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Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power, and Social Context

reviewed by Jo Anne Kleifgen - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power, and Social Context
Author(s): David Barton & Karin Tusting (Eds.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, New York
ISBN: 0521544920 , Pages: 256, Year: 2005
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Buzzwords have a way of making the rounds. Recently, in the context of a university’s strategic planning, a dean invoked the term “communities of practice,” which in the business world is applied to the design of work environments and knowledge-management systems that offer a competitive advantage. Ironically, a term originating in academia and taken up by management had circled back to the university setting with a new corporate veneer. The original idea behind Communities of Practice (CoP) was developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991), who were primarily interested in re-conceptualizing learning as a socially-situated activity, a process of participation that moves gradually from being legitimately peripheral to being fully engaged in a community’s practice.

The CoP concept receives detailed treatment in Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power, and Social Context, a collection edited by David Barton and Karin Tusting. As the word “beyond” in the title suggests, the contributing authors attempt to advance CoP theory by informing it with theories of discourses and literacies along with other sociocultural theories. In their succinct introduction, Barton and Tusting describe the trajectory of CoP theory leading to the seminal publication by Lave and Wenger (1991) and to a subsequent book by Wenger (1998). Their volume takes up the latter publication as a point of departure for examination, critique, and proposals for further development.

What follow are ten chapters addressing topics that the contributors argue have received marginal attention in Wenger’s CoP theory. While they acknowledge Wenger’s contribution to a social theory of learning by developing an argument for the value of informal learning on the job, the authors critique his management-oriented treatment of the process of participation in a CoP. Some of the chapters are conceptual essays; others are based on empirical work carried out in the UK. The first four chapters focus on applying theories of language use to CoP theory. The next three chapters extend theories of language use to activity theory in order to focus on “persons doing” the practice. The last three chapters examine CoP theory through other lenses.

In Chapter 1, Barton and Hamilton discuss the potential contributions of social studies of literacy to the theory. The article re-examines two vignettes from Wenger’s 1998 volume—a day in the life of an insurance claims processor and training sessions for using a claims form. The authors discuss aspects of literacy theory that resonate with Wenger’s analysis and signal other aspects that are omitted, such as broader social structures and the movement of texts across contexts, all of which can reveal relations of power. A key point in Wenger’s work is the notion of “reification,” in which semiotic artifacts or mediating tools are produced to give stable, portable form to aspects of practice. Barton and Hamilton argue that these forms vary greatly in use and power, and that analytical tools from linguistics and literacy studies can address this variation. In the second chapter, Tusting demonstrates that, of all the semiotic resources we have at our disposal, language is central. This may seem obvious to most, but, given the “visual turn” that is prominent in the literature, hers is a refreshingly timely reminder. She argues that a critical-linguistics approach offers useful analytical tools to examine the relationship between language and power. She applies a critical discourse model to reanalyze the (constructed) discourse of the unit meeting described in Wenger, showing the relationship between local interaction and broader social structures, and in particular, demonstrating the inherently protean characteristics of communities, a feature that is missing in Wenger’s more formulaic CoP model.

Creese’s Chapter 3 takes readers into a multiethnic London school to examine two student-produced protest texts, the first developed by a group of girls to accuse other girls and teachers of racism, the second written by another group of girls to contest the claims in the first. Her analysis of different participants’ roles illustrates the complex negotiation and development of dominant and marginalized discourses by the girls and their teachers. She argues that the ethnography of communication enhances a CoP approach by providing rich descriptive detail and explanatory power. Workplace data are the focus in Chapter 4, where Rock maps features of the CoP framework onto an interactional-sociolinguistic analysis. The data consist of police explanations of the right to silence to detainees along with the officers’ own reflections about this practice. These data are examined using three features described by Wenger: joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire of resources. The analysis of the officers’ interpretations and their actual interactions with those under arrest reveals both common patterns and diversity of practice. In this, the only chapter in the collection in which a strip of social interaction is analyzed, Rock shows how the police interrogator negotiates what is written in the guidelines and what is said to the detainee in situ while explaining the right to silence. The work demonstrates the complexity of human interactional behavior, which Wenger’s CoP framework fails to show.

