Gee introduced the concept of affinity spaces in his book Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (2004). Affinity spaces are a subset of what Gee calls a semiotic social space, a type of space for interaction with an infrastructure incorporating content, generators, content organization, interactional organization, and portals. Content is what the space is “about,” and is provided by content generators. Gee uses the example of a video game (the generator), which generates a variety of content (words, images, etc.). The space is then organized in two different ways: content is organized by the designers, whereas interaction is organized by the people interacting with the space, in how they “organize their thoughts, beliefs, values, actions, and social actions” (Gee, 2004, p. 81) in relationship to the content. This interaction creates a set of social practices and typical identities present in the space. The content necessarily influences the interaction, but interaction can also influence content. For example, with a video game, player reactions to the game may influence future updates to the game. Finally, Gee defines portals as “anything that gives access to the content and to ways of interacting with that content, by oneself or with other people” (Gee, 2004, p. 81). In Gee’s video game example, this could be the game itself, but it could also be fan websites related to the game. Portals can become generators, “if they allow people to add to content or change the content other generators have generated” (Gee, 2004, p. 82). A video game website might include additional maps that players can download and use to play the game or offer recordings of gameplay to serve as tutorials or entertainment. A generator can also be a portal; for the video game example, the game disc or files both offer the content and can be used to interact with the content.
Gee builds on this description of a semiotic social space to describe “affinity spaces,” a particular type of semiotic social space that young people today experience often. The “affinity” to which Gee refers is not primarily for the other people in the space, but for “the endeavor or interest around which the space is organized” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 84). He defines an affinity space as a space that has a number of features:
- “Common endeavor, not race, class, gender, or disability, is primary” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 85). People in the affinity space relate to each other based on common interests, while attributes such as race, class, gender, and disability may be used strategically if people choose.
- “Newbies and masters and everyone else share common space” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 85). People with varying skill levels and depth of interest share a single space, getting different things out of the space in accordance with their own purposes.
- “Some portals are strong generators” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 85). People can create new content related to the original content and share it in the space.
- “Content organization is transformed by interactional organization”(J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 85). Or “Internal grammar is transformed by external grammar” (Gee, 2005, p. 226) Creators of the original content modify it based on the interactions of the people in the space.
- “Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 85). Specialized knowledge in a particular area is encouraged (intensive knowledge), but the space also encourages people to develop a broad range of less specialized knowledge (extensive knowledge).
- “Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 86). People are encouraged to store knowledge in their own heads, but also to use knowledge stored elsewhere, including in other people, materials, or devices, using a network of people and information to access knowledge.
- “Dispersed knowledge is encouraged” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 86). One portal in the space encourages people to leverage knowledge gained from other portals or other spaces.
- “Tacit knowledge is encouraged and honored” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 86). People can use knowledge that they have built up “but may not be able to explicate fully in words” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 86) in the space. Others can learn from this tacit knowledge by observing its use in the space.
- “There are many different forms and routes to participation” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 87). People can participate in different ways and at different levels.
- “There are lots of different routes to status” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 87). People can gain status by being good at different things or participating in different activities.
- “Leadership is porous and leaders are resources” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 87). No one is the boss of anyone else; people can lead by being designers, providing resources, or teaching others how to operate in the space. “They don’t and can’t order people around or create rigid, unchanging, and impregnable hierarchies” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 87).
A space does not need to have all of these features to be considered an affinity space; rather, these features can be considered as a measure of the degree to which a space is an affinity space or how effective an affinity space it is. Affinity spaces can be nested within one another (J. P. Gee, 2017); for example, a website devoted to The Sims video game fanfiction would be an affinity space itself, while also being part of the broader The Sims affinity space, the gaming affinity space, and the fanfiction affinity space.
At first glance, an affinity space may seem very similar to a community of practice as described by Lave and Wenger (1991); Gee argues, however, that defining a community implies labeling a group of people, including determining “which people are in and which are out of the group, how far they are in or out, and when they are in and out” (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 78). Talking about spaces instead of communities removes this concern of membership; people who are present in a space may or may not be part of a community. Further, Lave and Wenger’s original conception of communities of practice described movement from peripheral participation for what Gee would call “newbies” to central participation as “masters,” while in affinity spaces, newbies do not need to be apprenticed to masters to become deeply involved in the space’s activity.
