Monday, January 28, 2008

Dont be polite, bite it.

Prelude: this blog is impolite, at least in academia.
I practice my writing style as if i were another.
I fully acknowledge that I lean heavily on the writing of Anne Marie Mol for providing ideas and structure as i explore the use of her writing as if it were to apply to text, email, or the Internet for counselling.
All errors of understanding are my own.

Section title: Telling it like it is.
This is a social science exploration of a network, one involved in youth oriented counselling. However before proceeding too far, the use of the word network needs to be clarified. the meaning called on here is less about "the net" or the links between people. The emphasis is instead on the network . That is, the work entailed in how counselling is shaped, what work goes into configuring counselling when the medium shifts: when it involves text, email and Internet for counselling. this is a story less about connecting wires or even wireless connections, it is instead a story about work practices. And one might not even want to call it a story for there is no smooth narrative, there is no one tangent of beginning to end, instead I present a juxtaposition of many stories, snapshots on a theme showing contrasts and performances of counselling.

Who is at work also needs unbundling. For counselling does not happen in a vacuum. 'Counsellor and counsellee' coexist in relationship and the 'work' is a dynamic that occurs in relationship. Contributing to this work are the participants, but also computer and communication technologies. In the use of such technologies, participants engage differently. Whether talking and listening, or by hand and type, reading and sight. The heterogeneous factors involved are further unbundled, the work involves more than the obvious players of counselor and counsellee, there is also the work involved in making the media available for using for counselling, the cellphones, the PCs. It is this unbundling of the work involved in supporting the counselling moment that the fuller picture of what it is to provide counselling using new media is able to be discerned. This matters because how counselling occurs is changing. And the changes are not always anticipated or known.

Discerning the heterogenous factors allows me to tell about counselling. The stories told will not be about social causes resulting in social needs, or about pathology, diseases or disabilities as requiring healthcare. Nor about any specific form of counselling having precedence over another. There are those who have gone to a lot of trouble in arguing the supremacy of one over another. This thesis will not contribute to such debate of domains conquered or of forms of counselling deemed to be holding supermacy. Instead i will talk of practice. Practice as it is experienced.

This shift to praxiology is not a naive abandonment of epistemology but is an appreciation of reality; "telling it like it is". Telling it like it is, is situated. I do not talk of what counselling is by nature, nor what form it could or should take. I will not bracket what is counselling from what is not, nor focus on the counselling skills. For in practice what is counselling shifts. In practice 'what is' is altered. The ontological genre of 'what is' shape shifts. In part this is altered in response to the media utilized. It is this shapeshifting that is therefore explored.

The praxiographic 'is' is not universal, it is situated, it is local, and it requires spatial specification. What is empathy when it is experienced face to face is different to when conveyed audibly by phone and different again when conveyed by text. How do I experience being heard or listened to when the conversation is inaudible, when the conversation only occurs in text? the trouble taken by counselling texts and authors is not wasted but is absorbed into enactments. The enactment of counselling practice via phone, text and Internet is then explored as situated relationships. What the is the art of the spoken or written form, the act of counselling when it is shaped by the media used and the actors involved? This is the substance explored in this thesis.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The gift relationship

If I give you something are you better or worse for it?
In part this is decided by what the gift entails, is it wanted, needed, adventitious ... but another aspect is that in giving and receiving the process brings its own costs.

Rather than debating the goodness or badness of such cost, arguably the most wicked problem of left vs right politics, I intend to stay within an actor-network approach in describing the relationship. I will use the language of actor-network theory in describing what occurs, hence participants will be referred to as actors. This is not to imply any pretence or staged performance, simply put actors refer to participants with agency. This discussion is also informed by my reading of Titmuss' 'The gift relationship'.

The gift takes place with no ongoing relationship between the actors.
The norm in this voluntary telephone counselling relationship is that the actors have no prior and no ongoing relationship. The actors do not personally know each other and have never, and will never, meet. The policy of the organisation is to to maintain the confidential nature of the service and not establish dependent ongoing relationships.
However, exceptions might occur; by chance a caller and a counsellor may know each other; by chance a repeat call is made when the same counsellor is on; or if the caller is a longtime caller there may be a limited prior relationship where conversations have occurred previously or there have been notes made of the call. With email, txt and Internet postings there may be artefacts, transcripts, of prior conversations.

