Posts Tagged ‘networks’

Networks and Communities – Hot Seat Review

Monday, April 12th, 2010

I’ve just caught up with all of last week’s activity on Etienne Wenger’s hot seat; part of the online preamble to the Networked Learning Conference 2010. In his initial post, Wenger asked “what do the concepts of network and community mean to you?”

Whilst many of the early responses inevitably resembled kicking a semantic football around – networks as subsets of communities, and vice versa – some very interesting discussions emerged. Interestingly, several contributors assumed networks as personal, despite Wenger’s apparent original context – on two occasions he stressed “given a group” – requiring distinctions to be made between different types of networks. Theoretical concepts help define parameters necessary for research and developmental models, and Elvis Mazzoni stressed that our understanding of networks and communities is dependent on the theoretical perspectives and methods of analyses one adopts. But how useful are these in describing or explaining the messy reality of our academic or professional experiences?

I see myself as an increasingly active participant in what could be loosely defined as a community of practice; namely educational researchers at my University. We reside in different rooms, departments and buildings, and constitute a range of academic roles and foci, yet there is a sense of a collective endeavour defined by our academic discipline, and partly scaffold by institutional support systems. My trajectory is essentially one that started on the periphery, particularly having come into this from a different discipline.

At the same time I am equally, if not more so, engaged – in a largely self-directed way – in developing and maintaining highly distributed connections with students and professionals in my field and its peripheries, through the use of interrelated social media platforms and tools. Not only are these a core element of my studies, but also represent an extension to my immediate learning and research environments, challenging traditional academic practices of peer review and dissemination.

Rather than representing concrete reifications of community and network, I think these more resemble complex, shifting patterns of orientations. I think many of us operate like this, frequently negotiating between domains that are co-located and distributed, bounded and unbounded, formal and informal. In doing so, we are implementing and engaging in what can be loosely thought of as ‘community-orientated’ and ‘network-orientated’ activities. Similarly, Maarten de Laat referred to ‘aspects’ of community and network. These activities are interconnected, flexible and potentially conflicting (I liked Marteen’s idea of ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’) – I’m not sure we are consciously distinguishing between the two, but they are both crucial.

Perhaps models like Activity Theory, with a focus on activities and processes, can provide workable analytic frameworks that cut across both concepts? Which reminds me that this week’s hot seat – hosted by Yrjo Engestrom – started today and should be just as interesting…

Good CoPs, Bad CoPs

Friday, January 29th, 2010

On his excellent blog, Mohamed Amine Chatti asks ‘Are Communities of Practice Dead?’ I would suggest, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that death in this case may have been greatly exaggerated.

I think a key issue here is that the concept of Communities of Practice (CoPs) has become so widely adapted and translated – particularly within the Knowledge Management (KM) field – that in a sense, the term has become almost meaningless. It is equally important to re-emphasise Etienne Wenger’s early ideas (especially those developed from his original work with anthropologist Jean Lave) which appear to have been either lost or re-imagined in some discourses.

For an excellent account of the ambiguity in CoPs literature read Kimble (2006). Of course, as Kimble acknowledges, theoretical models naturally evolve, and systematic approaches help formulate empirical study and practice; a process in which Wenger himself has been most active as a consultant, of sorts. But for Kimble, this has been “not a linear progression but a dislocation” (p.230). Some interpretations have seemingly disregarded the original complexities and tensions between practice, participation and membership, to present overtly positive and consensual views of organisational CoPs. Citing Mutch (2003), Kimble argues that whilst “we can use familiar concepts in new ways, or take concepts from one context to another and play with them” we must also “pay careful attention to our sources, making sure that we give due care to the consequences that the use of a concept brings with it” (p.231).

Perhaps Mohamed’s reading of CoPs literature has been largely limited to the KM field, as his claim that “CoPs are organised from the top down” would seem to conflict with many of its original principles. Wenger (1998) stresses that CoPs develop naturally through emergent, bottom up processes, coordinated by the community members themselves. What he has increasingly developed over time is the idea that CoPs can be guided or nurtured in some way by one or several significant individuals, which has become manifest in the notion of stewardship.

Mohamed eloquently describes how social media and open resources have brought about a fundamental shift in how many of us increasingly configure and articulate the way we study and work. This shift from community-based structures to a more open and distributed networked individualism has been well documented in the wider socio-technical field by people like Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman. To me, as a PhD student who is currently engaged in negotiating a workable model for analysis, how we conceptualise this shift is a fundamental methodological challenge, and one that I believe lies at the heart of how we should be studying current Web-based learning.

Despite the attraction of personalised and self-directed approaches to learning, we cannot deny our natural inclination to actively form, participate in, and seek recognition in communities. To take a predominantly network-based approach (such as Siemen’s connectivism) runs the risk of recognising such formations purely as clusters or hubs, and such approaches frequently seem to confuse groups – which may be highly structured and institutionalised – with communities. Perhaps Dave Cormier’s upcoming book chapter suggests a way forward in the network vs. community debate.

My gut feeling is that concepts like CoPs and Activity Theory (CHAT) are effective in ‘humanising’ social structures, emphasising the inherent link between practice and identity formation, whilst recognising forms of technological reification and power relations. A key problem seems to be that models such as these are limited by the fact they were initially formalised around the study of essentially ‘bounded’ domains (Mohamed himself highlights this in a discussion on CHAT in an earlier post). Wenger has always asserted the concept of multi-membership – indeed in his latest book, Digital Habitats (co-authored with Nancy White and John D Smith), the notion of ‘extreme multi-membership’ is introduced. Engestrom has been developing his concept of ‘knotworking’ to extend his well-used Activity Systems model, whist Actor Network Theory (ANT) offers further possibilities.

My quest goes on…


Kimble, C. (2006). Communities of Practice: Never Knowingly Undersold. E. Tomadaki & P. Scott (Eds.), Innovative Approaches for Learning and Knowledge Sharing, EC-TEL 2006 Workshops Proceedings. 218-234.

Mutch, A. (2003). Communities of Practice and Habitus: A Critique. Organization Studies, 24(3), 383-401.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Wealth of Networks

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

I’ve just started reading Yochai Benkler’s acclaimed The Wealth of Networks – a book I’ve been meaning to catch up with for some time. The full text is available through the Books Unbound site; a free digital initiative from Yale University Press. You can also download a PDF version from the wiki site.