Application of Activity Theory in Understanding Online Communities of Practice: a Case of Feminism

Shahla Ghobadi

Introduction

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have played a distinctive role in empowering women all over the world (Kwapong, 2007; Rabayah, 2010; Salas, 2010; Torney-Purta, 2002).The Internet has opened up new possibilities for women to communicate, to overcome geographical and traditional gender barriers, and to establish collective identity and solidarity (Acharya, Yoshino, Jimba, & Wakai, 2007; Jain, 2006; Torney-Purta, 2002). Among different possibilities that the internet offers, online communities of practice (CoP) have played a crucial role for empowering women by allowing them to voice their concerns and express themselves more than just through face to face interactions (V. M. Moghadam, 2002a).

Feminism is considered an important indicator of female empowerment and is defined as 'a state of wholeness and awareness toward women's proper place, challenging customary categories and meanings that constitute the existing knowledge of gender' (Haines & Littler, 2004; J. W. White & Kowalski, 1994). While feminist movements in many eastern and western societies have started at similar periods, women's activism in eastern countries has remained within socio-cultural frameworks and has not been successful enough to stretch existing traditional gender barriers. More importantly, though global changes have made eastern women aware of their gender-based concerns, they still fail to demonstrate feminist-related behaviours.

Currently, the extant literature is limited in providing a comprehensive explanation regarding this issue. This paper targets the above void, and questions why eastern women who have feminist attitudes fail to demonstrate feminist behaviours. Based on the insights from Activity Theory, this study reclaims the importance of online women-related communities of practice for flourishing feminist-related behaviours in eastern societies.

The remainder of the paper is set out as the following: An overview of literature on women's activism in eastern societies as well as the literature on female empowerment through ICT is provided. This is followed by postulating on the moderating impact of online female-related communities of practice in manifesting feminist-related behaviours among eastern women. The applicability of the proposed framework is examined with the quantitative data collected from 120 Iranian women in an online community of practice. The paper concludes by discussing the contributions, and the limitations, of the study, and suggesting avenues for future research.

Literature Review

Feminist movements refer to 'efforts that aim at establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and opportunities for women' (Merriam-Webster). These movements have acted as voices for women to raise gender issues and to gradually move into balancing social-related concerns. The starting point for feminist movements in many countries has been obtaining 'rights to vote' such as the United States in 1920 (1910-1930). Feminist movements have primarily focused on 'women as a universal entity'. The movements have gradually transformed themselves into 'being concerned with social differentiation that model feminism is about' (Cott, 1987).

In the pursuit of western feminist movements, feminism in many eastern societies happened in the early decades of 20th century such as Indonesia in 1945 and Lebanon in 1952. The extant literature also acknowledges that eastern women have played a distinct role in the social movements since the early decades of the twentieth century (Afary, 1989). Consequently, women have articulated feminist and socialist demands as the movements progress (Afary, 1989; Tohidi, 2002).

However, feminist movements and struggles for suffrage in many eastern societies have not changed themselves into the social transformation and differentiation that modern feminism is about. In fact, the participation of eastern women in social movements has remained within traditional social and cultural frameworks that establish motherhood as the primary role of women, and at the same time, encourage women to receive training to support society, whenever their help and support is required (S. S. Moghadam, Knudsonâ€Martin, & Mahoney, 2009).

The extant literature recognises a number of reasons for limited feminist-related behaviours among eastern women. For example, Tabari (1986) refers to economical difficulties in developing countries as a crucial fact that inhibits the emergence of feminist behaviour. More specifically, if the very survival of the family is dependent on everyone's income, a woman cannot have a unique image of herself as a separate individual. Accordingly, there is not a sufficient space for the growth of individualism among family members, particularly, for women.

