#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are a powerful and highly influential concept, developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and later refined by Wenger (1998).  Based on sociocultural approaches to learning, it may seem an abstract and challenging concept, but, once understood, results in a better conceptual understanding of learning and design for learning.
Identity is a socially constructed through participation (and non-participation) in a range of communities.  There can be communities at work, school, family or nation-wide.  Identity is also determined by the way how we ‘negotiate meaning’ in those communities.  In other words, how we influence activities inside them.
Negotiability refers to the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for and shape the meanings that matter within a social configuration.
Wenger identifies two ways of influencing within a community: participation and reification.  Participation is the direct interaction between members of a community.  Reification is the creation and use of artefacts such as lesson plans, guidelines or a curriculum to impose or affect others’ behaviour.  In learning design an optimal combination of both ways is necessary to achieve learning outcomes.
The balance between and participation and reification is a key duality in communities of practice.  Wenger refers to the ‘double-edged sword of reification’.  Too much focus on reification may stifle creativity and hurt group dynamics.  However, reified artefacts such as guidelines, ‘ways of doing things’ or a specific vocabulary provide an anchor point to novice members and help creating a community identity.

In a workshop for teacher trainers a sole focus on participation may have the result that participants find it difficult to ‘transcend’ their practice, cross boundaries and develop new conceptual understanding.  Too much focus on reification, for example by imposing a rigid lesson plan template, may create alienation and stifle creativity with participants, who feel they don’t have any impact on the design process.  It lowers the status of the participants who are likely to formally comply without taking any ownership.

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One comment on “#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this example – made it much clearer for me to understand.

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