There is no reciprocity; there is no certainty of a gift in return, present or in the future. The counsellor neither requires or wishes for a gift in return. There is no obligation on the recipient to provide a gift in return. It may be that there is some expectation of the time spent having been worthwhile, but this is not a requirement for the gift given. And, remains unknown unless a caller expresses thanks.

The nature of the gift, whether beneficial to the recipient actor, is unknown. The presumption on the part of the counselling actor is that being heard and listened to has value. There may be information, even advice suggested. Whether this is of benefit or harm is unclear and may be considered a contested notion; counselling forms are themselves subject to being contested. Inside of a Rogerian counselling approach, giving advice that fosters dependency may be considered unhelpful. However, raising awareness of options, and assisting in clarifying are seen as useful strategies.
At its best, to the receiver the gift could be life itself. There are some experiences disclosed by recipients of telephone counselling that support this. However, the feedback for those for whom the service has been unhelpful, harmful, fatal even, remains unknown.

In analysing some of the roles gifts play in society Titmuss looks at aspects to do with the social psychology of gift giving. He discusses the gift relationship as a generator of identity, gifts being one of the ways an image of self can be generated in both one's own mind and in that of others. Gifts are also tools of aspiration for and protection of status and control. For example, gifts as 'conspicuous waste shaming recipients'. The gift may also create a gratitude imperative in compelling recipricosity or controlling the behaviour of the recipient. The gift exchange being a technique for the regulation of shared guilt.

However, in the gift of time evident in voluntary counselling such issues have limited relevance. Anonymity in the counselling relationship, created by conditions which do not support ongoing relationship or knowledge of counselling having been given or recieved by any person external to the event destroys the arguments regarding shared guilt, control, shame or imperatives. What may still hold relevance is that gift giving by the counsellor actor may in that person's mind support a sense of self as generous and or helpful to others. It is also possible that listing such community volunteerism in one's cv may also create a favourable impression and imagined advantage.

A typology of those who donate counselling time at this agency.
1. Paid , counselling time sold for what the market will bear. Counselling not percieved as a gift.
2. Paid professional, who provides counselling time to sustain income on regular basis.
3. Pay induced volunteer, expect payment for volunteering, a form of profit or disturbance money. Individual sponteneity not a dominant characteristic eg employer requiring time that the employer pays for time be donated to a voluntary organisation of the actors choosing. This seems to meet a collective target of such an employer ; a "greening" of the company".
4. Responsibility donor (recipient pays before or after having received counselling by 'giving in kind' out of a sense of obligation).
5. Significant other credit donor (can be viewed as an insurance scheme of donating in advance or after the effect for significant others one wished had access to such a service).
6. Captive volunteer; compelled via social group but would not otherwise have volunteered. eg student for course credit, eg community service requirement of a court order or on the advice of a lawyer.
7. Fringe benefit voluntary donor; tangible reward though non monetary eg recieving minimal reward such as a certificate in counselling accredited by the organization may have external validity, eg on cv.
8. Voluntary community donor; this type being the closest approximation in social reality to the abstract concept of giving freely. The primary characteristics of such donations being:
the absence of tangible immediate rewards in monetary or non monetary forms,
the absence of penalties, financial or otherwise, (so no reward and no punishment)
and the knowledge among donors that their donations are for unnamed strangers without distinction of age, sex, medical condition, income, class, religion or ethnic group.

With regard to the voluntary community donor, Titmuss states that no donor type can be said to be characterised by complete disinterested altruism. There must be some sense of obligation, approval, and interest; some awareness of need and purpose of the blood gift; perhaps some organised rivalry in generosity; some knowledge of need- of others unable to donate, and some expectation that a return gift may be needed and received at some future time.
Nevertheless, in this gift relationship (giving of oneself voluntarily for telephone counselling there is no formal contract between giver and receiver of counselling, no legal bond, no overt power over, no domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt, no gratitude imperative, no need for penitence, no money, and no explicit guarantee of or wish for a reward or a return gift. The giving of time is an act of free will; an exercise of choice; of conscience.

Virtually all of this organisation's telephone counselors fall into this category. Tangible rewards can be said to be minimal,or negative: a certificate in personal development and in counselling. This comes with substantive personal cost of money, time, and personal involvement.

While the typology shows that there is variation in the in the concept of volunteer, gradations of motives, and behaviour show extremes.
In comparing this study of a gift relationship, especially where there is deep emotive field as with blood donating, the giving of time in telephone counselling characterised by the involvement with the welfare of others is also seen to be inextricably moulded by cultural and moral values. (Now Latour isnt going to accept this, from whence do these agents come exerting pressure....however, I can look at how my own thinking was developed, I can consider the influence of my parents, my grandparents, my friends and identify that those I respect value volunteerism, altruism, community service. I might also discern the shaping of such values by discussing the influences on actors that I have the privilige of interviewing.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The gift of time

I'm going to take a small detour and consider what motivates people to give.