Another important reason that restrains the emergence of feminist-related behaviours is the ignorant hostility towards feminism among major segments of eastern countries. Apart from the positive impacts of women's activism during socio-political and economic movements, there is still a strong hostility that refers to feminism as "a deviation from women's nature" (V. M. Moghadam, 2002b; Sherkat, 1993). Accordingly, feminism among both eastern men and women is often associated with 'endorsing a shunning of responsibility towards men and family members, and carelessly seeking occupation and social life'. One of the major reasons for this hostility could be the lack of knowledge and awareness toward 'international women's activism' as well as ignorance about 'the origins and concepts of women's movements in many eastern societies' (V. M. Moghadam, 2002b).

The situation is more critical when few studies refer to situations in which eastern women demonstrate significant feminist-related attitudes but not feminist-related behaviours. For example, Kurzman (2008) attempted to investigate feminist-related attitudes and behaviour in a middle-eastern society such as Iran. His results showed that feminist-related attitudes among Iranian women are not consistently correlated with feminist-related behaviour such as delayed marriage and fewer children (Kurzman, 2008). Kurzman does not explain the reasons behind this finding; he primarily focuses on the growth of feminist-related attitudes among contemporary young Iranians.

Based on the insights of Activity Theory, this study addresses the above observation and explains the reason that many eastern women fail to demonstrate feminist-related behaviour, particularly when they already have feminist-related attitudes.

Theoretical Framework

Communities of Practice (CoP)

The concept of 'communities of practice' refers to a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic that motivates them to interact on an ongoing basis and to share, expand, and deepen their knowledge and expertise (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2000; Wenger, 1999; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).

Through establishing strong social relationships, communities of practice have brought about cultural shifts in learning processes (Kilpatrick, Barrett, & Jones, 2003). The situated learning through communities of practice has unique distinctions with the formal learning in which the authentic content is often separated from the real situation. Learning in communities of practice is participatory and separated from neither the activity nor the meaningful social arrangements in which the activity takes place. Communities of practice offer the possibility of using, rejecting, and expanding knowledge. They can, therefore, promote mutual learning and joint exploration of ideas via communication and knowledge sharing among members (Al-Saggaf, 2004; Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley, 2003; Johnson, 2001; Liedtka, 2000).

The growth of the Internet as a forum for networking and collaboration has presented new opportunities for communication and learning in communities of practice. There are several collaborative technologies such as listservs, electronic discussion groups, and chat facilities that that can be used as potential tools (Johnson, 2001; Sharratt & Usoro, 2003). Web 2.0 presents social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Blogs, and Wikipedia as possible forums for the growth of communities of practice (O'reilly, 2007). This progression has extended the possibilities of online communities of practice by allowing knowledge to be shared, discussed, and clarified through a variety of channels and contexts that are not typically found in face-to-face communication (Estephan, 2008). Online communities of practice might lack the richness of communication that occurs in offline communities of practice (Estephan, 2008), but they offer several benefits such as anonymity, attracting more responses, archiving previous discussions, and becoming accessible to a wider community (Ardichvili, Maurer, Li, Wentling, & Stuedemann, 2006).

Activity Theory

Activity Theory is a socio-cultural lens through which most forms of human behaviour can be explained (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999). According to Vygotsky (1978), consciousness is essentially subjective , community-based , and mediated by tools and languages (Vygotsky, 1978). More specifically, all human activities are embedded in a social matrix composed of people and artifacts (physical tools and sign systems). Social contexts of activity (such as rules and customs in the communities within which individuals live and work) impose tacit and explicit conventions on the accomplishment of activity. As a result, proper analysis of human activities requires examining several dimensions such as subjects and objects of activity, tools, rules, behavioural norms, and the contextual communities in which human activities occur.

Like any other activity, manifestation of feminist-related behaviour happens in the context of tacit and/or explicit social rules, customs, and belief. In addition, the collective culture that is common to eastern countries emphasises the importance of community in accomplishing activities. There is, however, a challenge, that lies in the presence of simultaneous communities that individuals belong to. For example, people are often members of few communities in which they live, study, and work. The potential conflict between the rules and expectations of these communities makes individuals attempt to harmonise the contradicting expectations, and to continuously alter their behaviour to adjust to the expectations of different communities.

