Communities of practice are groups of people who share similar interests and objectives. In pursuing these interests and objectives, they make use of common practices, work with similar artifacts, and use a common language (Wenger 1998). The concept of community of practice was first coined by Lave and Wenger (1991), when discussing learning processes within a new framework, that of “situated learning.” In that publication, the authors explored the activities of certain groups, such as of nondrinking alcoholics, butchers, and midwives in Yucutan. These groups were related in their modes of learning, characterized by Lave and Wenger as “apprenticeship.” The authors conceived knowledge as a social process in which individuals participated in mutual learning at different levels, which depended on their authority in the group – whether a person was a newcomer or a long-timer. It was specifically the process through which a newcomer learnt from the more longstanding members that comprised the core notion of community of practice. Lave and Wenger named this process Legitimate Peripherical Participation (LLP).
In a later publication, Wenger (1998) systematized and elaborated on the concept. There, the author maintained that communities of practice arose through mutual engagement in a joint enterprise, and that individuals shared repertoires of many kinds (e.g., routines, vocabulary, discourse). It is within this redefinition of communities of practice that Wenger claims that they can be defined along three main dimensions: (1) what they are about a joint enterprise that is understood by all members and is continually negotiated among them; (2) how it functions (people become members through shared practices and are related to each other by getting involved in those practices); (3) what it produces (the members build a shared repertoire).
Communities of practice are everywhere and have existed for as long as human beings have learnt together, and most of us are normally members of a large number of them (at work, school, home, in political and leisure activities, among others). In some of these communities we are core members, whereas in others we are more peripheral participants. We might have just joined some of them (newcomers), or we might have been members of some for as long as we have existed (long-timers). Some characteristics of communities of practice also vary. A community of practice can comprise a small or a large number of people. It might have a name, even though many do not. It might be intentionally formed or have incidentally arisen as a result of members’ interactions. Moreover, it might last for years, going through different types of members, or it might exist intensely for only a short period of time. It might be formal or informal, be local or cover different countries. The community might meet face to face or only online, through computer-mediated communications technologies (CMCs). Furthermore, a community is constantly renewed as new members join the group and old members leave.
The concept of community of practice has been largely debated in the field of education (Barton & Tusting 2005). Community of practice steers away from the idea that learning is an individual process. Instead, it understands learning as social and as something that comes largely from our experience in participating in everyday life in different communities. In other words, “situated learning” presupposes that learning calls for a process of engagement in a community of practice. The concept has been extended since the early 1990s and applied to environments other than educational ones. It has gained special ground within organizational contexts and in the field of linguistics, especially in studies of language and gender.
Several attempts were made to redefine community of practice in ways that would be more relevant to the business environment. The main interest in doing so stems from the later publication by Wenger (1998), in which the author publishes an ethnographic study of a claims-processing unit in a large insurance company. Within organizational development, community of practice (commonly abbreviated within this area as CoP) is employed to demonstrate that performing a task demands more than technical knowledge or certain skills. Within organizational development, community of practice is defined as the process of social learning that takes place when people who have shared interest in a problem get together to collaborate over some time in order to discuss ideas, propose solutions, and create innovations. Scholars within that field claim that communities of practice can improve organizational performance as they create organizational value. Lesser and Storck (2001) suggest that one should think of a community as an engine for the development of “social capital,” understood here as the stock of connections, relationships, and institutions that create a society’s social relations, as well as what binds them together and makes cooperation possible, such as trust, shared values, and shared behaviors.
On what concerns organizational development, Lesser and Storck (2001) go on defending the view that the social capital created within communities of practice leads to behavioral change that positively influences business performance. The characteristics associated with communities of practice within organizations are: connections among practitioners who might or not be co-located; relationships that build a sense of trust and mutual obligation; and a common language and context that can be shared by community members. Among the positive business outcomes identified by the authors through the formation and development of communities of practice are: decrease in the learning curve of employees; prevention of “reinvention” of the wheel; and generation of new ideas for products and services.
Language, Discourse, And Gender
Language and discourse are crucial in the development of communities of practice, specifically in what concerns the development of shared repertoires. Users develop certain linguistic and interactional patterns as they join in activities in the several communities of practice of which they are members. Each community develops a set of linguistic and interactional behaviors which function in somewhat different ways in other communities. Within the field of linguistics, the concept of community of practice has been quite fruitful for studies that focus on the relationships between language and gender. Instead of seeing gender as a set of practices imposed on the individual by society, as essentialist approaches have done, a large number of scholars have turned to a position in which they see gender as a more dynamic construct that is learnt and performed, and that can subverted. It is a perspective on language and gender that finds its roots in the everyday social practices of specific communities (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992).
