Book Notes & Thoughts: Communities of Practice, Part I

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, by Etienne Wenger

At the end of my first two semesters in graduate school, I think I know just enough now to know that I do not know what I want to study or how I want to study it. I am still interested in networks, leadership, and change, but do not know the level at which I want to resolve those ideas, much less how I would study it. Much of the work I want to do this summer and fall is searching for a conceptual frame that helps me describe my observations in a way that moves understanding (mine and research generally) forward. I’m beginning this here with Communities of Practice.

Reading this was slow, especially coming off of the three previous books I’ve written about (Connected, Where Good Ideas Come From, and Disrupting Class), which were popular nonfiction, written to be engaging to a general audience. Communities of Practice is definitely aimed for an academic audience, and “presents a theory of learning that starts with this assumption: engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are.” This assumption is not how I have previously conceived learning. I think it is pretty typical in a Western, individualist society to think of learning as something individuals do, with teaching as something we do to others, not as something created between us.

Engaging with this theory, and with the theoretical framework of distributed leadership, has challenged me to see the world differently. I see the value: both give a better explanation/understanding of what we observe than those that try to understand people’s actions as isolated. It’s still hard for me to stay in this mind-space as I try to understand interactions, like in my own research, but hopefully this will come in time as I become more familiar!

The first section is about practice. “The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure in meaning to what we do.” (p.47) “A focus on practice is not merely a functional perspective on human activities, even activities involving multiple individuals. It does not address simply the mechanics of getting something done, individually or in groups; it is not a mechanical perspective. It includes not just bodies and not just brains, but moreover that which gives meaning to the motions of bodies and the workings of brains.” (p.51)

Seeing actions as embedded in historical and social context is something that can feel artificial, but as I began to look at this, it makes sense. When I think about everyday actions, like eating breakfast, I don’t necessarily see the history and social context of it. It’s there, but it’s not really helpful. I think unpredictable or seemingly illogical acts might make this easier to see. I am writing this two days after the shooting in a black church by a white man. He killed 9 people. Some (white) people have responded to say that this is incomprehensible – why would he do such a thing? The historical and social context is critical in how this situation is understood, and increased understanding of the context might move the conversation forward. When I have previously tried to understand school leadership, usually in the school that I was working, my view of the social context of the actions was myopic, because I couldn’t have the full perspective. As a researcher, it will be my role to find levels of social and historical context that give structure and meaning to observations.

The idea of a making meaning as negotiating the duality of participation and reification resonates with me and with my experiences. It is essentially what I am acting out right now as I write this: I type and delete words, restart sentences, rearrange thoughts that I am attempting to represent through a common language. Meaning emerges – one for me (better understanding of what I’m reading) and one for you, the reader (new ideas, perspective). The question I continue to wrestle with is “at what level of negotiation should I pay attention?” The level of word choice in a meeting or the level of yearlong aggregate actions? Probably that unsatisfactory answer, “it depends” on what I want to understand.

Chapter 4 looks at the boundaries on a community of practice, which of course depend on what you delineate, but I took away a lot of philosophical questions as a researcher. For one, I will most likely not be a member of the community that I study, which puts me outside the boundary and limits my understanding. There are brokers, who are “able to make new connections across communities of practice, enable coordination, and – if they are good brokers – open new possibilities for meaning.” (p.109) “The job of brokering is complex. It involves processes of translation, coordination, and alignment between perspectives…. [It] often entails ambivalent relations of multimembership.” (p.109) Not too close to either but close enough to participate. “Their contributions lie precisely in being neither in nor out. Brokering therefore requires an ability to manage carefully the coexistence of membership and nonmembership, yielding enough distance to bring a different perspective, but also enough legitimacy to be listened to.” (p.110) This reminds me of code-switching, which makes me think of the invisible backpack, by Peggy McIntosh. I don’t know if I’ve written about it before, but facilitating this brokerage also ties in to leaders being explicit about the structure of engagement, like teaching in a diverse classroom, rather than than structurelessness that favors those already in power or who “just get it.”

As someone usually looking for where innovation and change is happening, Wenger writes about “peripheries” as a space where communities of practice connect with the rest of the world: “casual but legitimate access to a practice without subjecting them to the demands of full membership.” (p.117) This reminds me of the affinity spaces that James Paul Gee writes about. This loosening of “mutual engagement” at the periphery means that “the periphery is a very fertile area of change.” Boundaries, edges, transitions… good places to look for interesting things.

In Chapter 5, Wenger addresses “Locality,” zeroing in on what I’ve been thinking about – what social configuration is worth studying? “the notion of practice refers to a level of social structure that reflects shared learning. Note that this is a level both of analysis and of experience…. In a sense, communities of practice are an analytical category.” (p.126) “The landscape of practice is an emergent structure in which learning constantly creates localities that reconfigure the geography.” (p.131) Ultimately, changing your view is a series of trade-offs, where reducing complexity in one direction increases the complexity that comes into focus. It is not about deciding the best one, but rather it is deciding between the trade-offs.

I will leave off here at the end of Part I and return with Part II. I’ll leave my quotes below for the first three chapters, but beyond that I started just noting important passages in my book because dictating quotes into Evernote started to get tedious.



