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Manchester Institute of Education

Sociocultural theory interest group

The ScTIG group began as a discussion/reading group and has attracted interest from about twelve academic members of staff. Of these there are about six core group members whose current work fits very well in this theme.

Since September 2004 the ScTIG group has undergone a development from a purely academic group meeting to discuss ideas to a group with planned research activities and outcomes.

The group draws together researchers who use socio-cultural theory to inform their work in different areas of education. It is a non-partisan group that draws from across the School and membership or attendance at ScTIG meetings does not preclude membership of other groups or of 'themes' in the School. An important function of the ScTIG group is to foster academic excellence amongst staff and students.

Our members

Our aim

To become a sociocultural research unit achieving international recognition for our research in education.

Socio-cultural approaches to education draw on the tradition of Vygotsky and often also of Activity Theory (Luria, Leont'ev, Davydov etc). Latterly called 'Cultural-Historical Activity Theory' or CHAT (by Cole & Engestrom) this also draws on the Bakhtinian tradition on the one hand, and Western cultural anthropology on the other (especially this is true of Cole/ Engestrom, and leading US/UK theorists such as Wertsch, Gee, Lemke, Mercer and Wells).

However, there is also a strong European socio-cultural tradition in the social sciences (e.g. Bourdieu) including those adopting dialectical and historical methods that are often termed (by others) post-modern (Foucault, Serres, Latour) and many who think similarly in the US also draw on the pragmatism of Pierce & Dewey. There are now strong linkages between socio-cultural theory and anthropology (Holland, Rogoff, Lave & Wenger, Apple). Bruner's work on education as cultural practice also reflects this trend.

In short, everywhere in education leading critical thinkers draw on aspects of socio-cultural theory, and educational researchers increasingly refer to them. Theoretical spin-offs from such work in education include (i) in special education the socio-cultural construction of 'disability' and 'special' needs, (ii) in literacy notions such as 'critical literacy' and 'writing genres', and 'silicon literacies', (iii) in management the concept of 'distributed leadership', (iv) in mathematics and science education the notion of scientific 'Discourses', and the mediation of academic practices by new technology and new social structures.

However, the whole is greater than the parts: the point is that by addressing all these fields of education through the (somewhat common) lens of socio-cultural theory it becomes possible both (i) to generate creative new local concepts/conceptual frameworks, and (ii) to allow local empirical groundings of theory to contribute to the broader theoretical debates. Thus, as educational researchers with a commitment to socio-cultural theory we aspire to make global-theoretical as well as local- empirical contributions to knowledge from each study we are involved with.

The ScTIG group has a common interest in understanding practice in order to inform the solution of crucial problems for education and society, especially around the following themes:

  • Social inclusion (including the inclusion of children with special educational needs)
  • Learning, teaching and pedagogy (including Teacher Development) and
  • School leadership, improvement and effectiveness.


  • To inform the solution of practical problems in education and society, such as:
    • Social inclusion (including the inclusion of children with special educational needs in schools)
    • Learning, teaching and pedagogy (including Teacher Development) and
    • School leadership, improvement and effectiveness.
  • To conduct and develop socio-cultural theory to inform research in education and society.
  • To develop research methodology for educational research within a socio-cultural framework.
  • To publish and disseminate the findings of our research to a wide audience of academics and practitioners, and so raise the profile of socio-cultural research in education, nationally and internationally.


Social Theories of Learning: an advanced study programme for researchers (EDUC70500)

Social Theories of Learning is an innovative programme designed to provide a solid theoretical foundation for research on learning. It is intended for both established and aspiring researchers. Its aims are (i) to develop advanced knowledge and understanding of social theories of learning, (ii) to induct researchers into the scholarly practices of this community (study, collaborative inquiry, and critique), and (iii) to help them ground their own research projects in theory.

Focus: breadth and depth

Each year the programme tutors select four or five strands of theory for (i) an introduction for all students, and (ii) an in-depth study for each student. This year we are focusing on: Communities of Practice (Wenger), Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (Vygotsky/Engestrom), Figured Worlds (Holland), Discursive Practice (Foucault), and Forms of Capital (Bourdieu). Our goal is to develop a sufficient understanding of the landscape of theories and a specialism in one theory in order to critically interpret, evaluate, and apply a social theory of learning in a research project.


Our approach is intentionally multi-disciplinary: recently education, business, development studies, translation studies, medicine, architecture, computer science, and performing arts students have been involved. Interactive engagement across disciplinary perspectives adds to the richness of the conversations. Many participants join the programme more than once to continue broadening their learning.


The programme invites participants into the kinds of conversations and debates that researchers have on theory. With only occasional formal presentations, the course mostly functions as a collaborative group of scholars who work together to make sense of theory and its application to their diverse project contexts.