Gee (2004, 2005) offered the concept of affinity spaces as part of a critique of how schooling works; he argues that “people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value” (Gee, 2004, p. 77) and suggests that affinity spaces facilitate this kind of engagement. Gee argues that as young people encounter more and more affinity spaces, they see a “vision of learning, affiliation, and identity” that is more powerful than what they see in school (J. P. Gee, 2004, p. 89). He suggests that educators can learn from the design and construction of affinity spaces.
After Gee introduced the concept of affinity spaces, scholars investigated specific affinity spaces and what lessons they might have for educators working in the areas of literacy (Rebecca W. Black, 2007, 2008; R. W. Black, 2007; Lam, 2009), science (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008), and mathematics (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2009). These studies supported Gee’s original conception of affinity spaces, finding many features of affinity spaces in their research settings, which included fanfiction websites (Rebecca W. Black, 2007, 2008; R. W. Black, 2007), anime/manga discussion forums (Lam, 2009), and massively multiplayer online games and their related discussion forums (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008; Steinkuehler & Williams, 2009).
Refining the Concept of Affinity Space
As the technology available for online participation shifted from predominantly individual websites or forums to predominantly social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Youtube, online affinity spaces shifted as well. In the introduction to the book Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces, Hayes and Duncan (2012) point out that, like online culture more broadly, online affinity spaces present a “quickly moving target” (p. 10) for study. They call for a refined and expanded conception of affinity spaces in light of this fact. While Gee’s (2005; 2004) original conception of affinity spaces consisted of eleven features that may or may not be present in any given affinity space, in his afterword to Hayes and Duncan’s (2012) book, he identifies five key features of what he now calls “passionate affinity spaces”:
- People in a passionate affinity space interact around shared goals because of a shared passion, not because of shared backgrounds, age, status, gender, ability, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or values unless these are integral to the passion.
- Not everyone interacting in the space need have a passion for the shared interest (they could simply have an interest), but they must acknowledge and respect the passion and the people who have it and who form the main “attractor” for the space.
- People earn status and influence in the space because of accomplishments germane to the passion, not because of wealth or status in the world outside the space.
- The space offers everyone the opportunity, should they want it, to produce, not just consume, and to learn to mentor and lead, not just to be mentored and follow.
- People in the space agree to rules of conduct – and often enforce them together – that facilitate the other features above. (J. P. Gee, 2012, p. 238)
Gee and Hayes (2010, 2012, 2011) distinguish between “nurturing” and “elitist” affinity spaces. Building on Gee’s earlier work and drawing on studies of fan sites associated with the computer game The Sims, Gee and Hayes “identify features of what [they] call nurturing affinity spaces that are particularly supportive of learning” (p. 129). They describe the following fifteen features of affinity spaces and the ways they are enacted in nurturing affinity spaces:
- “A common endeavor for which at least many people in the space have a passion – not race, class, gender, or disability – is primary.” (p. 134) Gee and Hayes assert that the passion in an affinity space is for the endeavor or interest rather than the people; in nurturing affinity spaces, participants in the space understand that “spreading this passion, and thus ensuring the survival and flourishing of the passion and the affinity space, requires accommodating new members and encouraging committed members” (p. 135). Affinity spaces that are not nurturing may treat newcomers poorly or restrict access to participation according to experience.
- “Affinity spaces are not segregated by age.” (p. 135) In a nurturing affinity space, older participants in the affinity space set norms of “cordial, respectful, and professional behavior that the young readily follow” (p. 135) while in other affinity spaces, knowledge accrued with age may not be readily shared.
- “Newbies, masters, and everyone else share a common space” (p. 136). Nurturing affinity spaces make it easy for newcomers to participate, avoiding hazing or testing new participants.
- “Everyone can, if they wish, produce and not just consume.” (p. 137) Nurturing affinity spaces set high standards for production, enforcing them through “respectful and encouraging mentoring.”
- “Content is transformed by interaction.” (p. 137)
- “The development of both specialist and broad, general knowledge is encouraged, and specialist knowledge is pooled.” (p. 138) Within a nurturing affinity space, specialists understand that their knowledge is partial, and everyone pools their knowledge by sharing it in the space.
- “Both individual knowledge and distributed knowledge are encouraged” (p. 139). “Nurturing affinity spaces tend to foster a view of expertise as rooted more in the space itself or the community that exists in the space and not in individuals’ heads” (p. 139)
- “The use of dispersed knowledge is facilitated” (p. 140).
- “Tacit knowledge is used and honored; explicit knowledge is encouraged” (p. 141).
