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Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice

Jean Lave, Etiene Wenger and communities of practice.

The idea that learning involves a deepening process of

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participation in a community of practice has gained

significant ground in recent years. Communities of

practice have also become an important focus within organizational development and have considerable value

when thinking about working with groups. In this article

we outline the theory and practice of such communities,

and examine some of issues and questions for informal

educators and those concerned with lifelong learning.









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contents: introduction · communities of practice ·

legitimate peripheral participation and situated learning ·

learning organizations and learning communities ·

conclusion · references · links · how to cite this article

Many of the ways we have of talking about learning and

education are based on the assumption that learning is

something that individuals do. Furthermore, we often

assume that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is

best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is

the result of teaching’ (Wenger 1998: 3). But how would

things look if we took a different track? Supposing learning

is social and comes largely from of our experience of

participating in daily life? It was this thought that formed

the basis of a significant rethinking of learning theory in the

late 1980s and early 1990s by two researchers from very

different disciplines – Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Their

model of situated learning proposed that learning involved

a process of engagement in a ‘community of practice’.

Jean Lave was (and is) a social anthropologist with a strong

interest in social theory, based at the University of

California, Berkeley. Much of her work has focused on on

the ‘re-conceiving’ of learning, learners, and educational

institutions in terms of social practice. When looking closely

at everyday activity, she has argued, it is clear that ‘learning

is ubiquitous in ongoing activity, though often unrecognized

as such’ (Lave 1993: 5).

log in






Etienne Wenger was a teacher who joined the Institute for

Research on Learning, Palo Alto having gained a Ph.D. in

artificial intelligence from the University of California at

Irvine. (He is now an independent consultant specializing in

developing communities of practice within organizations).

Their path-breaking analysis, first published in Situated

Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (1991) and

later augmented in works by Jean Lave (1993) and Etienne

Wenger (1999; 2002) set the scene for some significant

innovations in practice within organizations and more

recently within some schools (see Rogoff et al 2001).

Communities of practice

The basic argument made by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger

is that communities of practice are everywhere and that we

are generally involved in a number of them – whether that

is at work, school, home, or in our civic and leisure

interests. Etienne Wenger was later to write:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a

process of collective learning in a shared domain of human

endeavour: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking

new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on

similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the

school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a

gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a

nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who

share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn

how to do it better as they interact regularly. (Wenger circa 2007)

In some groups we are core members, in others we are

more at the margins.



Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly

engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring

our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we

define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we

interact with each other and with the world and we tune our

relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In

other words we learn.

Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect

both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social

relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of

community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a

shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds

of communities communities of practice. (Wenger 1998: 45)

The characteristics of such communities of practice vary.

Some have names, many do not. Some communities of

practice are quite formal in organization, others are very

fluid and informal. However, members are brought together

by joining in common activities and by ‘what they have

learned through their mutual engagement in these

activities’ (Wenger 1998). In this respect, a community of

practice is different from a community of interest or a

geographical community in that it involves a shared


The characteristics of communities of practice

According to Etienne Wenger (c 2007), three elements are

crucial in distinguishing a community of practice from other

groups and communities:



The domain. A community of practice is is something more

than a club of friends or a network of connections between

people. ‘It has an identity defined by a shared domain of

interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to

the domain, and therefore a shared competence that

distinguishes members from other people’ (op. cit.).

The community. ‘In pursuing their interest in their domain,

members engage in joint activities and discussions, help

each other, and share information. They build relationships

that enable them to learn from each other’ (op. cit.).

The practice. ‘Members of a community of practice are

practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of

resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing

recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes

time and sustained interaction’ (op. cit.).

Relationships, identity and shared interests and repertoire

A community of practice involves, thus, much more than the

technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking

some task. Members are involved in a set of relationships

over time (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98) and communities

develop around things that matter to people (Wenger 1998).

The fact that they are organizing around some particular

area of knowledge and activity gives members a sense of

joint enterprise and identity. For a community of practice to

function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared

repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also

needs to develop various resources such as tools,



documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some

way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In

other words, it involves practice (see praxis): ways of doing

and approaching things that are shared to some significant

extent among members.

