As expected from its title, this paper by Wenger tells the history of a concept, including its main criticisms. Wenger promises to resort to a group of authors coming from different traditions. whom he groups together as “social theory”. These authors include French philosopher Michel Foucault, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, American social anthropologist Jean Lave, his partner in Situated Peripheral Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991), British sociologist Anthony Giddens, and Russian social psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He promises to draw on a a number of very dense authors, but fails, as these authors are not quoted in the paper, except for in the introductory paragraph. The contributions of these authors is clear in his reflections, however. It then becomes a difficult text to follow, particularly if you are not familiar with these authors. A second source of difficult comes from the focus of the paper, which is to provide a history of the concept of ‘communities of practice’ (CoP), which ends up being a horizontal rather a vertical history. In other words, we read about a bunch of concepts, but they are not clearly interconnected textually.

To begin with, then, one must retrieve what each of the aforementioned authors contributed to what Wenger details in his paper. What follows, then, is a short summary of some of these authors’ contributions, a summary which is clearly going to fall short of the complexity they are due. In spite of it, this should help with the reading of Wenger’s paper.

The first author that merits our attention is Vygotsky (1929/1978). His writings date back to 1929, but they many scholars reference the posthumous edition of his 1978 publication. Vygotsky actually died in 1934 and his ideas are usually contrasted with those of Piaget, both of whom are constructivists. Piaget was also a mentalist and an innatist. He is usually associated with the cartesian type of thinking that will establish clear ages where children would be able to learn particular concepts, moving from more concrete activities to more abstract ones. These ages are relatively fixed in Piaget’s pedagogy, so a student would have a limit as to what s/he would be able to learn. Vygotsky (1978[1929]), in contrast, draws on the social concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP), which means that learning comes out of interaction with a more experienced partner, provided that it is not too different from what the less experienced partner already knows. Furthermore, for Vygotsky, we are learning all the time in a way that the roles of student and teacher are sometimes blurred. If you do pair or group work in your classes, you’re a vygotskian. If you focus on individual tasks, you’d be more aligned with Piaget. Of course we could a diversity of activities in class, but one must remember that education used to be based on memorization, repetition and standardized answers.

With the internet and the possibility of knowing everything that is happening everywhere instantly, our more knowledgeable pair is always waiting for us to type in question in search boxes, forums and whatnot. This a view of machines as animated beings, inviting us to rethink our focus on ‘humanistic’ approaches. We would have to state that humans are not as real as we thought or that the internet is not as virtual as we once thought. To understand this text, we need to go for the latter, emphasizing the materiality and physicality of our human-machine (the hyphen is there on purpose, suggesting that these two things are connected) interactions. As a matter of fact, even when we are online, language has the power to affect us: it can make us feel happiness, sadness, doubt, despair and reassurance, to mention but a few emotions that language brings about in us. These feelings are accompanied by somatic responses, such as butterflies in our stomach, a hesitation before we write, a readiness to write and the decision to close a webpage, among other clearly physical decisions we make. So, if we are using language, we are in a material relationship.

This leads us to our second author: Pierre Bourdieu, for whom learning is a material and power-laden practice. A common attitude to subjugated forms of knowledge is to cast them as irrational or pre-scientific. Bourdieu argues that this only happens because some forms of knowledge have gathered power around them, or, rather, “symbolic capital” (BOURDIEU, 1972/1977: p. 41). Bourdieu, however, has a deterministic view of power, where he would insist that some people are authorized to speak and others aren’t. This is a structuralist view of society which sees little – if any – social mobility, a view shared by Giddens (1984). In fact, the title of his book is “The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration” (my underline).

In comes Foucault, arguably* the first post-structuralist thinker of the 20th century, for whom power is an exercise or a relation, not a possession. The question thus becomes not one of ‘being authorized to speak’, but ‘speaking with authority’. Foucault focused most – if not all – of his work to the study of power and the production of subjectivity. A few points must be made: for Foucault, 1) the weapon of power is discourse and 2) we can only exercise power if we are free; otherwise we are in a relationship of violence rather than a relationship of power, and 3) by exercising power we transform ourselves. 

A critique of Foucault will say that he does not acknowledge any solidified power structure, as if we could actually whatever we wanted, which is a mistake. As he argues in Society must be defended (FOUCAULT, 1997[1975-1976]), it is the job of the academic community to highlight “subjugated knowledges” (p. 7) instead of canonical and established knowledges. By doing that, he recognizes that university professors occupy an empowered position in society. Not only, he invites us, as thinkers, to not just occupy this position, but to abuse it, to produce knowledge at the university, but not for it, but rather for the people.

All of this is necessary to understand some of the points through which Wenger (2010) passes through. One is that his and Lave’s 1991 work, “Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation”, draws on a powerless concept of CoP, one which views communities as stable, homogeneous and conflict-free. Wenger (2010) thus corrects this view and recognizes that CoPs central values are constantly being reorganized. This view can only be held if one sees power as exercise or as a relation, or communities would have to stay intact and identical forever. By adding a concept of power, a community stays the same at the same time that it is always changing: there are some core values, which cannot be let go, but there are others which can or should be changed.

This leads to another interesting point in the CoP concept, which takes identity as a central variable. Wenger states that our identities emerge, solidify and change as we travel through different communities with different values, changing the communities and ourselves at the same time. This, of course, is not always a smooth process: there are communities which will deny our entrance and there will be communities which we do not want to step foot on. This accounts for a concept of identity which is not deterministic (I was born this way so I have to stay this way) nor voluntaristic (I can be whatever I want at any time). Becoming someone is a complex process of being granted and being denied access to communities and using the discourses that circulate in said communities to make our way into or out of other communities.

Needless to say, our emotions play a central role, as Wenger (2010) argues: being part of a community involves a lot of work, so its core concepts must be dear to us if we are going to invest time and attention to be recognized as a legitimate member of a particular group.

In Brazil, where we have big social differences, we can see schools filled with students who do not really want to be there, who listen to their teachers speaking a language which is not the same one they learned at home, a language which is oppressive and which has told them countless times that they are dumb for not knowing it. Blissfully unaware that the teaching-learning process is not one of handing down information, but of seducing people into investing in a particular identity, teachers are often bedazzled at their students’ alleged inability to learn.

In Foucauldian terms, there is not inability, but rather a resistance to learning. Playing dumb could be seen as a strategy of the exercise of power.

Now there are no recipes on how to solve this, as this is an epistemological and societal question, not a methodological one. one way to go forward, however, is to be open to listen to what students say and to the literacies they are used to in the places where they come from. Many teachers will feel stupid by doing this because they were never prepared to rap or to discuss violence in the academic courses they took in their path to become teachers, and, to their students, they probably are stupid, in the same way that teachers’ canonical practices make their students feel stupid.

*Some would say Lacan shares that epithet with Foucault. For many, Lacan is still marching through the structural divided between men and women, even though his defensors will say that this is only at the level of the signifier. Even so, Foucault definitely eschews any dichotomy.

On “Communities of Practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept” (Wenger, 2010).