Within and Beyond Communities of Practice: Making Sense of Learning Through Participation, Identity and Practice &ast

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abstract  Situated learning theory offers a radical critique of cognitivist theories of learning, emphasizing the relational aspects of learning within communities of practice in contrast to the individualist assumptions of conventional theories.
  Within and Beyond Communities of Practice:Making Sense of Learning Through Participation,Identity and Practice* Karen Handley, Andrew Sturdy, Robin Fincham andTimothy Clark Tanaka Business School, Imperial College, London; Warwick Business School; University of Stirling;  Durham Business School     Situated learning theory offers a radical critique of cognitivist theories of learning, emphasizing the relational aspects of learning within communities of practicein contrast to the individualist assumptions of conventional theories. However, althoughmany researchers have embraced the theoretical strength of situated learning theory,conceptual issues remain undeveloped in the literature. Roberts, for example, argues inthis issue that the notion of ‘communities of practice’ – a core concept in situatedlearning theory – is itself problematic. To complement her discussion, this paperexplores the communities of practice concept from several perspectives. Firstly, weconsider the perspective of the individual learner, and examine the processes whichconstitute ‘situated learning’. Secondly, we consider the broader socio-cultural context inwhich communities of practice are embedded. We argue that the cultural richness of this broader context generates a fluidity and heterogeneity within and beyondcommunities. Finally, we argue that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish conceptuallybetween the terms ‘participation’ and ‘practice’ because of occasional duplication of meaning. We propose, instead, a refinement of the definition to allow for greaterconceptual clarity. INTRODUCTION Situated learning theory ( Lave and Wenger, 1991 ) offers a radical critique of cognitivist theories of learning. In particular, it questions the pedagogic assumptionthat classroom-based ‘learning’ (as a discrete and decontextualized activity) is aseffective as learning within the communities in which what is ‘practiced’ is learntand vice versa. The cognitivist idealization of the classroom is founded on apositivist assessment of abstract knowledge: that such knowledge is valuable  Address for reprints  : Karen Handley, Tanaka Business School, Imperial College, London, UK(karen.handley@imperial.ac.uk). © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ,UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.  Journal of Management Studies   43:3 May 20060022-2380  because it reflects an objective reality and can be manipulated using rationalist andsymbolic logic (see Gardner, 1987). Situated learning theory, however, argues thatthe cognitivist focus on abstract knowledge is misleading because it overlooks thelargely tacit dimension of workplace (and other) practice. Instead, the suggestion isthat individual learning should be thought of as emergent, involving opportunitiesto  participate   in the  practices   of the community as well as the development of an  identity which provides a sense of belonging and commitment. Knowledge is not primarilyabstract and symbolic, but is provisional, mediated and socially-constructed(Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Blackler, 1995).Situated learning theory positions the ‘community of practice’ as the context inwhich an individual develops the practices (including values, norms and relation-ships) and identities appropriate to that community. However, in contrast totheories of socialization (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978) which predict the smooth reproduc-tion of communities over time, situated learning theory calls attention to thepossibilities for variation and even intra-community conflict. Individuals bring to acommunity a personal history of involvement with workplace, social and familialgroups whose norms may complement or conflict with one other. These conflictsneed to be negotiated and reconciled at least in part if the individual is to achievea coherent sense of self. An analysis of (individual) situated learning and knowledgetransfer (across communities) thus requires not only a conceptualization of ‘com-munity of practice’, but also an understanding of what happens within and beyondsuch communities.To contribute to these questions and debates, this paper explores the ‘commu-nity of practice’ concept from several perspectives. Firstly, we consider the per-spective of the individual learner, and examine the processes which constitutesituated learning. Secondly, we consider the broader socio-cultural context inwhich communities of practice are embedded. We argue that the cultural richnessof this broader context generates a fluidity and heterogeneity within communitieswhich belies the idealization of communities as cohesive, homogenous ‘socialobjects’ (see also Clark, 2004; Swan et al., 2002). Finally, we return to our discus-sion of the components of situated learning theory, and consider the usage of theterms ‘participation’ and ‘practice’ in the communities of practice literature. Weargue that these terms are ambiguous because of important overlaps in meaning,and we suggest possibilities for redefinition in order to improve conceptual clarity. SITUATED LEARNING WITHIN A COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE:KEY CONCEPTS AND PROCESSES The turn to situated and relational theories of learning in the late 1980s repre-sented a major shift in our understanding of learning and knowledge. It followedthe failure of cognitive science to demonstrate that ‘learning’ was an accumulationof symbolic representations which could be replicated using artificial intelligenceK. Handley et al.642 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006  and taught using intelligent tutoring systems ( Sleeman and Brown, 1982; Wenger,1987). The demise of the ‘strong AI’ project ( Gardner, 1987; Searle, 1980) was evident, for example, in the failure to create a computer program that couldinterpret (and not only ‘read’) newspaper articles. It became apparent that  context   is vital to understanding, learning and practice, and that knowledge is not just‘acquired’ in a mechanical way ( Resnick, 1987; Sfard, 1998). At the same time that the cognitive science community came to realize the importance of context,anthropologists presented research which supported that insight (e.g. Lave, 1988).Indeed,  Situated Learning   ( Lave and Wenger, 1991 ) was an output from collaborationbetween these communities.In contrast to the cognitivist, abstract conception of learning,  Situated Learning  emphasized the socio-cultural dynamic. Learning is described as an ‘integral andinseparable aspect of social practice’ which involves the construction of identity(ibid, p. 53) through changing forms of participation in communities of practice.Here we see the core processes of participation, identity-construction and practicewhich occur within (and across) communities of practice. These core concepts andprocesses are discussed next. Participation Participation is depicted as central to situated learning since it is  through   participa-tion that identity and practices develop. As Wenger has suggested, participationrefers ‘not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certainpeople, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the  practices   of social communities and constructing   identities   in relation to these com-munities’ (Wenger, 1998, p. 4; emphasis in srcinal). Thus, participation is not justa physical action or event (see also Clancey, 1995); it involves both action (‘taking part’) as well as connection (Wenger, 1998, p. 55). Participation brings the ‘possi-bility of mutual recognition’ and the ability to negotiate meaning, but does notnecessarily entail equality or respect (ibid, p. 56) or even collaboration. An examplehere would be the socialization of medical students, as illustrated in Becker’sethnography  Boys in White   (1961).The possibility of conflict reflects a recent interpretation of situated learning theory. By contrast, the earlier work of Lave and Wenger (1991) implied that‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in a community inevitably leads to full social-ization, thus resembling earlier socialization theories following Vygotsky (1978).One reason for the apparent ‘socialization bias’ is that  Situated Learning   ( Lave andWenger, 1991 ) presented what one might call an apprenticeship model of learning in which ‘novices’ initially participated in their community at the periphery, werethen allowed limited participation as they adopted the practices of other practitio-ners, and finally became ‘masters’ enjoying full participation. In recent years,however, Lave (2004) and others have challenged the strict dichotomy betweenCommunities of Practice 643 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006  ‘periphery’ and ‘core/full’ by proposing that participation may involve learning trajectories which do not lead to an idealized ‘full’ participation. Wenger (1998) hasalso raised questions about the initial portrayal of situated learning, suggesting thatthere may be a number of forms of participation, including ‘marginal’. This pointis especially important since, as we discuss later, not everyone aspires to (or canachieve) full participation.To some extent what is at issue here are the dynamics of power (Huzzard,2004). We are not so much concerned here with relations of power in which thecommunity is embedded, such as capitalist employment relations, but with those within  the community (cf. Contu and Willmott, 2003 ). It is here that full partici-pation may be denied to novices by powerful practitioners, as was the case withinthe meatcutter community described in  Situated Learning  . Constraints on newcom-ers may be strongest if the latter threaten to ‘transform’ the knowledge andpractices of the extant community, since that