Affinity Spaces

I was intrigued by the term Affinity Spaces in this week’s reading, because the choice of words allowed me to understand the underlying concept in a new light. Some characteristics of Affinity Spaces (as defined by James Gee) are:

  • active participation by members
  • deeper engagement with popular culture (as compared to engagement with textbooks)
  • sustainment by common endeavors
  • diversity of age, class, race, gender, educational level and experience
  • fluid, dynamic, negotiated norms and levels of participation depending on skills and interests
  • informal hierarchy of expertise wherein participants act as mentors to some participants while mentees towards others
  • constant motivation to learn and build expertise

Gee argues that these characteristics make Affinity Spaces powerful learning environments.

A Working Definition

In the spirit of appropriation and transformation that is characteristic of participatory culture, I will build on the characteristics listed by Gee to define Affinity Spaces as:

  • participatory culture environments, wherein
  • participants act as mentors and/or mentees, as well as consumers and/or creators of multi-modal artefacts, that
  • provide learning opportunities, through
  • meaningful interaction with other participants and the artefacts.
  • Participants may be formal or informal members of the space, and will be diverse in terms of age, class, race, gender, educational level and experience. The artefacts may be text based content, multi-media content or any user-defined mix of multi-modal objects. The participants contribute in an Affinity Space by:
  • sharing artefacts that are their original creation,
  • appropriating and transforming the work of other participants or non-participants, or
  • simply consuming (e.g. viewing a video) the artefacts produced by other participants and/or non-participants, critiquing and/or sharing with others.

The key drivers are learning through participation, innovation and flexibility.

Haven’t we Seen This Before?

In some ways, the concept is similar to a Community Of Practice (COP) or Community Of Interest (COI), in that it focuses on social interaction among members to provide opportunities for networking and learning. However, Affinity Spaces are less formal than COPs and COIs in terms of their objectives, culture and attributes of participation. It can also be argued that academic Online Learning Communities (OLCs), such as discussion boards for online classes, are an analogous concept. The difference between OLCs and Affinity Spaces is, once again, the lack of formality in terms of objectives, culture and attributes of participation. However, lack of formality, does not imply that there are no norms for interacting in Affinity Spaces. On the contrary, the norms are fluid and dynamic, because they are negotiated among participants on a transaction by transaction basis.

Expanding on the working definition, we can say that, Affinity Spaces are characterized by:

• Negotiated norms for participation and interaction

• Appropriation and transformation of multi-modal artefacts

• Informal hierarchy of expertise (and channels of mentorship/learning)

Affinity Spaces and Learning

There are key differences between Affinity Spaces and more formal participatory culture environments (such as formal education systems). In general, Affinity Spaces:

• Are more experimental rather than conservative

• Are innovative as opposed to static

• Are sustained by provisional structures as opposed to institutional structures

• Evolve dynamically rather that remaining static

• Are Ad hoc and localized as opposed to bureaucratic

• Allow greater mobility of participation compared to formal education systems

The term Affinity Spaces embodies concepts of distributed cognition and recognizes informal channels of learning.

What Affinity Spaces do I Belong To?

When I think about my day to day activities in light of the Affinity Spaces paradigm, I realize that the mashups of videos I upload on youtube, my contributions as a producer and consumer on the avclub, and on Wikipedia, as well as my online game playing on the gaming networks are all aspects of a participatory culture wherein I am sometimes the mentor and more often, the mentee. My participation in these spaces is a form of belonging to an informal learning community and I do believe, as Gee argues, that my engagement level is often higher in these spaces than in more formal learning environments. The participation and negotiation has acted as an informal social learning and I believe I have benefited in more formal environments by transferring this learning.

Why this term?

Although the concept may not be new (in the spirit of participatory culture, it was appropriated and transformed), the term itself is intriguing. Affinity, implies interest, liking, sympathy and also belonging. However, it is can be informal and multi-dimensional. I can have an affinity for bike riding without ever riding a bike or I can be the Tour de France champion. Affinity can be used to define both levels of the relationship. I can have varied levels of interest, participation and expertise. Spaces captures the informality of the environment. A space does not have to be a community or a discussion board. It can be fluid, dynamic and negotiated by the members. I think the term Affinity Spaces provides a simple and elegant representation of a complex concept.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media Education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from

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