[Note:  This is an unfinished, shorter presentation of some of the ideas that are more fully developed in
Lave, J. (1996). Teaching as learning in practice.  Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3(3), 149-164 ]

Learning as Participation in Communities of Practice

Jean Lave
University of California, Berkeley
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association
San Francisco, California  (1992)

I. Introduction

Why bother pursuing a social, situated theory of learning? In the broadest and baldest terms: 1) Theories of cognition, knowing, thinking, learning, etc., have traditionally taken the individual as the unit of analysis. 2) There are deep social inequities in our world, in which socialization processes, including schooling, are deeply implicated. 3) Theories of the individual in the end are reduced to blaming the individual for the very social ills they suffer. 4) If such theories are incomplete and inadequately conceived in the first place, we have double reasons for reconsidering learning as part of social existence and as broadly as possible.

However we conceive of learning and schooling, I believe it is essential to understand both together in one single theoretical framework. We have compartmentalized learning as something individuals do in their heads, and schooling as a social institution, the workplace of the teaching profession. This is a theoretical proclamation about how the world "really is." It is a widely held assumption in many strands of the social sciences, reflected in the academic division of labor, where psychology and the social disciplines take different objects of study and feel unable to address any other. So to reverse this trend, to seek an integrated understanding that honors the un-decomposable character of social existence, means exploring ways of establishing a new common set of theoretical roots, one that does not take the division for granted. These must, in my view, take the deeply social nature of all human activity, including learning and thinking, as one premise from which to begin. The point here is to explore some of the consequences of doing so.

II. Three Principles for a theory of learning as legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice.

Those "theoretical roots" (extrapolated from anthropological theorizing about social practice) are more complicated than space or time permits here. But some of the basic steps in conceptualizing learning in socially situated terms can be stated quite simply.

1) People only learn in practice, they always learn in practice. (Reasons for this lie in the conception of learning as a transformation of identity-in-practice. See below.) To claim that learning is "socially situated" is to claim that learning is an aspect of activity in the world, not a separate thing. We tend to think of learning as a specific process, a precondition for doing, something that takes place in order to have the knowledge and skill to be doing. Learning is something we do beforehand, here, in order to apply it afterwards, over there. However, if social existence is a matter of people participating in ongoing social practices (no matter what--even sitting on a log in a woods, pondering) and ongoing social practices are always changing, so is participation and so are participants. This has a key implication. If learning is an aspect of all activity, the question of interest for researchers becomes what, not whether, people learn. Long years as school attenders and school researchers have left school alumni (all of us) strongly disposed to compare individuals supposedly being asked to learn the same thing, with the question who is learning and who is not learning? It may be only in the context of teaching that such a question can be generated and generated in such a way that there is a simple assumption built in that some do not or cannot or will not learn. Instead we ask, for instance, how all participants in a classroom are participating in the ongoing practices of the classroom--and what are participants learning day by day, for they are surely changing in differently engaged ways in their changing communities of practice.

This suggests a second implication of the proposition that learning is an aspect of ongoing social practice. Schools must be exceptional and complicated places to study learning, since unlike other social institutional settings, schools are historically specific and exotic institutional arrangements whose mission is to "make learning [that special, separate process] happen by teaching." It is important not to take schools and their mission for granted but instead to insist on looking them over with a fresh eye every time. For learning goes on in schooling in exactly the same way that it does everywhere else--as an aspect of participation in communities of practice.

2) But what is that "what" that learners are learning? Facts? Knowledge? Skill? Yes, but perhaps that is not the most crucial way to characterize what is going on. We might not want to take the study of learning to be first and foremost the study of knowledge people are acquiring, though theories of learning have traditionally been based in epistemological analysis, in the philosophy of knowledge and knowing, hence on conceptions of the knowing, contemplating, (representing, problem solving...) person. In contrast, learning, viewed as socially situated activity, must be grounded in a social ontology that conceives of the person as an acting being, engaged in activity in the world. Learning is, in this purview, more basically a process of coming to be, of forging identities in activity in the world.

In short, learners are never only that, but are becoming certain sorts of subjects with certain ways of participating in the world. Subjects are made and make themselves with others in their hum dream activities, attempts to coordinate their efforts, struggles to get what they want done, in their engagement or disengagement in the communities of practice in which they participate, which themselves are ongoing, interconnected, historically produced, and changing. Subjects occupy different locations, and have different interests, reasons, and understandings of who they are and what they are up to.