Richard Titmuss
wrote a seminal piece on the gift relationship in 1970. His focus was blood donating; sometimes referred to as the gift of life. The following series of blogs relates to voluntary counsellors in a youth oriented telephone counselling agency and will be informed by his account as well as by my own experiences, and those experiences shared with me thus far in my data collecting (please note, this is a work in progress).

I am calling this the gift of time, because the time gifted is substantial. But I also want to make it clear the gift involves more than this. It's a commitment to the interests of others; to being available, to listen, and to (hopefully) making a difference.

I say hopefully in part because outcomes are hardly ever known and the style of counselling approach taught (based on the training manual, and on the philosophy of the organisation): is substantively non- directive and client-centred, a Rogerian approach.

The gift of time begins with a personal development programme, this involves 10 sessions; a committment of one evening a week and a weekend day. This is then followed by a basic counselling course, again 10 sessions; an evening a week and a weekend day. A further weekend is then dedicated to coming into the organisation via a Marae based weekend. That's a total of 50 hours minimum before taking any calls for the organisation. And as already intimated, its not just time, its what fills that time; a very personal journey sharing life events, understanding oneself and valuing of others undertaking a similar learning experience. This involves significant amounts of self disclosure as well as practice in counselling through role plays; through triads (where one person takes the role of a caller, one the telephone counselor and one as observer) and 'fishbowls' (where peers as well as the group facilitators provide ideas as well as feedback. The gift involves time as well as personal involvement and disclosures; there is an additional requirement to authorize a police check by the organization. In addition there is financial cost. A sliding scale is used with a cost between $50.00 and $105.00 for the personal development course and again for the basic counselling training course. That's a total cost to the volunteer of $110 - $210 and an additional cost of the Marae weekend.

In addition, young people who enter into this are required to be over/ state that they are at least, 17 years of age. There is no upper age limit. There is also a requirement that the volunteer consider themselves to be emotionally well and ready to undertake training; to have sufficient physical, mental and emotional health to withstand personal challenge and to receive personal feedback. If the applicant has hearing, language or mobility issues or if they are a 'consumer of' mental health services, the applicant is asked to contact the programme coordinator for a interview. The application pack also requires signing a declaration committing to staying a year after training (this involves ongoing annual membership fees plus attending a group supervision weekly and being rostered for two 4 hour phone duties a month.)

To quote Kermit the frog, "it's not easy being green".

There is decision point at the end of the personal development course where feedback from the volunteer and the group of peers involved and the course facilitators regarding whether the next step of training is to occur. Again, at the end of the basic training there is a further feedback step where there is self selection as well as peer feedback and group facilitator feedback (with right of veto) as to whether the person can then go 'on the phones' as a counsellor, or listen in with a buddy, or undertake a 'transition training group' where they will be further assessed as ready or not to take calls. Becoming a telephone counsellor for this agency, one who is able to 'go solo' takes time, committment, money and skill. In return the volunteer receives a certificate in personal development and basic telephone counsellling skills. These have no definite external value outside of this organisation.

To misquote Kermit the frog, "it's not easy being keen".

Its an exceptionally unusual gift.
Titmuss believed that the voluntary donation of blood represented the relationship of giving between humans in its purest form, because people give without the expectation that they will necessarily be given to in return....
There is no reciprocation.
As with Titmuss' description of the gift relationship involving blood donating, in this expose on voluntary counselling, the tangible rewards can be described as minimal; a certificate with no or very little external validity. They might also be considered 'negative' when the costs involve far outweigh tangible benefit.
So what motivates the voluntary counsellor? What do we know of the expressed motives for giving or not giving? Very little.