- “There are many different forms and routes to participation” (p. 142).
- “There are many different routes to status.” (p. 142)
- “Leadership is porous, and leaders are resources.” (p. 143)
- “Roles are reciprocal.” (p. 143)
- “A view of learning that is individually proactive but does not exclude help is encouraged.” (p. 143)
- “People get encouragement from an audience and feedback from peers, although everyone plays both roles at different times.” (p. 144)
Referring to the work of Gee and Hayes, Hayes and Duncan point out that “…while elitist spaces are sites of very high knowledge production, they tend to value a narrow range of skills and backgrounds, have clear hierarchies of status and power, and disparage newcomers who do not conform to fairly rigid norms for behavior” (2012, p. 11). Gee and Hayes (2010, 2011, 2012) suggest that nurturing spaces are more conducive to learning than elitist spaces.
Over time, Gee (2017) has refined the vocabulary that refers to affinity spaces. The attractor is “the thing for which people who move around in the big space have a shared interest or passion. It also beckons to anyone who enters any part of the space and seeks to entice him or her to stay in the space.” (p. 113) People who enter the affinity space because of an interest in or passion are affines. “Clumps of people who [overlap] in a good deal in various subspaces (locations)” of a larger affinity space and thus bump “into one another rather regularly” are fellow travelers (p. 113). Home bases “are key places where fellow travelers come together a good deal to engage in the activities that keep their shared affinity alive. They are places where the people with the most passion for the shared affinity are the key organizers, motivators, teachers, and standard-setters for the affinity space as a whole” (p. 114). A group of closely connected home bases form a home-base cluster.
Expanding the Concept of Affinity Space
Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico (Curwood, Magnifico, & Lammers, 2013; Lammers, Curwood, & Magnifico, 2012; Magnifico, Lammers, & Curwood, 2013) draw on their research on adolescent literacy in the affinity spaces related to The Sims, The Hunger Games, and Neopets to “explicate nine features of an expanded notion of affinity spaces” (p. 45). Lammers and colleagues point out that the “introduction of numerous online technologies and social networking sites has created affinity spaces that are constantly evolving, dynamic, and networked in new ways” (p. 47). In the time of Gee’s original affinity space conception, a researcher might consider an affinity space “defined by one central portal (for instance, a discussion board),” but Lammers and colleagues point out that “contemporary affinity spaces often involve social media such as Facebook and Twitter, creative sites like DeviantArt and FanFiction.net, and blogging platforms such as Tumblr and WordPress” (p. 47). One participant may operate in an affinity space that networks all of these different technologies; accordingly, knowledge within an affinity space “is effectively distributed across learners, objects, tools, symbols, technologies and the environment” (p. 48).
Working toward developing a new research method they call “affinity space ethnography,” Lammer, Curwood, and Magnifico offer the following features of contemporary affinity spaces for consideration:
- “A common endeavor is primary.” (p. 48)
- “Participation is self-directed, multifaceted and dynamic.” (p. 48) Participants in an affinity space do not only participate in existing portals, but may build their own portals to generate content.
- “In online affinity space portals, participation is often multimodal” (p. 48). Contrasting Gee’s research on early text-based discussion boards as portals, Lammers and colleagues point out that participants in contemporary affinity spaces may produce not just text, images, websites, or maps as in the affinity spaces Gee originally described but also videos, maps, podcasts, and machinima.
- “Affinity spaces provide a passionate, public audience for content.” (p. 49)
- “Socialising plays an important role in affinity space participation.” (p. 49)
- “Leadership roles vary within and among portals.” (p. 49)
- “Knowledge is distributed across the entire affinity space.” (p. 49)
- “Many portals place a high value on cataloguing and documenting content and practices” (p. 49).
- “Affinity spaces encompass a variety of media-specific and social networking portals” (p. 50).