The next three chapters argue that including activity theory within CoP theory permits a deeper analysis of individuals within a community. Keating’s description in Chapter 5 of Portuguese immigrant women’s personal experiences with literacy reveals how induction into a CoP can be filled with ambiguity and conflict as the women create new identities in London. Whereas Wenger defines language as a resource for participating in and reifying social practice, Keating argues that participation and reification are located in language and social interaction. Her description of a Portuguese immigrant’s comparison of two women’s magazines illustrates how focusing on activity permits the examination of an individual’s meaning-making and developing senses of self within practice. In Chapter 6, Martin describes a speech/language therapy department, in which there are multiple CoPs, encompassing more than one language. In this situation, a bilingual worker learns on the job from the therapists and negotiates ways to use both Punjabi and English with the clients. Martin’s use of activity theory affords attention to a range of social resources—those elements within the therapy community and those the bilingual worker brings from the outside—to develop new practices within the CoP. Harris and Shelswell apply activity theory to the study of an adult basic learning center in Chapter 7, where their analysis demonstrates the relationship between individuals, CoPs, and wider organizational contexts. They describe how the introduction of a CoP model through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) at first occasions fragmentation among staff and students. Participants work through the contradictions between the CoP model and adult basic-education practices, such as the measurement of individuals’ teaching and learning performances. This work illustrates how learning within a CoP model is not always smooth; power and conflict can call into question an individual’s “legitimate peripheral participation.”

The final three chapters provide distinct contributions. In reviewing past efforts to apply CoP principles to institutions of higher education, Lea’s Chapter 8 demonstrates the effect of Wenger’s later work (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) with its concern for applying CoP to organizational learning. She argues that it focuses on the “how-to” of designing communities of practice without critical analysis of the designs or the learning processes within them. She calls for a return to the earlier CoP concepts in Lave and Wenger, along with an academic-literacies approach. This combination provides a critique of the process of becoming a member and shows the conflicting practices of instructors as gatekeepers and students marginalized from full membership in the academic CoP. In his Chapter 9 essay on the conflict between nuclear workers and management over the falsification of measurements, Myers continues the discussion about the inevitability of conflicts in CoPs. Data for this analysis include official documents along with reports by organizations and newspapers. Myers draws on sociocultural theories of risk to examine risk production in the nuclear power plant and shows how Wenger’s CoP model overlooks ambivalent identities, ambiguities in language, and other uncertainties and contradictions that shape a workplace community. The final chapter is an essay by Gee, who suggests another construct for understanding learning, semiotic social spaces, arguing that the term “community” is too restrictive. Rather than use a concept that labels a group of people (CoP), Gee recommends starting with spaces within which people make meaning. He illustrates a particular kind of semiotic social space—an affinity space—in real-time computer games. He argues that everyday activities of youth doing gaming can illuminate important differences between informal learning in these environments and formal learning in classrooms.

This volume has a number of strengths. It subjects the CoP construct to scrutiny and suggests that mid-level and broader social theories can better inform CoP theory. The authors describe CoPs that are more heterogeneous and less sedimented than those offered in Wenger. They expose the tensions, ambiguities, and complex layers of meaning within CoPs, especially the roles of power and identity. And crucially, the authors convincingly argue that analysis of participants’ language use is central to understanding these features of meaning-making. However, while there is discussion about the need for close analysis of language use, analysis of talk is seldom presented. Contributors pay attention to textually-mediated social worlds by analyzing texts or interviews about texts; however, the talk and social interaction within which texts are developed and/or evoked are scarcely analyzed. Nevertheless, this volume fills the need for a conversation about ways to expand and deepen the scope of CoP theory, thereby making a significant contribution to the field.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13742, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:21:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Jo Anne Kleifgen
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    JO ANNE KLEIFGEN is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and co-director of the Center for Multiple Languages and Literacies. She has conducted research on discourse in classrooms and the workplace, the language of the Internet, and the use of new technologies to support bilingualism and biliteracy for ethnolinguistic minorities. Her work has been published in a number of journals, such as Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Discourse Processes, Research on Language and Social Interaction, and Reading Research Quarterly. She is currently working on a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation to help Latino middle school students in New York City develop their academic literacy.
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