If learning is part of subjects' participation in the varied activities in communities of practice, it suggests that we have too hastily taken "learning"to be encompassed in the notion of "knowledge acquisition." Contrast ethnographic studies of students' growing and changing identities in American high schools, with the kinds of identities assumed in, say, math and science learning research studies, which are intended to produce recommendations about how and what to teach these very students. Math and science learning research begins more often than not with the assumption that learning is a matter of knowledge acquisition by learners characterized as "novices" (which casts teachers and other senior knowers as "experts"). A novice is defined as someone who wants only to learn (in the conventional, "mental knowledge acquisition" sense), or someone whose only salient characteristic is "not knowing chemistry," or "having misconceptions about physics." To turn them into experts is to teach them chemistry, repair their misconceived knowledge of physics, make it possible for them to acquire the requisite knowledge. "Them," in this way of viewing the world, have no specific historically, culturally forged identities that engage in learning in particular ways.

Yet when did any of us meet a "novice" in the hall, or the classroom, or anywhere else? The concept is just one of those tools for sustaining the line between world and subject, so that whatever it is that makes someone a person doesn't cross over and belong partly in the "world" category (which would result in a theory of socially situated cognition and learning). Eckert's work offers an excellent example of common kinds of subjects one encounters in American high schools--persons who classify each other and see themselves as jocks, burnouts, and in-betweens. She argues that how the school is organized and how kids organize themselves together in participation in their various communities of practice bring about changes in the identities of these children-becoming-adults. Learning all sorts of things is part of this process. They are part of what it means to become a jock or burnout or in-between. If becoming a bookworm or a chem-worm (Carlock) becomes part of becoming a jock or burnout in the communities of practice within school settings, then e.g., chemistry is learnable. Teaching becomes the art of making valued kinds of knowledgeability accessible to participants in school life, through their participation in the communities of practice in which central identity-generating activities take place. (The test of effective teaching might well be whether, and how intensively, chemistry is discussed in the cafeteria, rather than students' average score on chemistry tests.)

3) Learning, knowing, knowledge, mastery, everyday practices are never only inside people or only outside people, or divided at that greatest of all illusory boundaries--the skin. Things that have been assumed to be intracranial are socially constituted in a socially constituted world. In theoretical terms, this involves a decentering of the subject in two inseparable senses:both the learner and the 'subject' to be learned are relations among many things at the same time. Deep knowledgeability, mastery, disengagement, ignorance, alienation, creative obsession, expertise, can be thought of as characteristics of communities of practice rather than as only characteristics of individuals. Such characteristics are partially constituted in the activities of subjects who are members or participating in ways that make membership possible (or not). Knowledge and skill are always to be found in practice in communities of practice. The commitment, sustained effort, engagement, history, and immediacy of deep knowledgeability are part of what communities of practice are, and partly what practitioners are, but each is part of the other. There are interesting avenues of research to pursue in order to explore the conditions and possibilities of deep knowledgeability in communities of practice. It may well be that newcomers, among others, are essential to them.

III. Two bodies of work that explore implications of these premises

One body of relevant work is about workplace learning; the other is about ethnicity and school achievement.

1) Etienne Wenger and I began three years ago to explore parallels between his analysis of "glass box" technology and my earlier work on apprenticeship (Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation; see also his thesis on everyday life and learning in a medical insurance claims processing office). The book we wrote together is an attempt to create a conceptual bridge between scholarly traditions concerned with learning as a psychological and epistemological issue on the one hand, and traditions concerned with the reproduction and transformation of social formations on the other. Thus, we have conceived of the production of communities-of-practice and the reproduction of full practitioners in such communities as a single process. We have drawn on studies of apprenticeship in various cultures for inspiration (e.g., my work on Vai and Gola tailors' apprenticeship in Liberia; Jordan's research on Yucatec Mayan midwives' apprenticeship, Hutchins' work on US Navy Quartermasters, Marshall's on butchers' apprentices). We explore issues concerning the importance for participants of access to ongoing community practices, and the way in which knowledge takes on value for learners in fashioning identities as full participants. Such identities are developed in communities involved in their own reproduction (as well as transformation and change) so that conflicts between the old and the new reflect a contradiction between continuity and displacement fundamental to processes of legitimate peripheral participation. Learning the ways of complex technological processes, coming to understand the social and cultural structuring of the workplace, becoming knowledgeably skilled as an apprentice actor, or changing one's identity from drinking non-alcoholic to non-drinking alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous (Cain) are comparable processes according to this way of thinking about learning.

This work develops the argument that learning is not some special activity, for which educational institutions provide generally privileged sites, but an aspect of ongoing everyday practice. This both focuses attention on the nature and meaning of "everyday social life" (by no means an innocent concept) and leads to a recharacterization of educational institutions. Didactic activity, and the intentional organization of "education" are not, in this analysis, the direct templates for learning. They are relations to be investigated.