“inseparable duality of the social and the individual, which is an underlying theme of this book” p. 14

“theories of subjectivity address the nature of individuality as an experience of agency. Rather than taking for granted a notion of agency associated with the individual subject as a self-standing entity, they seek to explain how the experience of subjectivity arises out of an engagement in the social world.” p.15

“A learning based theory of the social order” p.15

Coda 0

“Words like ‘understanding’ require some caution because they can easily reflect an implicit assumption that there is some universal standard of the knowable. In the abstract, anything can be known, and the rest is ignorance. But in a complex world in which we must find a livable identity, ignorance is never simply ignorance, and knowing is not just a matter of information. In practice, understanding is always straddling the known and unknown in a subtle dance of the self. It is a delicate balance. Whoever we are, understanding in practice is the art of choosing what to know and what to ignore in order to proceed with our lives.” p.41

Intro to part I

“A practice is what these claims processors have developed in order to be able to do their job and have a satisfying experience at work. It is in the sense that they constitute a community of practice. The concept of practice connotes doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure in meaning to what we do. In this sense, practice is always social practice.” P47

“Communities of practice are the prime context in which we can work out commonsense through mutual engagement. Therefore, the concept of practice highlights the social and negotiated character of both the explicit in the tacit in our lives.” Page 47

Practice is not meant to mean the opposite of thinking p48

Ch 1: meaning

“A focus on practice is not merely a functional perspective on human activities, even activities involving multiple individuals. It does not address simply the mechanics of getting something done, individually or in groups; it is not a mechanical perspective. It includes not just bodies and not just brains, but moreover that which gives meaning to the motions of bodies and the workings of brains.” P 51

Negotiation as continuous interaction, of gradual achievement, and of give-and-take p53

Negotiation of meaning as a process

Participation as the embodiment of the actions by the person plus reification as the artifact of certain practices p55

But it is broader than mere engagement in practice. P57

The concept of reification to refer to the process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congealed this experience into “thingness.” For example writing a law or making a tool

“A certain understanding is given form. This form then becomes a focus for the negotiation of meaning. As people use the law to argue a point, use the procedure to know what to do, or use the tool to perform an action” p59

“Participation and reification cannot be considered in isolation: they come as a pair” page 62

“It is often convenient to act as the meanings are in actions or artifacts themselves” p 63 “The negotiation of meaning weaves participation and reification so seamlessly”


“participation is essential to repairing the potential misalignments inherent in reification” page 64

“Mirroring the role of participation, reification is essential to repairing the potential misalignments inherent in participation: when the informality of participation is confusingly loose (etc.)… Then it is reification that comes to the rescue” page 64

Duality versus dichotomy: “a duality is a single conceptual unit that is formed by two inseparable and mutually constitutive elements who’s inherent tension and complementarity give the concept richness and dynamism” p66

“In this interplay, our experience and there were world shape each other through a reciprocal relation that goes to the very essence of who we are. The world is we shape it, and our experiences the world shapes it, or like the mountain in the river. They shape each other, but they have their own shape. They are reflections of each other, but they have their own existence, in their own realms. They sit around each other, but they remain distinct from each other. They cannot be transformed into each other, yet they transform each other. The river only carbs in the mountain only guides, yet in their interaction, the carving becomes the guiding in the guiding becomes the carving.” P71

Chapter 2: Community

Mutual engagement

It is is not a CoP bc they work in the same office. “It is because they sustain dense relations of mutual engagement organized around what they are there to do.”

What is the difference between community of practice and culture?

Joint Enterprise

Shared Repertoire

p. 85

CoP “are not intrinsically beneficial or harmful. They are not privileged in terms of positive or negative effects. Yet they are a force to be reckoned with… such communities hold the key to real transformation – the kind that has real effects on people’s lives. From this perspective, the influence of other forces (e.g., the control of an institution or the authority of an individual) are no less important, but they must be understood as mediated by the communities in which their meanings are to be negotiated in practice.”

Chapter 3: learning

“It is a matter of sustaining enough mutual engagement in pursuing an enterprise together to share some significant learning. From this perspective, communities of practice can be thought of as shared history of learning.” P86

Kinds of histories:

Remembering and forgetting

Continuity and discontinuity

The politics of participation in reification

“In order to sustain the social coherence of participation revocation within which it can be exercised, control must be constantly be reproduced, reasserted, renegotiated in practice.”p93

Learning in practice

“Clean processors and managers really talk about the job is learning.… One reason they do not think of their job is learning is that what they learned is their practice. Learning is not reified as an extraneous school or as a special category of activity or membership. Their practice is not merely a context for learning something else. Engagement and practice… Is both the stage in the object, the road and the destination” P95

“The combination of perturbability and resilience is a characteristic of adaptability. Learning involves a close interaction of order and chaos. The continuity of an emergent structure derives not from stability but from adaptability. Indeed, as an emergent structure, practice is neither inherently stable nor inherently unstable.” P97

Page 100 – newcomers

“Practice is an ongoing social interactional process and the intro of newcomers is merely a version of what practice already is” p102

CoP “reproduce their membership in the same way that they come about in the first place”

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