International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 21-23 July 2014
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Negotiating Contestations and Chaotic Conceptions: Close-up Research into Engaging "Non-Traditional" Students

Vicki Trowler, University of Edinburgh vicki.trowler@ed.ac.uk


In his thinkpiece (Saunders 2014) Saunders reflects on "close up" research making a difference through use and usability. This paper considers an earlier stage - considering how conceptual clarity (or the lack thereof) can affect the usabilitty, and potential to make a difference, of "close up" research. Student engagement (SE) is widely viewed as the "silver bullet" solution to fix all that ails higher education (HE) - yet there is little agreement about what precisely the term means, or encompasses / excludes (see Trowler 2010:9). However, without a common understanding - or at least a specified definition when used - confusion and misunderstanding are likely to result. How the term is understood has implications for the attribution of responsibility and accountability, the formulation, implementation and monitoring of policy, the allocation of resources, and the definition and evaluation of success. Thus, these contestations are seldom trivial, but rather, indicative of interests and ideologies.

The Marxian term “chaotic conception” was introduced in the Grundrisse with reference to the construct “population”. In contrast to “fuzzy concepts”, whose precise meanings vary according to context and conditions (Haack 1996), “chaotic conceptions” are abstractions which require further disaggregation into simpler and simpler concepts, unmasking the “rich totality of many determinations and relations” (Marx 1973: 100). “Chaotic conceptions” are neither simply sloppy nor accidental – they function actively to carry out real ideological work, disguising interests and inequities.
The term “non-traditional” has been used uncritically in the literature for several decades, often as a shorthand marker for those seen as the intended beneficiaries of “Widening Participation”-type policies. Few authors define their use of the term, and most elide seamlessly between this term and more specific groups, assumed to be the real focus of their studies, such as working class students, “first in family” students, students from minority ethnic or religious groups, or mature students.This paper uses early data from a PhD study to illustrate the significance of conceptual clarity in a close-up study of engaging "non-traditional" students, illuminated through the lens of "chaotic conceptions", in maximising the potential to "make a difference". "Impact" (the "making of difference") is thus potentially manifest at both the conceptual level (in understanding and framing the phenomenon under study) for the researchers, and in the use and usability of the research products for others.

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)

Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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