Beyond Communities of Practice

A collection of papers/chapters seeking to address some of the shortcomings the editors identify in the concept of Communities of Practice (CoP). The fundamental criteria which identify a CoP are:

“mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire”

It is argued that a model which fails to draw upon the issues of language and discourse, social structures and power relationships inherent in shared meaning making, would benefit and be enhanced by being extended to address these elements

When I first began scratching at the surface of professional learning through social media, the notion of CoPs held a certain appeal. Here we see educators linked through informal networks and learning through participation and involvement in situated practice. Individuals interact and communicate, learn from one another, discuss and resolve problems they face and in so doing, create new knowledge. However I was advised that CoPs might not be a fruitful avenue to pursue and were somewhat limited in scope for the field I wished to explore.

Although people participate in shared learning experiences, they aren’t strictly engaged in ‘sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise’ (Wenger, 1998). The world of social media is too messy; one where group membership is multiple and fluid and boundaries are, at best, fuzzy. CoPs may be too unidimensional to explain the complexity of professional learning through social media. In assigning a label to a group of people (which then requires criteria with to identify who is and who isn’t a member) it struggles to account for the complex interrelationships which cut across, penetrate and are informed by one another.

A more appealing concept was that of ‘affinity spaces’ proposed by Gee in the final chapter. These are semiotic social spaces, defined by the thoughts, actions and interactions which are undertaken there. Spaces where individuals share a common endeavour, but group membership need not be assumed. This innately feels like a better description of what is taking place through social media and is a model I’d like to revisit and interrogate a little harder.


I can see why the editors and authors want to extend CoPs to address the issues of language more deeply. It is through language that people negotiate meaning, often through written or spoken text, but increasingly using other literacies. If people are ‘mutually engaged’ in ‘joint enterprise,’ then surely their discourse is the way in which that is achieved? However those chapters illustrating cases where it is claimed CoPs only partially model the circumstances, may be missing the point. Rather than needing to extend the ideas within CoPs, as is suggested, perhaps an alternative framework would have provided a better lens? Anyone for ANT?

Barton, D., Tusting, K., 2005. Beyond communities of practice: Language power and social context. Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J.P., 2005. Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces, in: Beyond Communities of Practice Language Power and Social Context. Cambridge University Press, pp. 214–232.

Wenger, E., 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.; New York, N.Y.

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