Communities of practice

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The concept of Community of Practice (CoP) emerges from a paradigm shift in the study of learning, that sees it as a social practice and situated, as a process and as participation. According to this paradigm, participation is the central condition for learning. Learning is understood as collective, relational, and as a social process. The focus

The CoP framework is align with the practice turn in social sciences as well as with the sociocultural study of literacies.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger seminal text "Situated learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation" (1991) developed a new theorization of learning, in where active social participation was understood as the primary condition for learning processes, not just a context or something attached to learning processes. Assuming participation in social practice as a condition for learning, opens a wide range of social settings where learning can be studied both in formal and informal settings. Their major achievement is to make the connection of social practice to learning.

Situated learning, itself, is a part of a tradition of educators and theorists that understand individuals as social beings, active learners, and place high value in real life experiences and situations.

According to situated learning paradigm, learning not only takes place in the school classroom and is not only associated with teaching. Learning through participation in social experiences.

Lave and Wenger conceptualize learning as "social participation" and that is why the community becomes the primary unit of analysis. The community is the situation. The context where learning takes place becomes more important than the individual itself in this kind of analysis. People learn through their co-participation in the shared practices of a community.

Although the agency of the individuals tends to be secondary in the CoP framework, there is mutual reshaping of the community and the individual as they interact. The idea is that we need to belong in order to learn.

According to Lave and Wenger, learning is understood as participation in a community of practice. Hence, the analysis focuses on the group and the collective more than the individual, the relational social network more than the mind. Individuals learn by being in social relation to others.

As people learn to become full members of the community of practice, they articulate an identity. The formation of an identity reveals the learning process.

Lave and Wenger recognize the existence of novices and experts. However, the "curriculum" is available to newbies through their increasing participation in structured social practices (activities, tasks, habits) of the community.

Participation in communities of practice represent opportunities for people to become "knowledgeable practicioners" through their co-participation.

The use of the term community carries connotations of togetherness. It is not neutral. "It does imply participation in an activity system about which participants share understanding concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities." (1991: 98)

Lave and Wenger three central concepts are:

1. Situated learning: "situatedness" is reffers to "activity in and with the world" (1991:33) Learning and knowledge can never be decontextualized. Application and situation in the lives of people is what makes learning and knowledge meaningful.

2. Legitimate peripheral participation. Approach to learning as engagement in social practice. Their intention was to develop an approach that could reveal learning as it actually is, not as how it ought to be.

3. Communities of practice: the locus or the site of learning. Relatively underdeveloped and ambiguous.

Social relations are formed, negotiated, and sustained around the activity that has brought people together. Social relations are portrayed as negotiated, emergent and performed products of collaborative participation in action.

Lave and Wenger have been criticized for focusing only on one kind of participation: the one experiecned by legitimate peripheral participants engaged on an "inbound" journey from newcomer to old-timer in a community of practice. There are different patterns of participation (learning) associated with individuals, groups and workplaces. In 1998, Wenger identifies five trajectories of participation:

1. Inbound 2. Peripheral 3. Insider 4. Boundary 5. Outbound.

Membership requires participation in accordance with the traditions and values that organize de CoP.

Learning is situated activity.

Newcomers learn thorugg "legitimate peripheral participation". Progressive participation in circumscribed but real occupational tasks and practices, under the guidance, discipline and surveillance of established members of a community of practitioners. In becoming old-timers, novices enter into a social identity by passing from peripheral to central membership of a community.

Learning is integral part of practice itself.

Participation in an activity system, through which members share understandings about their practical tasks and they symbolic meanings of their activities. (1991:98)

According to Wenger, "we go thorugh a succession of forms of participation our identities form trajectories, both within and across communities of practice" (1998: 154).

Wenger Development of the CoP

Wenger's later work focus on CoP as the "locus for the acquisition of knowledge" (1998: 214). What distance him from the original work that intended to understand learning as participation instead of acquisition.

WEnger developed a rich conceptual framework around the concept of CoP and turned into a "toolkit" for organization design and knowledge management (Wenger et al. 2002)

There are three basic characteristics of a CoP that distinguish it from other types of communities:

  • The Domain: Each CoP has a shared identity that unifies the members of the community. This is referred to as the domain and is typically the common interest that brings the group together (e.g., bilingual school mental health services).
  • The Community: These are the people within a CoP who are dedicated to interacting regularly and building the relationships needed to address the problems of practice that the CoP seeks to improve. CoP members engage in shared dialogues, activities, and information and resource sharing as part of their participation in the community.
  • The Practice: A CoP is also defined by the fact that its members are not just interested parties, but are actual practitioners who will take the experience of the community to their daily work. They will apply in practice a shared repertoire of resources, stories, tools, and ways of solving problems.

In later works Wenger (1998) will develop a three dimensional criteria for the study of CoPs:

  • mutual engagement,
  • a joint enterprise
  • a shared repertoire.

According to Wenger (1998) there are indicators that provide evidence o the existence: "shared ways of engaging in doing things together; local lore; shared stories; inside jokes; knowing laughter; specific tools; representations and other other artefacts." (1998: 124-125)

CoPs are not self-contained entities but are located in wider historical, cultural and institutional contexts "with specific resources and constraints" (1998:78).

Wenger doesn't analyze the social conditions that make possible CoP nor how those conditions are unequally distributed in society.


A growing body of literature has elaborated a criticism of the concept of the CoP. There is an acknowledge of the utility of the concept but the theory is qualified as slippery and elusive, plenty of assumptions, and not very rigorous.

Lave and Wenger describe CoPS as if their practices were coherent and consensual. The language Wnger uses is kind of idealistic : "mutual engagement", "joint enterprise", and "shared repertoire". Harmonizing categories. Ignore the dynamic process in the formation and reproduction of communities of practice.

Lave and Wenger overlook how institutional contexts determine internal CoP operations. They just focus on relations between community members and their significance for processes of identity formation.

Little attention to the power and control relationships within the community and between communities.

Network theory could be helpful for distinguishing differnet types of CoPs, with different disposition of relationships, and differenet learning territories.

Other under-examined issues: conflict and collaboration, resistance and control.

Inequalities and asymmetrics of power.