The interactions involved, and the ability to undertake

larger or more complex activities and projects though

cooperation, bind people together and help to facilitate

relationship and trust (see the discussion of community

elsewhere on these pages). Communities of practice can be

seen as self-organizing systems and have many of the

benefits and characteristics of associational life such as the

generation of what Robert Putnam and others have

discussed as social capital.

Legitimate peripheral participation and situated learning

Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain

forms of knowledge, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have

tried to place it in social relationships – situations of co-

participation. As William F. Hanks puts it in his introduction

to their book: ‘Rather than asking what kind of cognitive

processes and conceptual structures are involved, they ask

what kinds of social engagements provide the proper

context for learning to take place’ (1991: 14). It not so much

that learners acquire structures or models to understand

the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have

structure. Learning involves participation in a community of

practice. And that participation ‘refers not just to local

events of engagement in certain activities with certain



people, but to a more encompassing process of being active

participants in the practices of social communities and

constructing identities in relation to these communities’

(Wenger 1999: 4).

Lave and Wenger illustrate their theory by observations of

different apprenticeships (Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola

tailors, US Navy quartermasters, meat-cutters, and non-

drinking alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous). Initially

people have to join communities and learn at the periphery.

The things they are involved in, the tasks they do may be

less key to the community than others.

As they become more competent they become more

involved in the main processes of the particular community.

They move from legitimate peripheral participation to into

‘full participation (Lave and Wenger 1991: 37). Learning is,

thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by

individuals so much as a process of social participation. The

nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process.

Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners

and… the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a

community. “Legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way

to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-

timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and

communities of knowledge and practice. A person’s intentions to

learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured

through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-

cultural practice. This social process, includes, indeed it

subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills. (Lave and



Wenger 1991: 29)

In this there is a concern with identity, with learning to

speak, act and improvise in ways that make sense in the

community. What is more, and in contrast with learning as

internalization, ‘learning as increasing participation in

communities of practice concerns the whole person acting

in the world’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 49). The focus is on

the ways in which learning is ‘an evolving, continuously

renewed set of relations’ (ibid.: 50). In other words, this is a

relational view of the person and learning (see the

discussion of selfhood).

Situated learning

This way of approaching learning is something more than

simply ‘learning by doing’ or experiential learning. As Mark

Tennant (1997: 73) has pointed out, Jean Lave’s and Etienne

Wenger’s concept of situatedness involves people being full

participants in the world and in generating meaning. ‘For

newcomers’, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991: 108-9)

comment, ‘the purpose is not to learn from talk as a

substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to

learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation’.

This orientation has the definite advantage of drawing

attention to the need to understand knowledge and

learning in context. However, situated learning depends on

two claims:

It makes no sense to talk of knowledge that is

decontextualized, abstract or general.



New knowledge and learning are properly conceived as

being located in communities of practice (Tennant 1997:


Questions can be raised about both of these claims. It may

be, with regard to the first claim, for example, that learning

can occur that is seemingly unrelated to a particular context

or life situation.

Second, there may situations where the community of

practice is weak or exhibits power relationships that

seriously inhibit entry and participation. There is a risk, as

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger acknowledge, of

romanticizing communities of practice. However, there has

been a tendency in their earlier work of falling into this trap.

‘In their eagerness to debunk testing, formal education and

formal accreditation, they do not analyse how their

omission [of a range of questions and issues] affects power

relations, access, public knowledge and public

accountability’ (Tennant 1997: 79). Their interest in the

forms of learning involved communities of practice shares

some common element with Ivan Illich’s advocacy of

learning webs and informal education. However, where Jean

Lave and Etienne Wenger approached the area through an

exploration of local encounters and examples, Ivan Illich

started with a macro-analysis of the debilitating effects of

institutions such as schooling. In both cases the sweep of

their arguments led to an under-appreciation of the uses of

more formal structures and institutions for learning.

However, this was understandable given the scale of the

issues and problems around learning within



professionalized and bureaucratic institutions such as

schools their respective analyses revealed.