The extant literature refers to the important role of tools in facilitating the manipulation of activities. Tools can be employed to lessen or increase the impact of a community on the manifestation of any activity, such as the manifestation of feminist-related behaviour. For example, tools can gradually change the nature of an activity and influence the mental processes through which this activity occurs. Communication technologies can be applied to gain new knowledge about feminist-related behaviour all over the world and to investigate whether the basis of their comparison is realistic or not. In these contexts, tools can help women assess and re-estimate their performance through being connected to the globe. The activity structure is shown in Figure 1.

figure1
Figure 1. The structure of activity (manifestation of feminist-related behaviours)

Many online communities of practice have been employed to create continuity for formulating women's ideas and demands (V. M. Moghadam, 2002a) and to provide women with common goals, visions, moral support, and sense of solidarity (Morahan-Martin, 2000). Notably, the history and the origins of feminist-related behaviour in many countries have strong roots in traditional communities of practice (Afary, 1989).

Therefore, this study proposes that the use of tools (online women-related communities of practice) can facilitate manifestation of feminist-related attitudes into feminist-related behaviour. This is particularly true because eastern societies have not been open to providing an appropriate surface (community) for manifesting feminist-related behaviours. In other words, employment of proper tools can decrease the suppressing influences of community.

The next section presents a measurement model in order to examine the applicability of the above proposition.

Research Methodology

This study seeks to investigate the association and relationship between the proposed constructs of the model. This is in alignment with positivism, whose ultimate purpose is explaining causal linkage between concepts and objects (Neuman, 2006). Survey methodology is particularly suitable for researchers who clearly define independent variables and well-represented relations.

Measurement

Feminist-related attitudes

In order to measure individuals' attitudes toward feminism, this study borrows indicators from General Social Survey (Bolzendahl & Myers, 2004; Davis, Smith, & Marsden, 1999). This is mainly due to the fact that the items in this survey capture a series of issues that have consistently been at the core of the feminist agenda for many years (Bolzendahl & Myers, 2004). According to this survey, feminist attitudes can be measured by three dimensional concerns including: individuals' opinion on (i) abortion, (ii) sexual behaviour, and (iii) gender roles (in the public and family).

Feminist-related behaviour

Many techniques may be appropriate to measure feminist-related behaviour such as the analysis of formal and informal documentations, observations, interviewing, or psychoanalyses. White (2006) offers the 'feminist-related activities checklist' to measure feminist-related behaviour, and the checklist is applied to this study. Going through the questions, the items were revisited and categorised into two dimensions including: (i) feminist-related works and (ii) feminist-related supports. Table 1 and Table 2 present brief explanations of the dimensions of feminist-related attitudes and behaviour as well as their relevant questions. 5 point Likert scales are used to measure feminist-related attitudes (1: strongly disagree, 2: disagree, 3: no-opinion, 4: agree, 5: strongly agree) and feminist-related behaviour (1: almost zero, 2: low, 3: average, 4: high, 5: very high). A categorical variable was used to take into account if members are the members of any online women-related community of practice. Age, education, and the marital status of the respondents were also controlled.

Data Collection

Data was collected from an interactive online portal. The language of the portal is Farsi/Persian (Iranian language). The portal acts as an online community of practice, which aims to share and expand information on optimism and self-improvement among Iranians (both men and women).

The boundary of data collection was deliberately limited to one eastern culture (Iran) rather than generalising the results to other cultures. This choice was partly because Iran's cultural and religious environmental characteristics have influenced women's activism in the course of history. The selected portal is similar to common examples of online communities of practice. This portal was selected largely because it represents a sample of Iranians who have a proper access to technology, as portal members are all active members of an online community of practice. This provided the possibility of controlling the access to technology. In addition, the author's fluency in Farsi aided the data collection and made analysis possible.

table1
Table 1. Feminist-Related Attitudes
table2
Table 2. Feminist-Related Behaviours

Data was collected in October 2010. The community had 3853 members, and women comprised 37% of its population. The link for the survey was sent to the portal manager. The survey included questions for measuring women's feminist-related attitudes, feminist-related behaviour, whether they were a member of an online community of practice (if yes, they could provide us with the name of the community of practice) and demographic questions.