The programme cohort formally meets as a whole in three ‘sessions’ (each of 2 or 3 half days) over the year (usually November, February, and April), with small group work in between. The course is divided into three phases:

  • Phase I: introduction to social theories of learning
    Leading up to the first formal session, everyone reads introductory texts to each of the theoretical strands. Each text is discussed in successive reading groups, where questions and insights are collected. These become the foundation for presentations and discussions of each strand during the first formal session.
  • Phase II: Deep dive into one theory
    Participants form self-selected groups around each theory. They read and discuss the foundational texts, as well as critiques and applications. At the second formal session, they present and discuss their understanding and insights with the whole group so that everyone benefits from their exploration of their chosen strand.
  • Phase III: Applying theory to your own research project
    Participants develop one or more theoretical perspective for their own personal research, and share these in critical peer groups. Each participant presents their approach during the third ‘session’, where they receive constructive critiques and suggestions. On this basis, they produce a paper and receive detailed comments from two of the course tutors. Examples of such papers have included: the theory part of their research proposal, a chapter of their dissertation, a paper they will present at a conference, or an article they intend to publish.

Registration and credit

The course is open to both students and academic staff. The programme is particularly suitable for researchers on doctoral or post doctoral study programmes.

Access to theory


Bibliotek i Endring (Changing Libraries)


This project (BiE) explores change management as a workplace learning issue. The investigation took place within the Norwegian academic library sector. As a result of economic and political pressures, a number of academic libraries had recently undergone mergers, or changes in status. Akin to the UK experience, these libraries historically operated within wider institutions that are loosely coupled, often lacking effective communication mechanisms across intra-organisational boundaries. 

At the outset, three issues were of specific interest:

  • Shifting professional relationships in the light of organisational change, both within libraries, and between the libraries and other key higher education stakeholders.
  • How changed and changing relationships, between staff and their ‘information landscapes’ (Lloyd 2010) can be mapped, and understood over time.
  • The extent to which staff feel motivated to contribute positively, and take ownership of change, rather than feel alienated or disempowered.


Within this context, BiE was specifically designed around the ongoing requirements of two case study libraries, with respect to:

  • Raising awareness of how the information landscape at each library may both support and retard research into the library’s wider information practices.
  • Generating rich longitudinal data, immediately accessible to participants. This provided a fuller picture than interview or ‘snapshot’ survey techniques, and encouraged a greater degree of co-operative inquiry.
  • An emphasis on how different stakeholder groups might collectively learn about, develop and adapt services, strategies, procedures and values in the face of organisational change.
  • How managers might reconceptualise professional development – and how this is enacted and evaluated – in the face of organisational change.


Innovative visualisation and mapping techniques are utilised in order to build a dynamic picture of the information practices within the two selected academic libraries. The methodology is founded upon the notion of ‘radical information literacy’ (Whitworth 2014) – the distribution of authority over information practice, or what Wenger, White and Smith (2009) call ‘stewarding’. This approach:

  • Investigates how ‘communities of practice’ within higher education institutions develop shared learning needs, and in turn how these are manifested as interests (capital) that shape ongoing negotiation (see: Wenger 1998; Wenger, White and Smith 2009).
  • Underscores that if stakeholder groups lack capital, they will have less capacity to express their interests in terms congruent with key decision makers, and hence less ability to influence organisational change.
  • Conclude that capital was more likely to develop in organisational structures that retained ‘operational proximity’; that is, different stakeholder groups were able to share physical or virtual spaces in which they could develop shared understandings of problems.

Data collection

After an initial audit, library staff at each location used the concept mapping tool (Ketso) at six facilitated workshops over a one year period (October 2013 - September 2014).

These sessions spanned considerable changes at each location; a merger and the arrival of a new director, respectively. Additional to these sessions, each participant (n.28) was interviewed twice (in June 2013 and September 2014). The collaborative development of data analysis is a key aspect of the methodology, with previous workshops subsequently re-evaluated in the light of new data. An initial paper ‘Changing Libraries: Facilitating Self-Reflection and Action Research on Organizational Change in Academic Libraries’ outlines this in detail.


The project has been designed so that structures and processes developed and evaluated at the two library sites will remain in place, subsequent to the project’s completion in mid-2015. This provides ample opportunity for partners to benefit from the project long after the end of the funded period. Moreover, it is envisioned that once suitably collated and anonymised, project findings will have relevance within both the wider academic library sector and beyond.

A comprehensive website (Mapping Information Landscapes) has been generated, alongside plans for continuation funding and business engagement, that will enable the core team to hone the techniques and underlying methodology via further case studies:

Further reading 

  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Wenger, E., White, N. and Smith, J. D. (2009) Digital Habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPSquare
  • Whitworth, A. (2012) ‘The reflective information literacy educator’ Nordic Journal of Information Literacy 4(1) pp. 38-55
  • Whitworth, A., Torras I Calvo, M., Moss, B., Kifle, N. A. & Blåsternes, T. (2014) ‘Changing Libraries: Facilitating Self-Reflection and Action Research on Organisational Change in Academic Libraries’ New Review of Academic Librarianship 20 pp.251–274 (open access)