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Etienne Wenger: Communities of Practice

In his now-classic 1998 book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (publ. Cambridge University Press, UK), Etienne Wenger introduces a vignette of a day in the life of a medical insurance claims processor in the USA [p.18-34]. Ariel (not her real name) arrives in the morning to face a day of processing insurance claim forms, finding out missing information, finding out what amount can be claimed for what, and so on - and of being interrupted by phone calls, meetings, etc. She has to enter all the information into a computer system - and she is frustrated that if she is interrupted by the phone half way through entering information and has to look at another record, she will lose all the information she has put in since the computer will not save the information so far. A second, shorter vignette [p.35-38] describes the struggles people have with one particular form and how to explain to customers the decisions that are made around it. Both vignettes are created from Wenger's observations in a real firm.

Overview of Wenger's Book

Wenger's vignettes are an insightful portrayal of the nitty-gritty, day-by-day responses, achievements, communications, social relationships, learnings, concerns and frustrations of office life and of using the computer system. They are instructive, but they are by no means as interesting and delightful as Flora Thompson's descriptions of everyday life of rural 1890s Oxforshire, for reasons that might become clearer below.

Wenger uses these vignettes as a launching pad to discuss and offer a way to understand our everyday learning when we are operating as part of 'communities of practice'. In rather high-register language, sporting many polysyllabic words with Greek and Latin roots, he discusses three main issues, practice, identity and design, and in the latter formulates a theoretical proposal that we may understand and articulate our 'design for learning' in terms of four 'dimensions' and three 'components'. The dimensions are:

These dimensions are distinct but interrelated tradeoffs. The three components [p.237] are:

He then discusses how this framework may throw light on organisation and education.

There is much more in his book, but that is how I understand its main messages. His book is beloved of academic management scientists especially those involved in knowledge management ...

Comment from a Dooyeweerdian Perspective

... and rightly so because it provides many insights about everyday living and paints a much richer and more thoughtful picture than most books on business life or use of computer systems. But, perhaps, it may still be usefully critiqued and enriched by bring Dooyeweerdian thought to bear. Specifically, his framework and his discussion fail to match the full diversity of richness and the vitality of his vignettes.

Richness with Diversity

His discussion of communities of practice throughout his book, and his framework for understanding 'design for learning' in organisations (dimensions and components), seems to be reasonable and it seems richer than many others. But it is surprising how little he makes of his vignettes, despite their extending to 20 pages. Having told the story, he seems intent on developing and expanding his theoretical insights and there is much in the story that he does not use, and yet which seems important in organisational learning. Moreover, Wenger's framework is descriptive and lacks any recognition of the normativity by which those studied (such as in the vignettes) evaluate things in everyday life and find themselvesselves guided, often tacitly.

Here are a few aspects of everyday life that are found in the vignettes, which are permeated with a notion of good or bad:

Many of these it is difficult to fit into Wenger's framework of four dimensions and three components, without reducing their poignancy. Some can be linked to his concepts of identity, learning, etc., but doing this leaves a lot of the reality outside. Most have an element of space, time and meaning and some have elements of power, but these four dimensions fail to cover the whole reality as expressed in the vignettes, and draw our attention away from, rather than towards, important aspects. His framework makes it difficult to distinguish certain things from each other. For example, to understand life we need to be able to differentiate fun and delight from their opposites like boredom and aversion, and from other aspects like justice and injustice, generosity and meanness, loyalty and unfaithfulness. Examples of most of these can be found in the selection of points above drawn from the vignettes.

It seems to me that Wenger's framework would benefit from adding a third 'arm' beside his dimensions and components: that of spheres of meaning, or aspects as Dooyeweerd understands them. The points above illustrate a number of his aspects (click on each aspect to find out more about its kernel meaning if you wish):

Spheres of meaning in which Ariel functions day by day
Ariel's functioning Aspect / sphere
always trying to achieve her production targets formative
horrified sensitive
dealing with errors in previous work formative
One she accepted was her fault. The other she contested. juridical
spent time ... economic
... filling in the form to make her case lingual
very pleased when her case was accepted. sensitive
managed to gain 'production' early in the afternoon. formative
she always plans to do all the easy cases first, and leave the complex ones to the end of the day. formative
She finds the afternoon drags slowly. aesthetic
Communication with others lingual
is kept sparse because of wanting to reach production targets as soon as possible. economic
She needs help from other processors with things she cannot do or does not understand, and offers help to others. ethical
entering information lingual
phone calls lingual
What a waste of time! economic
The customer is a bit annoying - but nowhere so bad as some can be. sensitive
She had dressed neatly ... and tidied up her desk On her desk were a couple of personal photographs, aesthetic
... because there would be important visitors that day social
... made it 'her' space. pistic
When they came by her she just got on with her work, because she knew they had no connection with her. social
... and so on: if you have the book, then you can see almost every sentence or phrase of the vignettes speaks of one or more of the aspects.

Richness with Vitality

These aspects are normative, in that we can differentiate a good and a bad in each, a positive and a negative. Some of the examples above are positive, some negative. Whereas Wenger's framework tries to be neutral regarding normativity, the aspectual approach provides something of the vitality of everyday living precisely because it inherently resonates to the norms by which we evaluate things and by which we find ourselves guided in everyday life.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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Created: 21 November 2009 Last updated: