Symbolic interactionism – my bedtime reading….

Oh, I’ve been a bit slack on the research blog front, although I have been doing quite a lot of work!  Lots of reading – mainly on symbolic interactionism.  Just trying to let it all absorb.  I find I understand concepts like this better if I read a lot, then reread and just give it time to sink in.  Been doing some mind maps as well to link the authors and ideas together.


These five are on the bedside table at the moment, plus I have a (virtual) stack of related books in ebook format on my iPad. Of course, Herbert Blumer’s book “Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method” is a must read, along with George Herbert Mead’s “Mind, Self and Society”.  Blumer looks at meanings that humans make of things, and how that meaning arises out of the process of interaction between people.  I am finding that reading Joel Charon’s book “Symbolic Interactionism. An Introduction, An Interpretation, An Integration” is a big help in really consolidating ideas in my head.  His focus is on perspective, symbols and language and how those things interact to help us form what we call ‘reality’. (To put it simply!  Obviously these books are a lot more complex than that – these are just the little snippets I’m focusing on at the moment)

With Mead’s book, I am particularly interested in what he calls the ‘use of significant symbols’ and how that impacts on our notion of ‘self’. In the context of my research, I am looking at the ‘symbol’ of the white cane and how that can impact on the self image of people who are blind.  The other two references I am reading with this context in mind is Anselm Strauss’ “Mirrors & Masks. The Search for Identity” and Erving Goffman’s “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity”.  I am thinking a lot of the differences between how sighted people perceive the white cane (often, but not always, seen as a symbol of pity and helplessness) compared to how a competent cane user sees the cane – as a tool for independence. I will be interested to see how the children I am going to interview perceive the cane, given that they began to use one at a very young age.

The other two books – “Interpretive Interactionism” by Norman Denzin and “Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research: Intersubjectivity and the Study of Human Lived Experience” by Robert Prus – I enjoy reading because they help me to see how Symbolic Interactionism can be applied to ‘real life’. I have always enjoyed reading research which related back to the ‘lived experience’ and which includes the perspectives of ‘real’ people.  Which is probably why I’ve been drawn to qualitative research and to exploring Symbolic Interactionism as a research methodology for my field.

Ah, so much more to learn, so little time….. 🙂


Mind mapping – software or ‘free-range’?

I’ve read a lot about mind mapping software recently, and tried a few different tools out. But I have to say that for me, mind mapping only works if I use good old fashioned coloured pencils and a nice A5 drawing pad.  When I first heard about mind mapping, there was a strong emphasis on using different creative parts of the brain to what you normally use.  There was a strong emphasis on drawing and using colour (hence the coloured pencils) even if you felt (as many adults do) that you can’t draw! And believe me, I can’t draw!! But the emphasis is just on using intuition to link ideas and concepts together and whether or not your mind map looks gorgeous at the end is beside the point really!

Take this mind map for example. Pretty ordinary looking, right?  But this helped me to finally write an important section of my literature review after days of struggling.  I had a pile of journal articles neatly summarised and organised and sitting in piles next to me and for the life of me I could not get this article started.  After several days, many false starts and lots of frustration, I suddenly hit on the idea of doing a mind map around the articles. By colour coding, drawing and linking the articles together in a seemingly random fashion, all of a sudden the big picture was crystallised in my mind.  I then sat down and wrote several hundred words straight off with no problem at all.

For me, trying to do this on a computer just wouldn’t work.  Maybe it’s because I first went to university pre-computer days and learnt to study by hand writing. Or maybe it’s just the way my brain works, and in the end, that’s really what matters. The best software in the world is worth nothing to me if it doesn’t suit my learning style.  So, much as I use the iPad and iPhone and some fantastic software on my computer that has made studying so much easier and more productive, when it comes to mind mapping, I’m sticking to ‘free-range’!

using a Smartpen to interview

Well, time has ticked on since my last blog post – the weeks are flying and I am struggling at times to fit in full-time work and study. However, I have gotten all my information letters and consent forms finished and in the post, so I’m hoping all my potential participants will agree to be part of my study and will return their consent forms relatively quickly. I need to go to Western Australia to conduct my data collection and that’s becoming difficult to fit in with the work schedule as well. However, I’m hoping to get this organised within the next couple of months.

One thing I am doing at work at the moment is conducting interviews with O&M Specialists so they can upgrade their qualifications via the RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) process to a higher level qualification. This has given me the opportunity to practice conducting interviews using my Pulse Smartpen. I have had this fabulous piece of technology for about 18 months now but have not really used it that much until recently. I always had in my mind that it would be an excellent tool for conducting my research and my recent experiences have confirmed that.

The Smartpen works by recording audio as you talk, and also capturing the notes you are writing via an infrared camera near the tip of the pen. Notes are recorded on ‘dot paper’ – I have no idea how that works but I received three dot paper notebooks with my pen and they are priced pretty much the same as a regular notebook. What I LOVE about the Smartpen is that you can tap the pen on a word you have written when note taking, and it will immediately start playing what was being said when you wrote down that word. For going back over interviews, this is fantastic. I have been practicing how many notes I have to take when interviewing, and have found this feature to be just invaluable when transcribing or reviewing interviews.