Studies of language and gender within this perspective claim that gender identity is negotiated through the individuals’ interactions in specific communities. The concept, as used by scholars interested in language and gender, emphasizes the mutability of the linguistic expression of gender identity and assumes that intra-gender differences are natural (Ostermann 2003). Following the direction taken by various feminists, the body of research on language and gender in the 1990s began to defy essentialist links between gender and language that see gender as given (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1995). Since the early 1990s, in particular, there has been an increasing interest in considering a complex of issues involved in “doing” gender in language (Bergvall 1999). Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet’s essay “Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice” (1992) was influential in shifting the focus of language and gender research to diversity. The essay criticized the binarism of “women’s style” and “men’s style.” By building upon the concept of community of practice, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1992, 1995) argue that gender identity too is negotiated through the individuals’ participation in communities of practice, and that even though individual and community identity might be experienced as constant, they are always going through changes.
Studies on language and gender through the perspective of community of practice (in the studies of language and gender, commonly abbreviated as CofP) assume that gender is “occasioned” within interaction (Stokoe 1998) and thus in order to understand gender one has to look at the situatedness of talk (Ostermann 2003). More specifically, one has to look for explanations by ethnographically investigating a particular community in their range of practices; i.e., not only their ways of talking, but also their beliefs, values, and power relations (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992).
As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1995) explain, the way people talk reflects and creates their association with some people and dissociation from others, their acceptance of some social practices and rejection of others, their claim to membership in some communities and not others. “And within communities of practice, the continual modification of common ways of speaking provides a touchstone for the process of construction of forms of group identity” (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1995, 470 – 471). Thus, becoming a member of a community of practice – such as at a new job – takes learning, and requires the “acquisition of sociolinguistic competence,” which is the process of gaining control over the discourse practices constitutive of that specific community (Holmes & Meyerhoff 1999, 174). In other words, by gaining more and more competence also in the discursive practices of a specific community of practice, an individual moves from a more peripheral position to a more central position in his or her membership.
A number of studies within the field of language and gender have been developed through the framework of community of practice, such as the investigation of the communities of practice in the lives of pregnant women, the negotiation of identity among female nerds at a US high school, the analysis of the discursive practices of allfemale institutions that address violence against women in Brazil, and the investigation of the language used by women in a sexual assault tribunal.
Even though not directly addressed by its proponents, the concept of communities of practice seems to have a strong relationship to the concept of “habitus” (Bourdieu 1991), especially in what concerns the construction of shared practices and repertoires. Habitus represents the practices that are involved in structuring a person’s world and her or his place in it. It is particularly this aspect of habitus that is related to the concept of communities of practice. Thus, it is the situated, occasioned communities of practice in which groups mutually engage in specific activities, and in somewhat intensive ways, that give rise to a particular set of socially shared linguistic and nonlinguistic practices (Ostermann 2003).
- Barton, D., & Tusting, K. (eds.) (2005). Beyond communities of practice: Language, power and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Bergvall, V. L. (1999). Toward a comprehensive theory of language and gender. Language in Society, 28(2), 273 – 293.
- Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (trans. G. Raymond & M. Adamson). Cambridge: Politys.
- Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1992). Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 461– 490.
- Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1995). Constructing meaning, constructing selves: Snapshots of language, gender, and class from Belten High. In K. Hall and M. Bucholtz (eds.), Gender articulated: Language and the socially constructed self. New York: Routledge, pp. 469 – 507.
- Holmes, J., & Meyerhoff, M. (1999). The community of practice: Theories and methodologies in language and gender research. Language in Society, 28(2), 173 –183.
- Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Lesser, E. L., & Storck, J. (2001). Communities of practice and organizational performance. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 831– 841.
- Ostermann, A. C. (2003). Communities of practice at work: Gender, facework, and the power of habitus at an all-female police station and a crisis intervention center in Brazil. Discourse Society, 14, 473 – 505.
- Stokoe, E. H. (1998). Talking about gender: The conversational construction of gender categories in academic discourse. Discourse and Society, 9(2), 217– 240.
- Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.