Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity.

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Summary and reading log of Wenger, Etienne, 1998: Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity[edit]

N.B.! This reading log is incomplete!

The book presents a theory of learning that is based on an assumption of social practices being fundamental for human beings’ learning and identity development. Learning is thus seen as a process of social participation, and the primary unit of analysis “communities of practice” that people form in different contexts. These communities of practice are everywhere and we all participate in several communities of practice at any given time. The term may be new, but the experience is not, Wenger states (p.7).

Introduction – A social theory of learning

Point of departure for the book is a critical perspective of what usually has been considered as learning – an individual, separate process resulting from teaching. The challenge is thus described as the following: to place learning in the context of “our lived experience of participation in the world” (p.3)

Four premises that Wenger states in terms of learning: 1. Human beings are social beings. 2. Knowledge is a matter of competence with respect to valued enterprises 3. Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises – or active engagement in the world 4. Meaning – our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful – is ultimately what learning is to produce. (p.4)

Participation for Wenger is being active participants of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities. Participation shapes what we do, who we are and how we interpret what we do.

Wenger also presents a model of four components of a social theory of learning (p.5):

  • Learning as belonging - community
  • Learning as doing – practice
  • Learning as becoming – identity
  • Learning as experience - meaning

The different components are defined as follows: Meaning: a way of talking about our (changing) ability to experience our lives and the world as meaningful Practice: a way of talking about the shared historical resources, frameworks and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action Community: a way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence Identity: a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities

About schools (p.6): CoPs emerge everywhere, in the classroom as well as on the playground, officially and inofficially, in spite of curriculum and because of it. According to Wenger, the learning that is most personally transformative is the kind of learning that involves membership in these CoPs. He therefore suggests that we rethink and revise our understanding of learning. The theory of social learning proposed by Wenger is built at the intersection of two main axes of intersecting traditions. On the vertical axis, the theories of social structure and situated experience and on the horizontal axis the theories of practice and identity (p.12). The social theory of learning, in the intersection of these, implies that learning as participation takes place through our engagement in actions and interactions, embedded in culture and history. Learning is also “the vehicle for the evolution of practices… as well as for the development and transformation of identities” (p.13). Wenger reminds us also of the relevance of theories of collectivity – subjectivity, power and meaning (p.14).

Short summary of the different parts of the book:

Part I Practice provides as series of characterizations of the concept of CoP, including the following:

  • The level of analysis at which the concept of practice is useful
  • The defining characteristics of a CoP
  • The evolution of CoPs over time
  • Boundaries and relations among CoPs
  • Constellations formed by interrelated CoPs
  • An essay: “Knowing in practice”

Part II focuses on identity with the same analytical perspective and...

  • Injects the notion of the person into the theory without having to posit an individual subject to start with
  • Expands the domain of inquiry to social configurations – contexts for identity formations
  • Requires a theory of power by which to characterize the formation of identity in practice as the ability to negotiate an experience of meaning

In the epilogue then, Wenger discusses two kinds of social design, of which I will focus on education and the formation of identities later in this text.