Responses to 5LQDA pt2 – Much Ado About Affordances

Ahhh affordances – something of a bête noire for me!

This term has resurfaced again for me twice in the last two days – in reading the 5LQDA textbook on NVivo and in a discussion session/seminar I was at today with Chris Jones about devices, teaching and learning analytics who argued.

Chris argued FOR affordances on two fronts:

  1. they bring a focus on BOTH the materiality AND the interaction between the perceiver and the perceived and de-centre agency so that it exists in the interaction rather than as entirely in/of an object or in/of a person’s perception of it.
  2. despite quite a lot of well argued criticism, no-one has really proposed an equivalent or better term.

I would entirely agree with both of those statements, backing down from my usual strong view of affordances as being necessarily problematic when invoked.

(I was once told that the way to “make it” in academia was to pick an adversarial position and argue from that all the time never giving compromise and affordance critique seems a good one for that – maybe that’s why I don’t/won’t succeed in acadmeia I’m to willing to change position!)


Then someone does something like this:

“Think of the affordances of the program as frozen – they come fully formed, designed as the software developer thought best. In contrast think of TOOLS as emergent – we create them and they only exist in the context of use.”
(Woolf and Silver, 2017, p50)

And I end up back in my sniping position of “affordances have little merit as they mean all things to all people and even their supposedly best qualities can be cast out on a whim”. Here we see affordances stripped of ALL those interactice properties. They are now “fully formed, designed” not emergent or interactive. All of that is now being places onto the idea of a “tool” as being something that only has agency in use and in action and through interaction.

So if affordances are now tools – what then of affordances? And why is TOOL a better term?

A little background and further reading on affordances

Affordances are both an easy shorthand and a contested term (see Oliver, 2005) but one that usually retains both a common-sense understanding of “what’s easy to do” combine with a more interactionist idea of “what actions are invited”. (The latter appealing to my ANT-oriented interests in, or sensibility towards considering “non-human agency”.) I’ve read quite a lot on affordances and written on this before  in Wright and Parchoma (2011) whilst my former colleague Gale Parchoma has really extended that consideration too in her 2014 paper [4], (and also in this recorded presentation). With both of us drawing on Martin Oliver’s (2005) foundational critique [5]. I also really like Tim Ingold’s (20o0)  excellent extended explorations and extensions of Gibson’s work.

Should we keep and use a term that lacks the sort of theoretical purity or precision that may be desired because it’s very fuzziness partly evokes and exemplifies its concept? Probably.

But if it is so woolly then could “the affordances of CAQDAS” be explored systematically, empirically and meaningfully?

Could we actually investigate affordances meaningfully?

Thompson and Adams (2013, 2014) propose phenomenological enquiry as providing a basis. Within this there are opportunities to record user experience at particular junctures – moments of disruption and change being obvious ones. So for me currently encountering ATLAS.ti 8 presents an opportunity to look at the interaction of the software with my expectations and ideas and desires to achieve certain outcomes. Adapting my practices to a new environment creates an encounter between the familiar and the strange – between the known and the unknown.

However, is there a way to bring alternative ideas and approaches – perhaps even those which are normally regarded as oppositional or incommensurable with such a reflexive self-as-object-and-subject mode of enquiry? Could “affordances” be (dare I say it?) quantified? Or at least some methods and measures be proposed to support assertions.

For example, if an action is ever-present in the interface or only takes one click to achieve could that be regarded as a measure of ease – an indicator of “affordance”? Or does that stray into this fixed idea of affordances as being frozen and designed in? Or does the language used affect the “affordance” so their is a greater level of complexity still. Could that be explored through disruption – can software presented with a different interface language still “afford” things? Language is rarely part of the terminology of affordance with its roots in the psychology of perception, yet language and specific terminology seems to be the overlooked element of “software affordances”.

Could counting the steps required add to an investigation of the tacit knowledge and/or prior experience and/or comparable and parallel experience that is drawn on? Or would it merely fudge it and dilute it all?

My sense is that counts such as this, supplemented by screen shots could provide a useful measure but one that would have to be embedded in a more multi-modal approach rather than narrow quantification. This could however provide a dual function – both mapping and uncover the easiest path or the fewest steps to achieving a programmed action which will not only provide a sense or indication of simplicity/affordance vs complexity/un-afforded* (Hmmm – what is the opposite of an affordance? If there isn’t one doesn’t that challenge it’s over-use?) but also help inform teaching and action based on that research – in aprticular to show and teach and support ways to harness and also avoid or rethink these easy routes written into software that act to configure the user.