The manager of the portal sent a message to the group. The message included (i) his personal message to the members asking female members to participate in a short online survey and (ii) a link to the survey.

Privacy and confidentiality were strictly guaranteed. Responses were all anonymous. In order to deal with missing data, the completion of the survey required an answer for each question. 120 responses (more than the anticipated 100) which were sufficient for analysis, were collected (9%). The response rate was quite low, which may signify the existing hostility toward answering a survey focused on 'feminism'. However, this response rate does not seem to challenge generalisability of the data. It was even a happy coincidence because the respondents may already have feminist-related attitudes, and since the objective of the paper is to investigate why women who have feminist-related attitudes fail to exhibit feminist-related behaviour, it is appropriate to investigate whether this sample with strong feminist-related attitude demonstrated feminist-related behaviour or not.

Respondents' characteristics indicated that almost 65% of respondents were in the age range of 25 to 35. Sixty percent had postgraduate degrees and 35% had at least a bachelor's degree. Sixty percent of the respondents were single, whereas 40% were married. This is an expected result since the new educated generation is believed to demonstrate stronger feminist-related attitudes, and to respond to a survey related to such a controversial topic.

Data Analysis and Results

Overview

SPSS (versions 17) and Amos 17 were used for routine statistical analysis and Structural Equation Modeling (SEM). Amos was used as it is a powerful package for examining the moderating impact of a construct on the relationship between two constructs. The reversed-items in the measurement model were transformed using SPSS. For SEM, the goodness-of-fit for each model was assessed using multiple fit indices.

Analyses were conducted using raw data and transformed variables when they violated assumptions of normality. An exploratory factor analysis was performed using SPSSS for each set of focal constructs to examine reliability and validity of the measures; no problems with them were shown.

Figure 2 illustrates the tested model in Amos. As shown, the three dimensions of feminist-related attitudes were conceptualised as reflective multi-dimensional constructs. The multi-dimensional approach is believed to explain more parsimoniously than covariation among first-order factors.

The model (Figure 2) was evaluated on various indices such as GFI, CFI, IFI, RMSEA, as well as adjusted GFI (AGFI). The model proved to fit to the data, indicating that the model was a plausible causal model of the observed data (χ2 = 101.704, Cmin/df= 1.393, df = 73, p = 0.009; RMSEA = 0.05, goodness-of-fit (GFI = 0.89), comparative-fit index (CFI = 0.95), incremental fit index (IFI = 0.95)) (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1995). T results supported the uni-dimensionality of the measures.

The model was assessed by R Square, which indicates how well the antecedents explain an endogenous construct. Model explained a substantial amount of variance for Feminist-related behaviours (F.Behaviors) (R2 = 0.60), Abortion (Abt) (R2 = 0.39), Sexual behaviours (Sxb) (R2 = 0.70), and Gender roles (Role) (R2 = 0.48), which are greater than the recommended minimum of 0.10.

figure2
Figure 2. Model 1 (The Sample= members, n=120)

Measurement Model

Cronbach's alpha and composite reliability were calculated to assess the reliabilities for all scales. The alpha coefficients and the composite reliability values varied from 0.8 to 0.95, suggesting adequate reliability.

Convergent and discriminant validity of the measures were assessed. The items were subjected to confirmatory factor analysis. All items had relatively high factor loadings, except G1 and G3 with 0.48 and 0.42. This indicated convergence of the high factor indicators to their constructs. Due to low factor loadings of G1 and G3, these items were dropped from the analysis. It was observed that dropping these items resulted in an increasing RMSEA and a decreasing fit of the model: G1: (Cmin/df= 1.520; RMSEA = 0.066), G2: (Cmin/df= 1.461; RMSEA = 0.062). There is also the possibility that loadings cannot be identified as significant in small sample sizes. Therefore, it was decided to keep these items.

