Communities of Practice or Professional practices?


CoP provide a fascinating set of affordances for learning and for professional practice. And I find the work on Communities of Practice (see here…), fascinating and stimulating. However, I see some implicit assumptions in CoP that I need to clarify, namely:

1. ‘Professional’ practice, not ‘community’ practice?

CoP seems to be defined much more as a specific practice than as a general community. That makes it pretty close to a ‘professional practice’, or a practice of a particular group of professionals or practitioners. Its not just a community of people who happen to do much the same thing some of the time. It’s task or goal oriented, which means it has a specific agenda.

For this reason, I have often used the term ‘community of practitioners’ instead, which for me is a much more satisfactory term.

2. Competencies are always already implicated

Learning is inherently social, so a competence can only be learnt in a context in which it can be executed- there seems to be agreement on that. However, there is no such thing as a abstract ‘competence’, as the above linked article seems to imply – all competencies are already implicated in social structures or discourses of power. You cant first acquire a competence, and then negotiate with a community of your choice as to whether it will be ‘embraced by that community’ or, equally importantly, whether the community will embrace YOU as a person who can use that competency in that community.

You don’t learn to read and write, you learn to read and write ‘correctly’. You don’t learn to use a gun, you learn to use it correctly. Oppenheimer was not asked to learn to make an A-bomb, he too was tasked to learn to make it ‘correctly’, and it turned out that his view of ‘correctly’ parted ways, pretty soon, and quite traumatically for him, from the Pentagon’s view of what ‘correctly’ was (see the book, American Prometheus).

The Pentagon wanted to use the A-bomb first, to scare off Russia’s post-war ambitions, it didn’t actually have that much to do with Japan. More people had already died in the fire-bombing of Tokyo than were to die in Hiroshima. Oppenheimer wanted to make the A-bomb (and not to make the H-bomb) to secure peace.

The idea that competencies are always already implicated in discourses goes back to Costall’s definition of an affordance:

“Costall’s notion of the sociality of affordances is based on what we could call a ‘social capital of affordances’, both explicit and tacit: “We experience objects in relation to the community within which they have meaning. .. As Leont’ev (1981) has put it, we do not merely encounter things: we are introduced to them … We inhabit a world already ‘transformed by the activity of generations’” (Costall 1995: 471-472)” in ‘Draft 10’ here... And it goes back to the notion that the basic unit of meaning is social discourses (of power), not text or competency, see here …

On the one hand, this seems to accord with the CoP view, that, to paraphrase: learning involves exploring and developing personal experience, and trying it out, to see if it aligns with the (historical memory and repository of) the competence of a community. If it does, it leads to identification with that community, and a mutual incorporation with the community. This in turn leads to a commitment to accountability for the competence of the community.

However, these communities are not defined just by competencies, by technical and instrumental skills, but essentially by what they DO with those skills – i.e. how they choose to ‘act meaningfully’ in the world – how they, to coin a phrase, ‘choose to act correctly’ in the world.

The CoP model seems to elide the competencies with the practices of the community.

Learning to create fissile material, or to hack into diplomatic communications is one thing. How you use competencies, within which alliances, is something completely different. Robert Oppenheimer develops the A-bomb during the War, then opposes the further development of the H-bomb after the war. His technical and managerial ability does not change. What changes is his identification with a community, which itself (from his perspective at least) changes entirely – he ends up unable to continue to identify with it, and is pilloried as a result – he goes from national hero to national pariah and suspected traitor (and is much, much later re-instated as national hero – albeit slightly tainted).

He does not just ‘learn a competence’ he learns a competence within a particular community of practice (the Pentagon). There is not just a single (or single set) of things you can DO with those competencies – there are many, contradictory, things you can do. It is true that he identifies with the Pentagon during the war, but he cannot continue to do so in the last phases of the war (specifically, with Japan), and even less so after it. There are different communities, at different levels of power. The Los Alamos community of scientists that Oppenheimer heads up are focused on building and testing an A-bomb. They have no say (as Oppenheimer finds to his cost) in the way the competence of the Los Alamos community is used – to defeat Germany, to defeat Japan, or instead to warn the Soviet Union to curb its expansionist agenda, and to start decades of the cold war and the arms race.