A five minute exploration – coding

Cursory checks – how much to software invite the user to “code” without doing any of the work associated with “coding”

Coding is usually the job identified with qualitative data analysis and the fucntion software is positioned to primarily support. However coding in qualitative analysis terms is NOT the same as “tagging” in software. Is “tagging” or “marking up” conflated with coding and made easy? Are bad habits “afforded” by interface?

Looking at ATLAS.ti 8 – select text and right-click:

VERY easy to create one or more codes – just right-click and code is created, no option there and then to add a code comment/definition.

Could we say then that an “affordance” of ATLAS.ti 8 is therefore creating codes and not defining them?

Looking at NVivo 11

Slightly different in that adding a new node does bring up the dialogue with an area for description – however pressing enter saves it,

Form data right-click and code > new node there is no place for defining, further supporting a code-and-code approach. This does allow adding into the hierarchy by first selecting the parent node so relational meaning is easily created – affordance = hierarchy?

AFFORDANCE = very short or one-sentence code definitions?

No way of easily identifying or differentiating commented and un-commented nodes.

Can only attach one memo to a node. The place for a longer consideration but separated.

Where next?

This is the most basic of explorations but it involves a range of approaches and also suggests interventions and teaching methods.

I really see where the 5LQDA approach seeks to work with this and get you to think and plan NOT get sucked into bad and problematic use of software – however I’m unsure of their differentiation of affordances as fixed and tools as having the properties usually ascribed to affordances…. So I definitely need to think about it more – and get other views too (so please feel free to comment) but a blog is a good place to record and share ideas-in-development, could that be “the affordance” of WordPress? 😉



Adams, C., & Thompson, T. L. (2014). Interviewing the Digital Materialities of Posthuman Inquiry: Decoding the encoding of research practices. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning, Edinburgh.

Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment essays on livelihood, dwelling & skill. London ; New York: Routledge.

Oliver, M. (2005). The Problem with Affordance. E-Learning, 2, 402-413. doi:10.2304/elea.2005.2.4.402

Parchoma, G. (2014) The contested ontology of affordances: Implications for researching technological affordances for fostering networked collaborative learning and knowledge creation. Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 360-368. 10.1016/j.chb.2012.05.028

Thompson, T. L., & Adams, C. (2013). Speaking with things: encoded researchers, social data, and other posthuman concoctions. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 14(3), 342-361. doi:10.1080/1600910x.2013.838182

Woolf, N. H., & Silver, C. (2017). Qualitative analysis using NVivo : the five-level QDA method. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

Wright, S., & Parchoma, G. (2011). Technologies for learning? An actor-network theory critique of ‘affordances’ in research on mobile learning. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 247-258. doi:10.1080/21567069.2011.624168



Engaging with Five Level QDA pt1 – Initial responses

The Five-Level QDA textbooks  have been top of my reading list since before they were published late last year, I’m finally getting to read them now and making notes of my reactions, responses, ideas, questions and approaches to implementation.

I’ve finally picked up the book and started reading through the NVivo edition – it took a while what with the first term of the Uni year making me very, VERY busy through to the Xmas break.

I can certainly see several blog posts coming out of it and other responses too I hope. I’m going to be very fortunate in having opportunities for learning and engagement. I’m really looking forward to attending the two training workshops for NVivo (Jan 18-19) and ATLAS.ti (Feb 12-13) . (MaxQDA still remains on my “to do/learn” list.)  And then I’ll be contributing to a session with Christina at the NCRM research methods festival, 3rd-5th July, 2018 in Bath. So this is current blogging bash is partly prep for, and also a response to, those.

Three chapters in and I must say that I really like the book. So far it’s best feature has been the “real world examples” of Christina cooking and how this evokes and illustrates the model through a non-theoretical, non-research and therefore eminently relatable and cleverly chosen analogy. It is far more effective than I expected it to be from its rather detailed and cautious rationalisation and preamble.

There are aspects I’m intrigued to see how they are developed further as I read on, and one or two points where I think my views and experience and situation differ from the authors. So I’m back in Scrivener drafting and collecting together responses to write and post here in a couple of blog posts.