Average Variance Extracted (AVE) for all of the constructs exceeded the 0.5 criterion suggested by Fornell and Larcker (Fornell & Larcker, 1981) . Construct discriminant validity was assessed: First, the square-root of AVE of the individual constructs was compared with the correlation between construct-pairs. It was found that the square-roots of AVE exceeded the correlations in all cases, and this confirmed the discriminant validity of the scales.

The above analyses indicated that the measurement model met reliability and validity criteria. Thus, these constructs could be used to test the proposed model and the hypothesised relationships between the constructs.

Structural Model

Path coefficients were investigated, and all the paths were significant at p <0.001. The analysis of the regression weights showed that feminist-related attitudes positively affect feminist-related behaviour (CR=4.327). The first order constructs (abortion, sexual behaviour, and gender roles) had significant associations with their second order construct, Feminist-related attitudes, at p<0.001.

Multiple linear regressions were used to examine the moderating impact of being a member of online woman-related communities of practice on the relationship between feminist-related attitudes and feminist-related behaviours. The sample was divided into two groups: (i) those who were the members of an online women-related community of practice (21) and (ii) those who were not (99). Two models were tested for the possible interaction between the moderator variable and the two other constructs. Figure 3 and Figure 4 illustrate the two tested models.

Harman's single-factor test procedure (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, & Podsakoff, 2003) was followed and CFA was conducted by loading all indicators on one factor. The assumption of the single-factor test was that a single factor should account for the majority of the covariance among measures if substantial amounts of common method variance was present (Podsakoff & Organ, 1986). The analysis showed that the one factor model did not fit the data well (Cmin/df= 2.856, RMSEA = 0.12), while the four-factor model fit was significantly better (p < 0.001). To check if common method variance exists, a two-factor model was conducted by loading the indicators of feminist-related attitudes and feminist-related behaviour on two factors. The analysis showed that the two factor model did not fit the data well (Cmin/df= 2.322; RMSEA = 0.105). Both tests provided evidence that the common method bias was not significant in this study.

Both models were proved to fit, indicating that the model was a plausible causal model of the observed data (χ2 = 220.98, Cmin/df= 1.514, df = 146, p = 0.00; RMSEA = 0.064). Further investigation on the two models proved the moderating impact of being in a member of an online women-related CoP. Specifically, the path between feminist-related behaviour and feminist-related attitudes is significant (t value= 3.46 in members compared to t value=2.271 in non members).

The proportion of the explained variance and the path coefficients are reported in Table 3. As shown, compared to the model for non-members, all the paths are significant in the model for members except the path between (G1 and Role) with the t value=1.259. Therefore, this variable was deleted and the model was again fitted. There were slight differences in the chi-square and fit of the model (χ2 = 187.072, Cmin/df= 1.533, df = 122, p = 0.00; RMSEA = 0.067). However, with regard to the importance of the questions and the fairly small sample size, the path maintained.

Consistent with the research question, the feminist-related attitudes of those 99 respondents who did not demonstrate significant feminist-related behaviour was investigated. The regression of the indicators was used to measure the mean of feminist-related attitudes and behaviour for 99 respondents. It was found that the mean of feminist-related attitudes was 3.78 (out of 5; significant feminist-related attitudes), however, the mean of feminist-related behaviour was 1.76 (out of 5; low feminist-related behaviour). This finding is associated with the research question of this study. This can be explained as 'the sample included women with significant feminist-related attitudes who, due to the suppressing impact of community, have not been able to demonstrate feminist-related behaviour'. In addition, these women have not also employed tools (here, online women-related communities of practice) to lessen the impacts of their community.

figure3
Figure 3. Non-Members Model 2 (n=99)
figure4
Figure 4. Members Model 3 (n=21)
table3
Table 3. Regression Weights (Unconstrained)

Discussion

This study is one of the first attempts to understand how technology can be applied to accelerate the process of manifesting feminist-related behaviour in women, particularly in eastern countries. More specifically, this study attempts to answer why eastern women who already have feminist attitudes fail to demonstrate feminist behaviour. Activity theory and the origins of feminism in eastern countries (offline communities of practice) were selected to propose the moderating role of technology (tools in activity theory) in the manifestation of feminist-related behaviour. A quantitative study was conducted to check the validity of the above proposition. The findings can be classified in three ways.