While my research looks at change involving the use of computer and communication technologies in a youth telephone counselling agency, some of the underlying issues also need to be explored. This will be continued in further blogging.
Please feel free to let me know what you think about what makes people 'give'. If you know of further reading I could be doing here, point me to it. Feedback is invited.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Having my cake and eating it

I am in the process of taking two steps forward and one step back.
I am revisiting 'technology'.
This is harder than it should be.
I think back, or try to: but the past is a forgotten country and they/i do/did things differently there.
When i was about 12 or so, I think I had some glimmers of some personalised understanding of what technology was. Technology involved being able to do stuff in new ways with things that were new: A calculator involved technology, a radio didn't, a car didnt. A clock did when it involved flashy lights in digital form like the calculator. Seems i have this recovered memory where digital displays symbolised technology for me.
The automatic washing machine, the automatic timer for my oven. My cell phone.
A whiteboard that could be printed from- seems passe now- it has been surpassed.
A touchscreen, yes, a media display unit yes.
But I didnt used to think (I dont think) of tv as technology, but now i do???
It was new when i was young, it had tubes, was black and white...and flashed, sort of. But it was entertainment: it wasnt something i felt I could use to make things happen. But nor can a digital watch. There is something else here.
Despite my perceiving newness, maybe i was too young at about 6 or 7yrs to perceive tv as a new way (for me) of doing things.
Possibly the word took on new meaning in the 1960's. Similar to other words that developed a new fashioned meaning, maybe technology took on new understandings when the world moved from analogue to digital. (I do remember asking what analogue was, seems the term was needed to differentiate what was ubiquitous timetelling in the past. (The meaning of words is expanded on by Raymond Williams, maybe like 'community' there are fashionable new meanings or at least new projected meanings based on values, I need to see what he has to say on technology.)

According to Alan Kay "Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born."
How does a goldfish describe water?
What is perceived as technology by some is invisible to others. A generation gap is one quirk where what is perceived as new technology will be perceived by others as a norm.
Ursula Franklin (1999) deepens the meanings of technology for me:
She cites Kenneth Boulding suggesting that one might think of technology as ways of doing something. (p.6)
Looking at technology as practice has interesting consequences.
One is that it links technology directly to culture, because culture is a set of socially accepted practices and values. These practices develop a rut, they are seen as the convention, they are well laid down and accepted if not agreed upon practices.
This begins to define a group of people who have something in common because of the way they are doing things.
"Around here, that's how we do things" becomes a means of self identification.
Technology defined as practice shows the deep cultural links of technology.
As expressed by Franklin, it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake. Technology is part of the cake itself.
In my early recollections on technology it was the flashy lights, then that simplistic representation was replaced by one only slightly more cognitively developed: understandings based on the presence of a computer chip, the amount of RAM, bytes... but as discussed, this isnt enough.
Its not enough that its quirky or new; its how I am extended, what I do and can do.
A practiced understanding.

For those looking from the outside, technology can appear to be a very odd animal and is noticed particularly in 'odd moments': a teenager using a mobile for saying goodbye to dead friends...a videoconferenced tangi (funeral)... txt counselling... to read a book... or write a book... to do maths .... to learn... to teach...
Its that things are done differently that becomes the marker.
And we are in danger of using new technologies, new ways of doing things because they are new, because they have a semblance of bells, whistles, icing. The appearance of being the (next) real thing rather than being the real thing itself.

As written of by Alan Kay in an article on computers networks and education in Scientific American Special Issue on Communications, Computers and Networks 265(3) (September 1991) with education there is external mandate for a new "literacy", this is demonstrated in the demands that kids 'take computing'demonstrating a confusion between carrier and content. He expanded on how education may hinder learning and argues stronger ideas are needed to replace them before any teaching aid, be it a computer or pencil and paper, will be of more service.
For example the misconception that education is a bitter pill that can be made palatable with sugarcoating. Adding bells whistles, ppts with transitions...
Ouch; get back to what it is that students really need and want to know; use the technology because it takes teacher and learner there, not just because I can.

( Alan Kay is attributed with the invention of the mouse and the portable computer of the future: 'having wireless communications and being easy enough for a child to use'. He built a model in cardboard, filled with weights to check that it would be comfortable to carry around 'as weight is very much part of the user interface'. Seems an ANT savvy researcher: if only Apple in making the macbook pro had taken on board such practice oriented technology they might not have made a laptop too hot to put in your lap!)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Personal insights, goodgrief & the social and psychological effects of SMS and Text messaging