Translation – in theory and practice

One of the key aspects I’m interested in – in practice and in theory – is how the idea of “translation” is central to the model:

And there is clearly a real focus and concern with getting this right – evidenced by Nick’s response and correction of Susan Freise’s interpretation of translation for ATLAS.ti. Having worked with, drawn on, and argued for Actor-Network Theory as having a well developed set of methods, intellectual tools, concepts and tools as well as a serious and sustained engagement with social sincere methods and their messiness (e.g. In John Law’s conference paper “Making a mess with method”[1] and subsequent book “After Method” [2]) this is an area I’m interested to explore further.

ANT also provides some rich resources to challenge and move beyond often simplisitc evoking of “affordances” to explain how users and technologies and methods interact – which I see lurking on page . I’ve written on this before  in Wright and Parchoma (2011) [3] and my former colleague Gale Parchoma has really extended that consideration too in her 2014 paper [4], (and also in this recorded presentation). With both of us drawing on Martin Oliver’s (2005) foundational critique [5].

Teaching Models and Their Contexts and Levels

The other BIG THING for me at least is how the 5LQDA approach can/will/could fit with other models and approaches. I’ve developed my own model for teaching ATLAS.ti and NVivo using the “backronym” POETS for:

  • Prepare (data – e.g. Formatting transcripts, naming files, organising and selecting literature)
  • Organise (importing and organising documents and literature into project folders and sets)
  • Explore (using data exploration and visualisation tools and writing annotations and memos about what you find)
  • Tag (using nodes/codes to tag and index your data to help identify phenomena of interest such as themes)
  • Synthesise (use the powerful query tools to search your data, systematically explore dimensions and variations between cases in your coding, synthesise these insights and then summarise them for your reports)

Therefore a pressing set of questions for me are:

  1. Should I just adopt 5LQDA and replace my materials and models? (I.e. is it just straight up better and something to adopt – or are their issues of translating it from Nick and Christina’s external expert status to the contexts in which I work?)
  2.  Should I adapt and develop my model and approach to work with/within 5LQDA (Could this fit in with/be adapted to/work with the 5LQDA approach, should that approach replace it
  3.  Should I borrow what I like from 5LQDA and use it to develop and adapt my teaching and materials?

There are quite a few considerations in those decisions – a blog post is in development exploring where and how the levels of 5LQDA fit with the model and other approaches and conceptualisations of instruction. Some of which I anticipate will link in to my previous posts on strategies, tactics and technological possibilities.

And finally:

Future developments – opportunities or threats?

One sentence that threw me a little was on p18 of the NVivo books: “the potential misuse of rudimentary automated features that may be introduced in the future are concerning”. Hmmm – what about them alo having potential to transform and adapt qualitative methods and push back against the apparent ceding of the territory of “big data” as a quant-only space? YES there are threats and risks but there are also opportunities. Reminds me again of one of my favourite quotes (with thanks to Daniel Turner at Quirkos for alerting me to this gem at the KWALON conference:

Qualitative analysts have mostly reacted to their new-found wealth of data by ignoring it. They have used their new computerized analysis possibilities to do more detailed analysis of the same (small) amount of data. Qualitative analysis has not really come to terms with the fact that enormous amounts of qualitative data are now available in electronic form. Analysis techniques have not been developed that would allow researchers to take advantage of this fact.
(Blank, 2008, p258 [6])

What’s next?

An aspiration is certainly to see which of the preceding areas generate interest and conversation, and if those might then help to lay the foundations for a more structured / serious exploration and development…  which seems to cluster around the future directions of CAQDAS and how to help prepare people for that. So if you have questions, ideas or responses please post a comment below or on your blog and let’s see where this could go…

References and Links:

1 – Law, J. (2003). Making a Mess with Method In Practice (pp. 1-12).

2 – Law, J. (2004). After method: mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

3 – Wright, S., & Parchoma, G. (2011). Technologies for learning? An actor-network theory critique of ‘affordances’ in research on mobile learning. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 247-258. doi:10.1080/21567069.2011.624168

4 – Parchoma, G. (2014) The contested ontology of affordances: Implications for researching technological affordances for fostering networked collaborative learning and knowledge creation. Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 360-368. 10.1016/j.chb.2012.05.028

5 – Oliver, M. (2005). The Problem with Affordance. E-Learning, 2, 402-413. doi:10.2304/elea.2005.2.4.402

6 – Blank, G. (2008). Online Research Methods and Social Theory. In N. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of online research methods [electronic resource]: Los Angeles, Calif. ; London : SAGE.