2) Piper-Mandy's dissertation research examines the channels and barriers affecting the eligibility of African American high school students to attend the University of California, and their trajectories through and out of the university. She begins with an argument derived from an analysis of conceptions of ethnicity (Comaroff 1984). He argues that "ethnicity" is a historical process by which dominant social formations incorporate subordinated social groups into their political economy, "assigning" them places in the division of labor and using markers of cultural difference to justify the imposed inequality. Ethnicity is always a relation between social groups, and is always historically produced through the interrelations of culture and social class. It must be analyzed in class-cultural terms. The African American and Euro-American communities are locked in such relations; the university has some role to play in the imposition, reproduction, opening up and Closing down of class mobility and cultural pluralism. A further step in her argument is that higher education is intended to produce highly educated members of a cultural formation; it has to do with the production of intellectual leaders, among other things, and African American education is thus intimately concerned with the production of African American scholars and leaders. But, she argues, the epistemology, history and cultural substance of African American thought is intricately different from Euro-American intellectual traditions. African American college students are therefore caught in conflicting relations at a number of levels, between hegemonic forms of Euro-American culture, issues of class, and the special, integral forms of exclusion and denial of access that lead African American college students to be peripheral participants in the university but not legitimate participants for whom full membership is the assumed consequence of increasing participation. And the conflicting relations for African American intellectuals in the university are compounded in the conflicting structural position they occupy in the African American community. All of this provides her with a theoretical framework for analyzing the low eligibility rates of African American high school students, their strategies for moving through the university, the unsuccessful character of many of these strategies and the success of others, the extremely high drop-out rate among African American students, and the persistent descriptions these students give of the malaise, paralysis and fragmentation of action, intentions, and purpose that they experience in the university. I have not done justice to the complexity of the argument, but this should at least give some indication of its direction.

IV. A Conclusion

There are emerging relations between Piper-Mandy's research on African American experience in attending the university and the theory of learning as legitimate peripheral participation. The most central issues follow from taking a decentered view of knowledge as "cultural transparency;" taking a view of activity (taking it to be what subjects are engaged in as part of their social becoming) as crucially a matter of participation, identity generation, access, and membership in communities of practice; and then considering what might be involved in the production of meaning and meaninglessness.

Wenger has invented what he calls "the law of conservation of nonrepresentation": The more you desituate things by re-presenting them, the more you need to give them meaning. The power to do so, and to do so in particular ways is integral to this process. (This simple proposition contains a theory of the challenge and pitfalls of schooled teaching). Moving towards full participation in a community of practice is a matter of transforming one's identity, which subsumes the learning of knowledgeable skill. The construction of new identities through participation implies constantly making sense of one's everyday experience. Identities are only generatable as membership in communities of practice; participation in cultural transparency (the active knowledge of communities of practice) is part of social membership. So when persons whose identities are constructed through subordination in relations of ethnic (or gender) oppression come to school or to the university they are peripheral participants but (increasingly as they grow older and the stakes in adult social positioning get higher for all concerned) not legitimately peripheral and do not have access to full participation in local communities of practice. The everyday practices in which one does not participate can be thought of as representations of themselves, desituated with respect to the subjects who cannot act with them in ways that transform their identities into identities of membership. Meaningfulness (the immediate, subject's aspect of cultural transparency) is a constant feature, via identity construction, among other things, of a community of practice. Meaninglessness, rather than being the opposite of meaningfulness, is a matter of barriers to access, and the mutual but not symmetrical constitution of communities of practice.

This account of learning as an aspect of social existence is all too brief; I hope it conveys the flavor of such a framework, and recommends the work on which it is based:

V. Bibliography

Cain, Carol. In preparation. Becoming a non-drinking alcoholic: A case study in identity acquisition. Anthropology department. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Carlock, Peggy. Recent papers. EMST, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, 94720.

Comaroff, John. 1984. Of Totemism and Ethnicity: Consciousness, practice, and the signs of inequality. Ethnos, 52: 301-323.

Eckert, Penny. 1990. Jocks and Burnouts: Identity Formation in American High Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hutchins, Edwin. 1992. Learning Navigation. In S. Chaiklin and J. Lave (eds.). Understanding Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jordan, Brigitte. 1989. Cosmopolitical obstetrics: Some insights from the training of traditional midwives. Social Science and Medicine 28(9): 92544.

Lave, Jean and E. Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, Hanna. 1972. Structural constraints on learning. In B. Geer (ed.). Learning to Work. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Piper-Mandy, Erylene. 1990 The talented l00th: An ethnography of high school and college students in the University of California system. Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine.

Wenger, Etienne. 1990. Toward a theory of cultural transparency: elements of a social discourse of the visible and the invisible. Palo Alto, CA: Institute for Research on Learning.