Bommarito also aims to expand the notion of affinity spaces; specifically, he states that “the present view of affinity spaces fails to explain how participants cohere when the group’s focus on a common endeavor is called into question, becomes unclear or disappears altogether” (p. 408). Based on a wide variety of affinity spaces research published by other scholars, Bommarito proposes a situated model of affinity spaces. Bommarito identifies certain assumptions in early definitions of affinity spaces that he argues limit “the ability of researchers to investigate the evolving nature of affinity spaces” (p. 410). These assumptions include:
- “That the important activity in an affinity space is only that which contributes directly to the group’s shared interest or common endeavor” (p. 410)
- “That the development of strong bonds among participants in an affinity space is necessarily subordinate to taking part in the group’s shared interest or common endeavor” (p. 410)
- “That affinity spaces are largely stable entities, confined to single sites or discussion boards” (p. 411)
Bommarito proposes a situated model of affinity spaces (p. 411), in which affinity spaces shift between a “passionate” state, clearly focused on a shared interest, and a “deliberative” state, when the shared interest becomes unclear and participants have to resolve challenges unrelated to their shared interest. In the “passionate” state, the primary mode of interaction is what Bommarito calls “negotiation,” in which participants exchange ideas directly related to the shared interest or the organization of the space in a way that does not supersed the established shared interest; in the “deliberative state,” it is “deliberation,” in which participants debate “the nature of the shared interest itself” (p. 412) and what the space will become, potentially even changing or expanding the scope of the interest or shifting so that relationships become primary and the interest secondary.
Participants in affinity spaces must deal with two different types of challenges, which Bommarito identifies as “adaptive” or “technical” drawing on Heifetz (1994). “According to Heifetz (1994, p. 72), technical problems are those for which ‘the necessary knowledge about them already has been digested and put in the form of a legitimized set of known organizational procedures guiding what to do and role authorizations guiding who should do it’.” (p. 413) This is the kind of problem participants tend to face when an affinity space is in a passionate state, when “participation means, primarily, gaining technical knowledge and skills related to the shared interest” (p. 413) and the problems to be solved are clearly related to the space’s shared endeavor. “Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are situations in which ‘no adequate response has yet been developed’, ‘no clear expertise can be found’ and ‘no single sage has general credibility’ (Heifetz, 1994, p. 72)” and are the kinds of challenges participants face when the space is in a deliberative state, in which participants are “, identifying problems unrelated to some common endeavor while also pursuing and evaluating possible solutions as a collective.” (p. 413). Bommarito asserts, “For the affinity space that has lost a clear grasp of its common endeavor, members must adapt if they are to avoid dissolution.” (p. 413)
Bommarito also contrasts affinity spaces as to whether their participants can be considered a “seriality” or a “group”, drawing on Young (1997). “Young (1997, p. 23), explicitly drawing on Jean-Pau l Sartre (1976), argues that a series is a collective of individuals organized around some material object and the social practices related to that object.” (p. 413) When the affinity space is in a passionate state, its participants can be considered a seriality. “According to Young, however, serial collectivity is distinguished from groups in that groups are organized around individuals’ relationships to one another rather than to some external object or interest.” When the affinity space is in a deliberative state, its participants can be considered a group: their relationships become the heart of the space, rather than the shared endeavor.
From Spaces to Networks
The Leveling Up Study of the Connected Learning Research Network “was designed to investigate the role that online affinity networks play, and could potentially play, in connected learning” (Ito et al., 2019, p. 4). While Gee first used the term “affinity” to indicate the affinity participants in a space had for their shared endeavor, Ito, Martin, Pfister, Rafalow, Salen, and Wortman (2019) use it to indicate not only the interest in the endeavor itself but also “in order to highlight [the interest’s] relational and culturally situated nature” (p. 18), reflecting Bommarito’s (2014) emphasis on the social relationships developed within an affinity space. They use the term “network” rather than “space” to capture a wide spectrum of participation from casual to serious.
“Online affinity networks… are collectives that have shared interests, practices, and marked roles in the community that define levels of responsibility and expertise…” but also allow for more casual participation: “lurkers, observers, and transient participants” (p. 39). These networks are “united by a shared content world, infrastructure, and affinity,” but “successful online affinity networks are spaces of constant renewal” (p. 23) and “are sustained through interpersonal relationships, shared activities, and a sense of cultural affinity” (p. 40).
Online affinity networks have three key characteristics:
- They are specialized, focusing on a specific affinity or interest.
- Involvement in them is intentional; participants choose to affiliate with the network and can move easily in and out of engagement with the network.
- “Content sharing and communication take place on openly networked online platforms” (p. 42) New participants can find the networks on the open internet and do not have to enter into a financial transaction or have any specific institutional membership in order to participate.
This shift from affinity spaces to affinity networks reflects both Bommarito’s (2014) suggestion that the relational nature of affinity spaces is a key part of their participants’ experience and the sustainability of the space, and also incorporates the concept of multiple and varied portals that Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico (2012) suggest must be kept in mind when studying an affinity space.
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