knowledge is important or ‘at stake’to the full participants who have invested in it ( Carlile, 2004). Thus, the dynam-ics between identity-development and forms of participation are critical to theways in which individuals internalize, challenge or reject the existing practices of their community. Identity Situated learning theory brings a renewed or alternative focus on issues of identity.Learning is not simply about developing one’s knowledge and practice, it alsoinvolves a process of understanding who we are and in which communities of practice we belong and are accepted. Within the situated learning literature, thereis surprisingly little explicit reference to theories of identity-construction, althoughthe concept of identity implicitly rests on a critical reading of social identity theory(see Knights and Willmott, 1985). Nevertheless, early interpretations of   Situated Learning   have tended to neglect the effects of broader social and power relations( Contu and Willmott, 2003).In more critical perspectives on identity, the notion of a ‘project of the self’ goessome way to explaining how the nature of individuals’ participation (for example,in a workplace community) influences their understanding of ‘self’ ( Grey, 1994). Alvesson and Willmott (2002) for example, emphasize two main processes of identity construction: identity-regulation and identity-work. The first process refersto regulation srcinating from or mediated through the organization (e.g. recruit-ment, induction and promotion policies) as well as employees’ individual responsessuch as enactment and/or resistance. The second process of ‘identity-work’ refersto employees’ continuous efforts to form, repair, maintain or revise their percep-tions of self. This identity-work involves a negotiation between the organization’sefforts at identity-regulation (which the employee may or may not internalize) andthe employees’ sense of self derived from current work as well as other (work andK. Handley et al.644 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006  non-work) identities. Through these processes, individuals come to embrace orreject opportunities to participate more fully in their community of practice,depending on the ‘fit’ or resonance of those opportunities with their current sensesof self. We return to the topic of identity-conflict later in the paper. Practice The term ‘practice’ is rich in meaning and at times ambiguous ( Knorr Cetina,1999). In an attempt at definition, Brown and Duguid (2001, p. 203) assert that ‘bypractice we mean, as most theorists of practice mean, undertaking or engaging fullyin a task, job or profession’. In this context, practice is always  social   practice(Wenger, 1998, p. 47), and is about ‘doing in a historical and social context thatgives structure and meaning to what we do’ (ibid). By participating in a community,a newcomer develops an awareness of that community’s practice and thus comesto understand and engage with (or adapt and transform) various tools, language,role-definitions and other explicit artefacts as well as various implicit relations, tacitconventions, and underlying assumptions and values. Ibarra (1999) for example,has shown how individuals develop practices by observing others, imitating them,and then adapting and developing their own particular practices in ways whichmatch not only the wider community’s norms, but also their own individual senseof integrity and self. Ibarra calls this process ‘experimenting with provisional selves’(1999). Thus, it is through participation in communities that individuals developand possibly adapt and thereby reconstruct their identities and practice (see also Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993; Breakwell, 1993, 2001). The development of practice and identity through participation in communitiesof practice is illustrated in Figure 1. Here, multiple communities are represented toillustrate the point that individuals are likely to participate in (or, historically, haveparticipated in) more than one community, a point we discuss next. SITUATED LEARNING WITHIN MULTIPLE COMMUNITIES OFPRACTICE: POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICT AND TENSIONS? Having outlined and developed the constructs of participation, identity and prac-tice and the related processes which constitute situated learning, we now return tothe context in which that learning occurs. In particular, we consider the broadersocio-cultural context in which communities of practice are embedded. We willargue that the cultural richness or multiplicity of this broader context generates afluidity and heterogeneity within communities which belies an assumption in theliterature that communities of practice are homogenous ‘social objects’ (see alsoDyck et al., 2005; Swan et al., 2002).Firstly, some clarification is required. As indicated earlier, the phrase ‘com-munity of practice’ is somewhat ambiguous, and the related literature is ‘stillCommunities of Practice 645 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006
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