Gallagher as composite of flaneur and bricoleur, as hypothesizer (?) and engineer. Or what goes on in my head at any given moment.
Gallagher as composite of flaneur and bricoleur, as hypothesizer (?) and engineer. Or what goes on in my head at any given moment.

This might be another post where some of you might say that you already knew that, but I am being exposed to things in this doctoral pursuit of mine and I like to share. I also like to clumsily ram every theory or term I might learn into a mobile learning framework of some sort and this post is no different. I had mentioned in a few previous posts, metaphors for mobile learning as technological interaction and use of (mobile) tools. This post is more about positioning the learner themselves in that interaction with tools and meaning making.

Flaneur is to Bricoleur as Engineer is to…

For the life of me I can’t remember who or how this term popped up (somewhere at the Institute of Education), but popped up it did. The term is bricoleur and it refers to a tinkerer, someone who uses a large variety of tools, materials, or constructs to ‘make’ something. It is a term with an anthropological root introduced by the sociologist Levi-Strauss in 1962:

A term describing a type of thinking and symbolization; the opposite of “engineer”. The engineer creates specialized tools for specialized purposes. The bricoleur is a “jack-of-all-trades”, who uses few, non-specialized tools for a wide variety of purposes. There is a loose connection between, on the one hand, the bricoleur and “primitive” societies, and, on the other, the engineer and modern societies (see evolutionism). For Lévi-Strauss, the two concepts are the point of departure for a complex theoretical discussion of “the science of the concrete” in premodern, “primitive” cultures. (

From a sociological perspective, it presents a distinction between primitive and modern cultures. However, for the purposes of this post it represents, as I see it, a learning stance or mindset to be adopted when confronted with new environments. I think it complements quite nicely the notion of the flaneur as learner, that meandering, wandering type sifting through the artifacts of a potential learning landscape. The bricoleur extends that wandering of the flaneur with tinkering, assembling and disassembling materials for general, not specified effect. The wanderer finds something interesting, tinkers with them, and occasionally something is learned through production. There are a thousand, already articulated educational and linguistic uses of this bricoleur or bricolage (Deleuze, Guattari, Turkle, etc.), but I didn’t want to go down the discourses route in this post as I would never come up again.

This approach doesn’t negate or diminish in the slightest the notion of the scientist and engineer, or the ‘science of the concrete’, the notion of observation>hypothesizing>experimentation>deduction. It just provides a counterpoint for this approach, one that is valuable in times of flux or change. I might suggest that technology and the new media landscape being what it is, we are experiencing such a moment of flux. The variables aren’t concrete enough, not defined enough, their assemblies, frames, and genres are not clearly articulated enough to systematically approach them in this deductive sense. To torture you further with this analogy, I provide my version of the SAT analogy:

Scientist (or hypothesizing) is to engineer as flaneur is to bricoleur (tinkering)
Scientist (or hypothesizing) is to engineer as flaneur is to bricoleur (tinkering)

Application to mLearning: Systematic Flaneuring and Endless Tinkering: Defining the Variables

So the application I see here for mLearning is the positioning of the learner in the new media landscape made possible not only through the shifts of discourse and disciplinary activity, but also made possible through the technology itself. I rehash a passage from Kress I had discussed before:

The development of devices for ‘mobile learning’ relies on the existence of a habitus of mobility, provisionality, fluidity, etc. That which is ‘mobile’ is not knowledge or information, but is the individual’s habitus: whether I am out in the countryside, in my bed, or in a classroom is, relatively speaking, beside the point. What is not beside the point is the ability to bring things into conjunction which might previously have been relatively difficult to join. An instance of this might be data-logging. I take a device with me somewhere. On the device forms of information can be recorded (or it may be (pre-) specialised to the recording / coding of information).

The flaneur and bricoleur sits perfectly within this scenario as mobile technology brings “things into conjunction which might have been relatively difficult to join.” We can peruse and assemble diverse modes of media, diverse situated perspectives, diverse and often incongruous themes, juxtapose time (past) against itself (current), all simultaneously and non-linearly. We need wanderers and tinkerers at this stage of the knowledge cycle as the environment itself, the boundaries of activity, have yet to be clearly identified or defined. It is difficult to hypothesize or engineer when the variables of interaction and construction aren’t clearly identified. Akin to hypothesizing (not seriously) that the moon was made of cheese. So bring in the flaneurs and the bricoleurs and let them tinker their way through to structure. mLearning is at that stage of development where this type of activity is necessary.

