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).
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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,
Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in
the Adult Years. A developmental perspective, San
Wenger, Etienne (1998) ‘Communities of Practice. Learning
as a social system’, Systems Thinker, http://www.co-i-
December 30, 2002.
Wenger, Etienne (c 2007) ‘Communities of practice. A brief
introduction’. Communities of practice
[http://www.ewenger.com/theory/. 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
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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