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



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