What assemblies are possible in this scenario? What will constructed texts look like when produced in mobile environments? Framing the conversation around the materiality of what is being tinkered with and assembled and the social practices that create meaning around these assemblies is important and so I turn to the ever-handy Glossary of Multimodal Terms website for a definition of materiality:

In multimodal theorizing, materiality refers to the fact that modes are taken to be the product of the work of social agents shaping material, physical ‘stuff’ into meaningful stuff, that is, into cultural / semiotic resources. This materiality has important semiotic potentials in itself: sound has different affordances to ‘graphic’ inscription; gesture offers different potentials to colour; and so on.

It is this materiality that encapsulates the wandering and the tinkering and accounts for it en masse, as a social product of negotiated meaning. In other words, we (collectively) tinker and toy and assemble meaning from these scraps of materiality and through these tools (mobile) and then negotiate our meanings with one another. Then and only then is meaning/knowledge produced. Like any brainstorming or creative process (tinkering most certainly is), much of it won’t stick to the wall. A lot of it will seem absurd or trite or infantile or just plain wrong. But we don’t always know what meaning these assemblies will take before they are constructed (we aren’t the engineers in this scenario); only in their realized form, does meaning present itself. Mobile learning provides this opportunity for an extended wander, an extended tinker, an assembly of the farthest reaches of materiality itself. An opportunity to collide worlds of meaning that have yet to be collided.

It is not the only path to meaning, but the flaneur/bricoleur learning mindset is an especially fruitful one for environments or times of flux. Ie, the world as we know it. Also, for mobile learning as the environment it creates is the definition of flux and ephemerality.

Two paths to knowledge; both constructive. Mediated or expanded by technology.
Two paths to knowledge; both constructive. Mediated or expanded by technology.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

6 thoughts on “mLearning analogy: flaneur is to bricoleur as scientist is to engineer?”
  1. I think I do but that may just be for how it reflects my own interests (one of my blogs is the contrary flâneuse). Once flânerie is part of the equation (observing la foule and other spectacles) like and yet not quite the same as scientist), bricoleur makes sense. Wish I’d thought of it. There is also the tinker(er) as wanderer.

    Serendipity catching Heli’s blog post and wandering this way because of it. I was just thinking of you this afternoon because the Santa Fe Institute MOOC on Complexity Theory has a unit on cities.

    1. Hello there, Vanessa!

      Great to hear from you. I wasn’t aware that Heli had mentioned me (and my two forenames!) so many thanks for pointing that out. Honored to be in such select company on that list.

      It is interesting that you mention cities and complexity theory as my thoughts are turning that way again. Cities as designed learning spaces. I am still articulating some thoughts on this, on how learning design can be a layer of architectural design, part of the whole process. Haven’t quite found the words for it, yet. However, these types of flanerie, bricoleur, wanderer, tinkerer, scientists, these learning types are all applicable to cities as learning spaces. So I think we have the learner and learning type and now we need supporting structures to maximize learning in these spaces that so define us.

      Thanks again, Vanessa!

  2. take at various organizing metaphors for the city: maze, layers (palimpsest, excavation), walled space, chaos. wilderness, wasteland, anthill, cauldron ~ from hell to the City of God and all points in between. These appear over and over in city literature from antiquity onward.

    Then there is Wittgenstein’s essay comparing analyzing language to excavating a city.

    1. Great metaphors here, Vanessa. I think the metaphor approach is a valid way to understand the shape of organic social interaction, the kind of learning that seems to be emerging in these new spaces. Once we settle on the metaphor, then we design structures/activities around it. I am surprised sometimes that more designers don’t speak in terms of metaphors. Highly accessible ways to discuss conceptual things. The Wittgenstein essay is especially good for this, so thanks for reminding me of that. I had just read Mumford’s The City in History and was reviewing Alexander’s A Pattern Language and I think those had me thinking of cities as learning spaces. Thanks again for the comment, Vanessa! Always have me thinking!

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