Goodgrief, it took me a few days to decide to reread this series of articles on the psychological effects of txting; after all some rational critique was warranted.
Its based on early research (McKenna et al 2002) that people utilising the Internet and email for social engagement did so to overcome social ineptitude.
OK reader, you are here, and by implication you too could be socially inept.
I'm here, so we are in good company.
I confess i sometimes/often use email instead of a phone call, that i send an email even when i could have walked 50 meters...My reaction to the article confirms my social ineptitude, I am annoyed.
And I start to look at myself and confirm it further:
I prefer to use an ATM when the transaction is simple, I prefer to use my computer to check my balance. I emailed my bank instead of making a phone call. I often send emails to people at my work that are within easy access of a stroll.I reread the findings and see them couched in terms of how for 'some people' it overcomes social difficulties, improves their lives...those who are socially anxious and/or lonely or have marginal identities. And that many others use it too.
I guess, I think, that i am one of many others. I might not be, I'm now perturbed, does this mean I am socially anxious. I did't think i was before I read this, but there we are...
Then on the basis of such wisdom the article by Reid and Reid have a go at texters vs talkers, and they show the same thing.
Ok, maybe i shouldnt go there, but again some reflection on my own practice: I texted back my brother when he described getting dusted by Dads ashes.
(Woops some family members didnt know I had kept them and sent them to Shagpoint (there really is a place called this, bottom of the Sth Island, just north of Dunedin) And its where Dad grew up. Their property included a coalmine extending out under the sea, which i understand was an unwelcome career choice for Dad who left school at 12 years and left home rather than work in the coalmine...
It's now DOC land with a Hoiho (yellow eyed penguin) colony, and I am sure Dad would be pleased with this.

But this may also further prove their point; I must be socially inept because here i am blogging about it....

Compared to Talkers, Texters were found to be more lonely and
socially anxious, and more likely to disclose their ‘real-self’ through text than via face-to- face or voice call exchanges

Despite this, and because I am rereading Annemarie Mol, I attempt to relate to parts of this literature.
...there is something special about texting that allows some people to translate their loneliness and/or social anxiety into productive relationships whilst for others the mobile does not afford the same effect

I wish the authors had not pathologised the practices of 'some people', me included? I can now personally identify with Bruno Latour's advice to stay with the actors; assume people are right...put yourself at the peak of enthusiasm, the apex, the point where things were irresistible...there's reason for people doing what they do, it is the best option they have available to them at the time. A very humanistic approach, Carl Rogers could like this.
back to the article. There is something special.
Texting permits visual anonymity and its asynchronous nature allows for editing and self- reflection. Texters may feel at greater ease being their ‘real-self’ through a text message reducing the potential repercussions that may otherwise take place in a traditional face-to-face or telephone encounter. Texting may offer Texters more control over their interactions with others by affording them visual anonymity and asynchronous communication. As such the mobile may become more a matter of identity than a simple communication tool. Further research needs to be carried out to delve into these ideas further.

Ahuh, we have an area of agreement, at least with the last sentence. For the rest I would rather ask the texters themselves, I have serious doubts about the other conclusions reached.
Yet the same type of research gets repeated, and cited. Again and again. Same authors 2003, and again 2004- Text appeal and the psychology of sms texting and its designs for mobile phone interface.... Here at least they ask about the resilience of texting and that it would be unwise to overlook the 'simple user benefits'. The paradox of detachment with intimacy is described.
The spontaneous sociability of the chat room coupled with the artful editability of e-mail – that lends texting a special, but paradoxical, appeal to key user groups. Put simply, text messaging seems to provide an opportunity for intimate personal contact while at the same time offering the detachment necessary to manage self-presentation and involvement.... sufficient time to exchange carefully crafted messages without the expectation of an immediate reply.

And they note that its more of a girl thing.
I'm getting cross now, is it that 'girls' are more socially dependent, need more attachment but in a form where they can scan more, be careful, review, revise...I can feel a Carol Gilligan moment coming on with outrage that what it is to be male is 'normal' and others are dysfunctional, or at least less socially ept.
The articles come across as arrogant.
They presume to speak for the actors. But the voices of these actors is missing.

Today Stephen Downes OLWeekly points to Danah Boyd who identifies that the myths remain despite the evidence.
Using the American Pew stats she notes:
# Email continues to lose its luster among teens as texting, instant messaging, and social networking sites facilitate more frequent contact with friends.
# More older girls than boys create and contribute to websites.
# Girls have fueled the growth of the teen blogosphere.
# Teens from lower-income and single-parent households are more likely to blog.
# Teens who are most active online, including bloggers, are also highly active offline.
# Most teens restrict access to their posted photos - at least some of the time. Girls are more restrictive photo posters.
# Content creators are not devoting their lives exclusively to virtual participation. They are just as likely as other teens to engage in most offline activities and more likely to have jobs.

Just when I was in danger of thinking my eptness quotient was lacking.