Learning organizations and learning communities

These ideas have been picked-up most strongly within

organizational development circles. The use of the

apprenticeship model made for a strong set of connections

with important traditions of thinking about training and

development within organizations. Perhaps more

significantly, the growing interest in ‘the learning

organization‘ in the 1990s alerted many of those concerned

with organizational development to the significance of

informal networks and groupings. Jean Lave’s and Etienne

Wenger’s work around communities of practice offered a

useful addition. It allowed proponents to argue that

communities of practice needed to be recognized as

valuable assets. The model gave those concerned with

organizational development a way of thinking about how

benefits could accrue to the organization itself, and how

value did not necessarily lie primarily with the individual

members of a community of practice.

Acknowledging that communities of practice affect performance

is important in part because of their potential to overcome the

inherent problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a

fast-moving virtual economy. Communities also appear to be an

effective way for organizations to handle unstructured problems

and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural

boundaries. In addition, the community concept is

acknowledged to be a means of developing and maintaining

long-term organizational memory. These outcomes are an

important, yet often unrecognized, supplement to the value that



individual members of a community obtain in the form of

enriched learning and higher motivation to apply what they

learn. (Lesser and Storck 2001)

Lesser and Storck go on to argue that the social capital

resident in communities of practice leads to behavioural

change—’change that results in greater knowledge sharing,

which in turn positively influences business performance’.

Attention to communities of practice could, thus enhance

organizational effectiveness and profitability.

For obvious reasons, formal education institutions have

been less ready to embrace these ideas. There was a very

real sense in which the direction of the analysis

undermined their reason for being and many of their

practices. However, there have been some significant

explorations of how schooling, for example, might

accommodate some of the key themes and ideas in Jean

Lave’s and Etienne Wenger’s analysis. In particular, there

was significant mileage in exploring how communities of

practice emerge within schooling, the process involved and

how they might be enhanced. Furthermore, there was also

significant possibility in a fuller appreciation of what

constitutes practice (as earlier writers such Carr and

Kemmis 1986, and Grundy 1987 had already highlighted:

see curriculum and praxis). Perhaps the most helpful of

these explorations is that of Barbara Rogoff and her

colleagues (2001). They examine the work of an innovative

school in Salt Lake City and how teachers, students and

parents were able to work together to develop an approach

to schooling based around the principle that learning



‘occurs through interested participation with other


Conclusion – issues and implications for educators and animateurs

Jean Lave’s and Etienne Wenger’s concern here with

learning through participation in group/collective life and

engagement with the ‘daily round’ makes their work of

particular interest to informal educators and those

concerned with working with groups. These are themes that

have part of the informal education tradition for many

years – but the way in which Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger

have developed an understanding of the nature of learning

within communities of practice, and how knowledge is

generated allows educators to think a little differently about

the groups, networks and associations with which they are

involved. It is worth looking more closely at the processes

they have highlighted.

The notion of community of practice and the broader

conceptualization of situated learning provides significant

pointers for practice. Here I want to highlight three:

Learning is in the relationships between people. As

McDermott (in Murphy 1999:17) puts it:

Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption that

it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their

heads… [Here] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and

organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of



information to take on a relevance; without the points of

contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning,

and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to

individual persons, but to the various conversations of which

they are a part.

Within systems oriented to individual accreditation, and

that have lost any significant focus on relationship through

pressures on them to meet centrally-determined targets,

this approach to learning is challenging and profoundly

problematic. It highlights just how far the frameworks for

schooling, lifelong learning and youth work in states like

Britain and Northern Ireland have drifted away from a

proper appreciation of what constitutes learning (or indeed

society). Educators have a major educational task with

policymakers as well as participants in their programmes

and activities.

Educators work so that people can become participants

in communities of practice. Educators need to explore

with people in communities how all may participate to the

full. One of the implications for schools, as Barbara Rogoff

and her colleagues suggest is that they must prioritize

‘instruction that builds on children’s interests in a

collaborative way’. Such schools need also to be places

where ‘learning activities are planned by children as well as

adults, and where parents and teachers not only foster

children’s learning but also learn from their own

involvement with children’ (2001: 3). Their example in this

area have particular force as they are derived from actual

school practice.



