The identity trajectories of older academics: workplace affordances and individual subjectivities

Iwaniec-Thompson, Malgorzata (2023). The identity trajectories of older academics: workplace affordances and individual subjectivities. PhD thesis The Open University.



The changing landscape of the Higher Education sector impacts on academics’ identity.
This ethnographic thesis sets out to understand the identity development of older academics (aged 50 and over) as they engage in their everyday practice and negotiate their participation in such dynamic practice. Whilst recent trends and future projections indicate a growing number of older academics in the workplace, empirical research considering their identity development is scarce, despite a growth of literature conceptualising the workplace as a context in which academics’ identity is constructed and developed.

An ethnographic approach is employed and involved 11 participants from three faculties at a distance learning university. The data was conducted at II phases and included three interviews and at least two observations with each participant. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data.

This study is drawing on two theoretical frameworks, Wenger’s communities of practice and Billett’s co-participation. First, the thesis explores tensions between the different identities assumed and suggests six identity trajectories that constitute the participation of academics in the landscape of communities of practice. The study suggests that through Wenger’s modes of identification: engagement, imagination and alignment, older academics' identities come to reflect the changing landscape of their practice in which they participate and exercise their subjectivities, and which constitute their dynamic identity trajectories.

Second, this thesis explores the interconnected relationships between the affordances of the landscape of practice (factors which enable or constrain practice) and individual subjectivities (agency) and how these dynamics shape academics’ identity development and re-construction at work. This study explores agency enactment interrelated with five affordances: academic freedom, recognition, collaborative practice, time and values and motivations.

This study provided valuable theoretical implications for broadening the concept of the COP to consider three new dimensions of modes of identification: unengagement, unalignment and unimagination viewed as a continuum, to capture the complexity and a changing nature of older academics’ identity trajectories.

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