Firstly, the results demonstrated that in a sample of 120 educated Iranian women with regular access to the Internet, only 21 were members of an online women-related community of practice. This further highlights the limited use of online women-related communities of practice in these societies.

Secondly, the results showed the significant impact of being a member of an online women-related community of practice for manifesting feminist-related behaviour. Specifically, the findings revealed that those women who have been a member of any online women-related community of practice have shown feminist-related behaviour along with accompanying attitudes. However, non-members have failed to manifest feminist-related attitudes to feminist-related behaviour.

Thirdly, further analysis of the data showed that women who were not members of an online women-related community of practice already had significant feminist-related attitudes, but not feminist-related behaviour. The demographics of these members (young and educated) suggest and confirm the presence of feminist-related attitudes, yet they did not show such behaviour. At the end of the survey, an optional and open question was asked to understand their opinion regarding the importance of being involved in feminism activities in the country. The qualitative data confirmed hostility and lack of awareness toward the concept and definition of feminism. They associated their opinion with statements such as:

"No. Because this issue causes isolation of women in societies" [referring to the community norms that reject feminism]

"If feminist means to say women are much better than men and try to separate the society based on two sexes I would not support it but if feminist means to make a world based on humanity and teach to women to defends their rights, I will support it" [she is not sure about what feminism is]

"No, I think women and men are different together and women should not compare themselves with men. They are soft and they should do works that match their personality" [she associates feminism with deviation from the women nature]

Taken together, the findings suggest that the limited use and popularity of women-related communities of practice contributes to the limited manifestation of feminist-related behaviour of women. The findings also provide an interesting thought that any women-related community might be helpful in this process, yet many eastern women have not been involved in their gender-based concerns and identities. This finding is consistent with the Activity Theory's recognition of the significant impact of tools on facilitating activity accomplishment.

While technology can offer several aids in encouraging women to seek, share, and create knowledge, it should be taken into account that technology is only a beginning step and not a democratising or transformative tool by itself (Harcourt, 2000; Tadros, 2005). Technology should reflect women's value systems and address their needs, and this does not happen only with the establishment of technological systems. It is important to consider economic, technological, cultural, and psychological sets of barriers that technology faces. For example, feminism literature reveals that gender is a political means of classification (Evans, 1994). For example, the traditional exclusion of women from the information sphere has happened deliberately or because of limiting factors such as the lower levels of education (Jain, 2006; Maass, Rommes, Schirmer, & Zorn). Similarly, substantial studies have explained how technology can hamper women's efforts because of the inequality where access to communication technologies is concerned (Harcourt, 2000).

In promoting online communities of practice, the above factors should be considered. 'Breaking the fear that many women might have around technologies', 'creating safe cyber environments that support women', and 'using technology in a far more strategic way than just data and information sharing' are among factors that should be considered (Leiblum, 2001; Morahan-Martin, 2000; Tadros, 2005).

Concluding Points

This study demonstrated the effective impact of using proper tools such as 'online women-related communities of practice' on lessening the impacts of powerful forces such as 'community-related customs', 'rules', and 'conventions' on female behaviour. The findings of this study contribute to the extant literature by investigating a topic that has not received prior attention.

Future studies are encouraged to explore the mechanisms through which different types of online women-related communities of practice can help women reach social differentiation and potential outcomes. Future research studies are also encouraged to explore the mechanisms of empowering women in women-related communities of practice in different cultural contexts, particularly in a variety of eastern societies.

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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441