A further, key, element is the need to extend associational

life within schools and other institutions. Here there is a

strong link here with long-standing concerns among

informal educators around community and participation

and for the significance of the group (for schooling see the

discussion of informal education and schooling; for youth

work see young people and association; and for

communities see community participation).

There is an intimate connection between knowledge

and activity. Learning is part of daily living as Eduard

Lindeman argued many years ago. Problem solving and

learning from experience are central processes (although,

as we have seen, situated learning is not the same as

‘learning by doing’ – see Tennant 1997: 73). Educators need

to reflect on their understanding of what constitutes

knowledge and practice. Perhaps one of the most important

things to grasp here is the extent to which education

involves informed and committed action.

These are fascinating areas for exploration and, to some

significant extent, take informal educators in a completely

different direction to the dominant pressure towards

accreditation and formalization.

Further reading

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning.

Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University

of Cambridge Press. 138 pages. Pathbreaking book that first

developed the idea that learning ‘is a process of



participation in communities of practice, participation that

is at first legitimately peripheral but that increases gradually

in engagement and complexity’.

Rogoff, B., Turkanis, C. G. and Bartlett, L. (eds.) (2001)

Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School

Community, New York: Oxford University Press. 250 + x

pages. Arising out of the collaboration of Barbara Rogoff

(who had worked with Jean Lave) with two teachers at an

innovative school in Salt Lake City, this book explores how

they were able to develop an approach to schooling based

around the principle that learning ‘occurs through

interested participation with other learners’.

Etienne Wenger (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning,

meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press. 318 + xv pages. Extended discussion of the concept of

community of practice and how it might be approached

within organizational development and education.


Allee, V. (2000) ‘Knowledge networks and communities of

learning’, OD Practitioner 32( 4),

Accessed December 30, 2002.

Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical.

Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer.



Gardner, H. (1993) Intelligence Reframed. Multiple

intelligences for the 21st century, New York: Basic Books.

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or praxis, Lewes:


Lave, J. (1982). A comparative approach to educational

forms and learning processes. Anthropology and Education

Quarterly, 13(2): 181-187

Lave, Jean (1988). Cognition in practice: mind, mathematics

and culture in everyday life. New York: Cambridge

University Press

Lave, Jean ‘Teaching, as learning, in practice’, Mind, Culture,

and Activity (3)3: 149-164

Lave, Jean (forthcoming) Changing Practice: The Politics of

Learning and Everyday Life

Lave, Jean and Chaiklin, Seth (eds.) (1993) Understanding

Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Cambridge:

University of Cambridge Press.

Lesser, E. L. and Storck, J. (2001) ‘Communities of practice

and organizational performance’, IBM Systems Journal


Accessed December 30, 2002.



Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in

Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-


Murphy, P. (ed.) (1999) Learners, Learning and Assessment,

London: Paul Chapman. See, also, Leach, J. and Moon, B.

(eds.) (1999) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul

Chapman. 280 + viii pages; and McCormick, R. and Paetcher,

C. (eds.) (1999) Learning and Knowledge, London: Paul

Chapman. 254 + xiv pages.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education,

London: Routledge.

Rogoff, Barbara and Lave, Jean (eds.) (1984) Everyday

Cognition: Its Development in Social Context. Cambridge

Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Salomon, G. (ed.) (1993) Distributed Cognitions.

Psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The social/situational orientation to

learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning,

London: Routledge.



Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in

the Adult Years. A developmental perspective, San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) ‘Communities of Practice. Learning

as a social system’, Systems Thinker, Accessed

December 30, 2002.

Wenger, Etienne (c 2007) ‘Communities of practice. A brief

introduction’. Communities of practice

[ Accessed January 14,


Wenger, Etienne and Richard McDermott, and William

Snyder (2002) Cultivating communities of practice: a guide

to managing knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

Business School Press.


Etienne Wenger’s homepage: has some material on

communities of practice.

Communities of Practice discussion group: maintained by

John Smith at Yahoo.

Acknowledgements: The picture ‘Community of practice’ is

taken from sonson’s photosream at Flickr

[] and

reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-

Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Licence.




How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009) ‘Jean

Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice’, the

encyclopedia of informal education,

© Mark K. Smith 2003, 2009

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