small scholarly worlds

Despite our globally connected digital world, we still primarily live in “small worlds”. Well, that’s according to George Siemens (2004). Small worlds are generally populated by people who have similar interests and knowledges, Siemens says. However, each small world can be connected with others, through networks. “Weak ties” hold networks together. Within networks of small worlds, some ideas and practices may be more interesting, useful, prestigious, productive, profitable – or all of these – and thus elevate the status of a particular small world or cluster of worlds. ( Siemens calls these nodes.)

Siemens wrote about small worlds as part of developing a theory of learning that he called connectivism – a notion that you will know well if you are working in online learning or distance education. And of course connectivism is an idea that hasn’t gone unchallenged. But I’m more interested in thinking about what it means to live in small worlds. I’m particularly interested in the possibilities that the idea of small worlds holds for understanding work with literatures.

Yep, its the literature review – again! Bear with me as I explain. 

Imagine you’re doing a literature review. You want to become expert in a small world, which may be one that you have to create, or it may be one that already exists. You want to know who lives in this small world, its history and its customs and priorities. Your small world connects with, draws on and/or brings together others. You’re trying to get to grips with a network, or networks, and various nodes. Let’s call that network your field and the small world your topic. If you are the kind of person who likes visuals you can probably see how your field as a networked world equates to a kind of elaborate mind map with texts clustered together in clumps a.ka.nodes.

Stay with me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever used the website Connected Papers. There’s a limited free service on CP or you can pay for unlimited access. In essence, you type in the name of a paper, let’s call that A. So type in A. Click. A moment or two and then you can see: all of the papers that A has cited: papers that have cited A: the papers that are commonly cited by A and the other papers in A’s reference list: and papers that have cited A and others in A’s reference list. Whew. What this usually means is that you can see some of the papers that might be considered important in the field. This gives you a start on either seeing the intellectual genealogy of A or/and finding some papers that map and evaluate the field. CP also links to publishers’ websites which means that you can get to the original papers.

Or, rather than typing in the name of a paper, you can type in a topic and see the enormous number of papers that produces – a lot. It’s much less daunting and more manageable to type in a key paper IMHO. And if you are a doctoral researcher the paper you search around may be one that your supervisor has told you is a good place to start.

What’s also interesting is that the CP site presents you with information in different forms, one of which is as a graphic network of nodes. Each node can be thought of as a small world of information, people with shared ideas and interests.

This image shows Siemen’s 2004 paper about connectivism. It shows the past and present nodes clustered around his text.

Its this kind of map we are constructing when we do literatures work. We’re finding small worlds we can live in and live with.

Connected Papers of course claims to be THE THING that will sort out your lit review. Of course it isn’t, because there’s lots more involved in literature work than searching. But this kind of algorithmic search can be pretty helpful. It’s often a good starting point. And yes, I too use CP to look for where ideas have been used in disciplines other than my own, or to search in parts of my own discipline that I don’t know terribly well. CP is worth a play if you haven’t encountered it before. (It’s also not the only site like this, so look out the others, they all work a bit differently.)

But of course the overall point is that CP is illustrative of the ways in which we do scholarly work. We live and create small worlds, worlds that are textual as well as social, disciplinary and geographical. Our job when we are doing literature work is to become familiar with our particular small world and find our place and neighbours. 

And yes, this post is entirely unsponsored.

Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in connectivism, george Siemens, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, networks and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to small scholarly worlds

  1. M J Curry says:

    Pat, It’s uncanny how your posts are paralleling the topics I’m covering in my doctoral research writing course–last week I had students do an activity to map out their discourse communities and one of the questions I asked was whether their top authors in their emerging lit reviews are citing each other! I’m going to share this post with them. One student said she’d already signed up to receive your blog–I have so many posts on my syllabus already. I hope you’re going to put all of this in a book!


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