Home » Uncategorized » ACPA 2014 Paper Presentation Preview

ACPA 2014 Paper Presentation Preview

If you are attending the ACPA – College Student Educators International conference next week in Indianapolis, I would be honored and pleased to have you attend Research Paper Session #3, where I will begin outlining some of the theoretical work I am doing as part of my dissertation.  If you are unable to attend the conference or session, or simply want a preview of the paper, I will explain some of the key concepts from my paper below.  As always, I would love your feedback.  

The title of my paper is Digital Social Media, Complexity Theory, and 21st Century Student Identity Research.  This paper draws heavily from Chapters 3 and 4 of my dissertation, really addressing one of the conceptual, philosophical, and theoretical questions in my dissertation: How do the theoretical and conceptual tenets of complexity theory inform our understanding of college student identity in the 21st century?


Identity Crisis

One issue I observe when scanning the research literature of both student development and recent literature focusing specifically on digital identity is an adherence to research methods that may not help us really understand identity in digital space.  I believe that researchers and college student affairs educators are facing an epistemological identity crisis, and this crisis has largely been accelerated and amplified with the advent of social media technology.

When you observe the most recent and up-to-date conceptual models in student identity literature, the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & Abes, 2013), you find that there is an absence of digital social media as unique environmental contexts.  In fact, there is very little written about in the college student identity literature pertaining to social media environments and their role in identity issues.  The very little that is written (Birnbaum, 2013; Martinez-Aleman & Wartman, 2009; and a few others) are important and not to be discounted, but have two fundamental flaws.  First, these studies focus exclusively on one platform (primarily Facebook), even though most students are engaged in multiple digital social media spaces.  Secondly, these studies continue the trend of most research: a desire to reduce and generalize how social media is used by college students in the exploration, articulation, or process of reconciling identity issues.

This problem is the result of positivist empiricism and it impacts our entire student identity literature and research process(es).  What we have done over the past 60 years is created a whole set of theories and models that really have reduced the complexity of what it means to be a human being.  Creating stage/age/status/ models and theories was a natural trajectory for our field to take, as many of our theories are rooted in psychological or sociological theories developed in the early to mid-twentieth century that followed this same path.  While these theories and models have helped us tremendously, I believe they are challenged by social media as environmental contexts.  This is why I believe there is very little written about social media and identity in our literature to begin with – because researchers and professionals largely have come to the realization that social media challenges our traditional literature.  We just simply do not know what to do with social media.  This has led to our epistemological crisis.

Point #1: We must discard the language of ‘development’ altogether, due to its foundations in positivist empiricism. In it’s place, we must embrace a new complexivist epistemology rooted in the tenets of complexity theory.  In doing so we will stop studying identity ‘development’ and begin studying and talking about ‘identity emergence‘ (Eaton, 2014).  

Three tenets from complexity theory

In this paper, I will discuss three theoretical and conceptual tenets from complexity theory: (1) environmental conditions/systems thinking, (2) nonlinearity; and (3) disequilbrium.   Each of these tenets from complexity theory are already important in the theoretical and conceptual models of college student ‘development’ literature, although we have theorized their importance incorrectly in many cases. Therefore, I will briefly examine how we can reconceptualize these concepts within the current college student identity literature as we move away from the language of ‘development,’ and toward the language of ’emergence.’

More importantly, however, I will discuss how digital social media environments require us to embrace these three tenets of complexity theory, and why this embrace must occur if we are to adequately account for digital social media in our research agenda on college student identity issues in the 21st century.  Below I will highlight a few points from each of the three tenets of complexity theory discussed in this paper and highlight how social media platforms are informed by those tenets.

Environmental Conditions/Systems Thinking

It is absolutely necessary that we begin including digital social media environments in our discussions and research on college student identity.  One reason this is necessary is because “the digital technological revolution is so all-encompassing that new environmental contexts have actually been created in which human beings live, interact, and spend vast quantities of time” (Eaton, 2014, p. 12). 

I draw on Bronfenbrenner (2005) to theorize how we might envision digital social media environments within his broader framework of systems. In particular, I envision each social media platform as a microsystem.  In Bronfenbrenner’s theory, microsystems interact with one another (in a very similar fashion to how social media platforms can interact, and how social media environments interact with microsystems like home, peer culture, school, etc).  