I have also set up a Livescribe “pencasts” page – the Smartpen comes with a USB docking station and both your notes and your audio can be uploaded to the internet and shared with others if you wish. There are a number of other features, such as the ability to download apps to the pen.

I am really looking forward to using this in my research.  I think it will be very unobtrusive and far easier to use than a tape recorder. As with all things tech, since I purchased my Pulse Smartpen, a newer version has been released  – the Echo Smartpen – with twice as much memory (4GB or 8GB) and at a much cheaper price!  But you get that!!

As I get into the data collection phase of my research in the next few months, I’ll report back on how using the Smartpen goes. If you want to read more about the Smartpen, have a look at Livescribe’s webpage which I’ve linked to under ‘research tools’.

my favourite quote about O&M for very young children

“The goal of O&M is the independent movement and travel in blind children at an age/stage appropriate time so that children develop the perception of themselves as active movers and independent travellers”.

Joseph Cutter in his book “Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children. A Promotion Model” (2007)

I love this book, although I have to say the formatting of it is not ideal and does make it quite difficult to read. However the ideas that are contained within are fabulous. The notion that children with vision impairment should become responsible for their own mobility from a very young age is an empowering one. I really like the emphasis that this book gives on the role of parents as their child’s first O&M teacher. This book was published after I had been working in the early intervention field of O&M for several years, and it was very encouraging for me to see some of my approaches reinforced within.

It’s now the other end of the Easter/Anzac Day long weekend in Australia and I have managed to get quite a bit of writing done in between enjoying Melbourne’s magnificent Autumn weather. Today I am looking at the history  of long cane training with children. When I trained as an O&M Specialist in 1987, we spent maybe 5 half day sessions within a 12 month Graduate Diploma course learning about working with children. Long canes were never introduced to children younger than school age, and in fact, O&M training usually wasn’t provided until the child started to attend pre-school or school. Having studied psychology, I was aware of theories of child development, but hadn’t really thought about applying them to the early introduction of the long cane.  It just ‘wasn’t done’!

Having spent a substantial amount of time reviewing the literature in this area, I am surprised at some of the earlier ideas that were emerging as the profession of O&M developed.  I was particularly interested to read an article by Dr Richard Hoover written in 1950. This article, titled “The Cane as a Travel Aid” appears in a book called “Blindness: Modern Approaches to the Unseen Environment”. Unfortunately this book is now out of print, but I managed to get a second hand copy from (for only $15 including postage to Australia!). The article by Hoover outlines the development of the long cane training program at Valley Forge General Hospital.  Although primarily discussing the development of techniques for blinded war veterans, Hoover also talks about the perceived ‘stigma’ of the long cane. I particularly found the following statement interesting:

“Children usually have no prejudices one way or another and will accept a training program as planned for them. If they were to grow up with a cane in their hands, so to speak, there would be no selling problem involved as to the need and benefit of such an aid” (p 358).


Hoover also questions whether a long cane needs to be white, and strongly advocates for the right of the individual to choose the colour of the cane so it conforms to his or her needs. Another issue that is being debated in the field now that we have coloured canes more freely available. A topic for another post!

It’s frustrating that 60 years after this was written, we are still debating within the field of O&M at what age a child is ‘suitable’ to receive a cane. We still battle other health professionals so that young blind children get referred for O&M training at an appropriate age.  And we still have sighted ‘experts’ telling long cane users what is or is not an appropriate colour for their cane to be.

why don’t we listen to children when we research?

It’s the Easter/Anzac Day long weekend in Australia and I am taking a couple of extra days off to make it a long, long weekend! Also it’s a chance to get back on track with my research which has stalled a little of late.  Too many distractions in my new city of Melbourne, and I was also using the “I’ll wait until my ethics approval comes through” excuse to procrastinate!

So it’s back to the books and back to some writing.  Today I have been looking at the issue of including children as active participants in research.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was developed in 1989.  Included in this Convention is the right of children to:

  • participate in decision-making processes that may be relevant in their lives and to influence decisions taken in their regard—within the family, the school or the community.
  • The principle affirms that children are full-fledged persons who have the right to express their views in all matters affecting them and requires that those views be heard and given due weight in accordance with the child’s age and maturity.
  • It recognizes the potential of children to enrich decision-making processes, to share perspectives and to participate as citizens and actors of change.
  • The practical meaning of children’s right to participation must be considered in each and every matter concerning children

There’s a really nice summary of the Convention at

For children with a disability, there is very little research that includes their views on their lives.  Yes, there are methodological and ethical challenges when including children in research, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I’ve been reading some interesting articles on overcoming these challenges. In particular, I have been looking at ways of engaging children in research. Several authors suggest using an activity as a pre-cursor to the more ‘formal’ part of the data collection. Asking children to photograph or draw is one method. I am going to ask the children I am researching to take me on a ‘tour’ of their school as a means of getting them to begin talking to me about their mobility and use of the long cane. I’m also going to ask them to write me a story about their cane which will be brailled and made into a tactile book. Semi-structured interviews will form the major component of my data collection but by incorporating these other methods of ‘listening’ to children, I will gain a richer source of information, and greater insight into how the use of the long cane has impacted on these children’s lives to date.

A resource I’ve found very useful is the ARACY website. ARACY is the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. They have a fabulous publication on involving children and young people in research which can be downloaded from their website.

My EdD research in plain English

I’ve started following a great twitter feed #phdchat – the value of online support cannot be underestimated!  This post came about following a ‘challenge’ to write about your research in plain English.  Not always that easy but here’s my attempt…..

When I tell people outside my field that I am researching the use of long canes by young blind children, they look at me blankly and ask “why wouldn’t you give a child a long cane if they are blind?”

Well the answer is not so simple. My profession of Orientation & Mobility (O&M) – teaching those with blindness or low vision the skills of independent mobility – developed post WWII due to the number of blinded young soldiers returning from the front. An American named Dr Richard Hoover developed the initial long cane and mobility techniques for use in rehabilitation settings. However, for those with congenital blindness, it was felt that the skills of the long cane were too advanced to be taught until the teenage years or even later. Children were expected to master a set of ‘pre-cane’ skills which included concept development and have ‘appropriate’ motor and cognitive abilities before the long cane was introduced.

In the 1980’s, more Orientation & Mobility Specialists were thinking and writing about the use of the long cane with children. In the 1990’s, ‘kiddy canes’ made especially for young children became available.  Today, although more young children are receiving long cane training, it is still not standard practice.

My research is based on a group of children that I worked with in Australia, who received long cane training at a very early age (under the age of 4 years). I am using a qualitative research approach – symbolic interactionism – as I’m interested in ‘getting inside the heads’ of the children I trained. Symbolic interactionism can be summed up in three points:

  • “Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them” (p. 2).
  • “The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows” (p. 2).
  • “These meanings are handled in, and modified through an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters”   (p. 2).                                       (Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism.  Perspective and method. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.)

Put simply, I am interested in how the long cane is perceived by the children who use it. Much of the research in O&M is quantitative and looks at things like how many obstacles a long cane user comes into contact with prior to and after training, or how fast they are able to move through the environment. There is very little research which asks long cane users themselves about their experiences of O&M training.

I am going to conduct semi-structured interviews with 5 children, their parents and their specialist vision support teachers.  I’m also doing some document analysis, and am going to ask the children to write a story about their cane. The data will then be analysed to look for common ‘themes’, which will then be linked back to my research question – how is early long cane training experienced by those who receive it?

The children I worked with attended a weekly group which bought them into contact with each other. Inclusive education is the norm in Australia meaning most children with vision impairment are attending their local mainstream school. As vision impairment is a low incidence disability, they don’t often get the opportunity to meet other children using the same tools, such as the cane. I am really interested in whether the group situation had an impact on the meaning of the cane. One of the issues an O&M Specialist often has to deal with is the ‘stigma’ associated with using a white cane. It immediately labels someone as ‘blind’ (even though the majority of long cane users have some useful residual vision). However, if a child begins using a cane as soon as they are walking, will it still have that effect for them?

That’s my research in a nutshell. I have recently received my ethics approval (a mini marathon in itself!) and will conducting my data collection later this year. I’d love any comments, positive or negative!

can I go ‘paperless’ and complete my thesis?

As someone who completed their first degree prior to the internet (unthinkable, I know!), I have found it has taken some time to change my study style from pen and paper, textbooks and photocopied journal articles to being electronic and paperless.  When I first studied back in the 1980’s, I always wrote everything by hand with books and articles strewn all around me.  I would then type up my essays, which also served as a second draft.  Armed with lots of liquid paper to correct those typos!

Today, I love electronic access to  journal articles – possibly too much, as I tend to avoid articles that I can’t access online. What do you mean, I actually have to go the library??  Until recently however, I still printed all the articles I wanted to read as I found it easier to have a print copy in front of me than to try to read it online.  I also didn’t really have a good way of storing these effectively – although I could have used Notebook which I talked about previously, I found the sheer number I need to read at the Doctoral level too much for that format.  So I diligently went off and purchased a filing cabinet which I proceeded to fill with randomly filed journal articles that I found very hard to find again!

Towards the end of last year, I discovered the Papers app by Mekentosj, which has turned out to be money very well spent.  All my journal articles are now saved electronically on all my devices – desktop, laptop, iphone and iPad. (When you’re doing a thesis, you can never have too many backups!!)  I have cleared out the filing cabinet which is helping with another mission of mine to unclutter my home as much as possible.  I definitely find screen quality makes a huge difference in my ability to read articles on the screen and I love the iPad for this.  It is still early days for me in my quest to shift all my reading to electronic format but so far so good.

I’d love to hear of anyone else going paperless in their studies – is it working for you??