioning and doubt. Even most of those who work in banking are unaware of its insubstantial structure and accept assurances about how “sound” and “solid” the institutions are.
We could leave it there, but I suspect that at some point we will realise how insubstantial the financial system is and it will collapse, causing a lot of pain in the process. Is there another way forward? I have come across a couple of prescriptions, including a shift to electronic currencies and replacing banking with a range of specialist services, and these probably have their part to play, but as an educator my instinct is to look at the way finance professionals and bankers are trained and developed. Do they realise how insubstantial the system is and its implications? I think not – accountants are trained in a body of knowledge that is dated and treated with excessive reverence. Bankers are generally trained less than accountants and any training they do get tends to have a narrow, technical focus. Navigating and changing a fragile, postmodern system requires a breed of professionals who can take critical thinking and reflection to a new level. So what would their education look like?
At present, this is where I would like to take my doctorate. In the spirit of open scholarship, I would love anyone who is interested to add their comments or contact me direct and let me know what you think.

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