I also draw on complexity theory, which states that environments are important because individual entities engage in high levels of information sharing leading to higher order levels of functioning.  This is true in social media environments as well, where high amounts of information is shared that influence the various ways students function or emerge into their identity.  Secondly, the types of information that is shared on different platforms is different.  As students engage across multiple platforms, they are coping with different streams of information that leads to higher order functioning in the environment(s).

Finally, I articulate the position that social media environments eradicate our traditional notions of space and time, which are largely important in traditional student ‘development’ theory, but do not function the same way in social media environments.  It is difficult to determine the boundaries of social media, and linear, bounded time is replaced by nonlinear virtual time (Duncheon & Tierney, 2013) in digital social media environments. 

Disequilibrium & Nonlinearity

Traditional student ‘development’ theory incorporates the concepts of disequilibrium and dissonance as important, but often disequilibrium is seen as a temporary fluctuation en route to a period of stability or a developmental apex.  Complexity theory challenges us to think of disequilibrium as a constant, necessary for the sharing of information in environmental contexts and creative higher order functioning.  

Many foundational theories of student identity are linear in nature.  Even Chickering, whose vectors of developmental are articulated to occur in a nonlinear fashion is highly linear, primarily due to Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) assertion that it is best for an individually developing student to achieve some stability in the first four vectors of identity development prior to tackling the final three vectors.  

In digital social media environments, however, we observe high levels of disequilibrium, much of this occurring in a nonlinear fashion.  The high information sharing present in social media, and the interaction of social media platforms (conceived of as microsystems) leads one to view the many ‘identities’ that an individual may be emerging into.  Further, platforms themselves shift and change over time in a nonlinear, unpredictable fashion, and these changes to the digital architecture of platforms impacts users’ experiences and possibilities for identity exploration, expression, or creation (In fact, just today Facebook changed the layout of their newsfeed homepage when you log in – new font, new layout, new user experience; this was not predictable).  


When I speak of identity emergence, I am pulling again from the theoretical tenets of complexity theory. Emergence is the concept that complex, unpredictable patterns of organization exist in highly interactive systems and phenomenon, and that there is very little predictability in how a complex system emerges due to the highly contingent nature of the systems history and interaction with various environmental contexts.

Point #2: If we think of identity as a complex system, and individual humans (college students included) engaged in various digital social media environments that are highly nonlinear and in a constant state of disequilibrium, then we really have no choice but to think about identity as a fluid, shifting, emergent phenomena.  This is why I refer to my work as the study of college student identity emergence in digital space(s). 


The last portion of my paper deals with the question of how we can actually study digital identity and student identity in the 21st century.  My own position is that due to the epistemological identity crisis facing researchers, educators, and practitioners with the advent of social media, we must begin by discarding developmental, positivist, empiricist research and begin embracing a complexivist epistemological research agenda.  

In terms of studying college student digital identity, this means we must do a few things:

1) View identity across various digital spaces, not just one space as many current studies do;

2) Avoid generalizability and linear, hierarchical, one-size-fits-all models or theories. This largely means we will need to discard our position of wanting to control environments and outcomes;

3) See identity as individually unique, non-generalizable, and constantly in disequilibrium. This means we will need to discard the literature of ‘development,’ which is largely rooted in linearity, generalizability, hierarchy, outcome, and developmental apexes; and 

4) Shift from studying OUTCOMES to studying PROCESS.  I believe that by embracing a complexivist epistemological position we will shift our focus toward helping college students, and ourselves, in our own becoming – and also recognize that this process occurs not just during college, but for our entire lives.  Identity is ever-shifting, ever-changing becoming through a process of emergence.  

I hope if you are in Indianapolis you will join me for my session. Please provide feedback as always.  Safe travels to Indy!


Birnbaum, M. (2013). The fronts students use: Facebook and the standardization of self-presentation. Journal of College Student Development54(2), 155-171. 

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Chickering, A. W. & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Duncheon, J. C. & Tierney, W. G. (2013). Changing conceptions of time: Implications for educational research and practice. Review of Educational Research83(2), 236-272. 

Eaton, P. W. (2014). Digital social media, complexity theory, and 21st century student identity research. Unpublished manuscript, School of Education, Louisiana State University.

Jones, S. R. & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Martinez-Aleman, A. M. & Wartman, K. L. (2008). Online social networking on campus: Understanding what matters in student culture. New York, NY: Routledge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,627 other subscribers
Follow Paul William Eaton on WordPress.com

Follow me on Twitter

Visible Pedagogy

A Teach@CUNY Project

David White

Digital - Learning - Culture

Helen Kara

Writing and research

%d bloggers like this: