Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
EDITORS: Barton, David; Tusting, Karin TITLE: Beyond Communities of Practice SUBTITLE: Language, Power, and Social Context SERIES: Learning in Doing: Social, cognitive, and Computational Perspectives PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR:2005
Matthew H. Ciscel, English Department, Central Connecticut State University
Over the past 50 years, the relationship between language and society has been elaborated in a number of manners and directions, often based on new terminology and concepts. One of the most influential new term-concepts to come out of the 1990s is Communities of Practice (CofP) which provides a new framework in which to explore communication networks and intergroup relations (Meyerhoff 2002:242). Barton and Tusting's ''Beyond Communities of Practice'' is a welcome exploration of the limits and uses of this fairly new term-concept in applied sociolinguistics and beyond.
The book comprises ten chapters by researchers in fields that have already made notable use of the CofP framework, including linguistics, literacy, and education. It also includes a concise introduction by the editors, an author index, and a subject index. Each chapter includes a thorough list of references.
The intended audience seems primarily to be researchers and educators who work regularly with the CofP model, across many fields, including education, management, and the social sciences (as per the book's blurb). But the book could also be useful in a graduate seminar exploring CofP either specifically or as part of a broader introduction to sociolingusitics, social aspects of literacy education, sociological theory, or language and power.
The introduction (1-13) includes a brief discussion of the concept of CofP and its development, as well as a relatively detailed overview of the ten content chapters. The editors identify three ways that the articles in the volume suggest movement beyond CofP: by integrating analysis of 'language-in-use,' by exploring the role of power in CofP, and by pushing the contextual envelope of what is meant by 'community' (12). In essence, they, along with the other authors, are arguing for some broadening in how the term-concept is used and applied. Indeed, this is the unifying theme of the book.
The first chapter (14-35), by David Barton and Mary Hamilton, encourages a deeper use of social theory when applying CofP to literacy studies. The notion of reification as one in need of more exacting application is discussed. They conclude that the application of Wenger's (1998) notion of reification can serve as a means by which CofP can be used for a broader analysis of literacy practices. In the second chapter (36-54), Karin Tusting argues for a greater role for language and linguistic models in the application of CofP. She justifies this by suggesting that language is at the core of the processes of negotiation and reification upon which CofP analyses are based.
The third chapter by Angela Creese is entitled 'Mediating allegations of racism in a multiethnic London school' (55-76). Working with discourse data from a school protest, the article shows how a language-in-use approach from speech community theory can augment a CofP analysis, because of the latter's traditional lack of emphasis on micro-aspects of discourse. The fourth article (77-104) also presents a rich body of primary data to explore the uses of CofP. Here, Frances Rock explores discourse among arresting officers and suspects to illustrate the usefulness of a strong language-in-use component for expanding traditional CofP analyses.
The next two chapters draw on aspects of activity theory to suggest expansions of the CofP framework. In Chapter five (105-138), Maria Clara Keating uses the phrase 'person in the doing' to explain the way that her female immigrant subjects drew on multiple discourse styles in negotiating particular communities. Dierdre Martin, in Chapter 6 (139-157), similarly explores the discursive practices of bilingual co-workers using activity theory and CofP. The conclusion of both is that CofP can be productively elaborated with the tools that activity theory offers, suggesting some cross-pollination across the heuristics.
Chapters seven and eight explore the usefulness of CofP as an educational model, reporting results from its application in an adult basic learning program and in higher education, respectively. In the former (158-179), Steven Harris and Nicola Shelswell continue to report the value of overlap with other theories, including activity theory. But more importantly, their data highlight the shortcomings of traditional CofP in dealing with issues of power and legitimacy within and across communities. Then, in chapter 8 (180-197), Mary Lea argues, based on her data from higher education, against the use of CofP as a 'top-down educational model' (11), illustrating that it is best used as a heuristic for exploring extant learning practices.
The last two chapters continue to explore the limitations of CofP. In chapter nine (198-213), Greg Myers continues to explore issues of legitimacy and power, specifically in the negotiation of workplace risk, to call for an elaboration of traditional CofP models that integrate a more complex notion of discourse. Finally in chapter 10 (214-232), James Gee takes the bold step of suggesting a new model born out of CofP and integrating many extensions similar to those discussed in previous chapters. He introduces the term-concept 'semiotic social spaces,' as a heuristic that can serve the same function as CofP, but without some of its limitations. The brief indices follow this final chapter.
The book is well-written, well-edited, and fairly cohesive, for such an edited volume. The main argument of the authors seems to be that Wenger's (1998) model of Communities of Practice, though useful, is in need of elaboration in order to more accurately and effectively serve as a research tool in a wide range of contexts. Certainly, the areas of discourse analysis, critical approaches to power, and depth of critical contextual analysis could play greater roles in a modified version of CofP that draws on other theories and models in the social sciences. However, one problem with the book is that it ultimately does not resolve the practical question of whether to modify CofP as many of the authors have done or replace it with a new heuristic, as suggested by Gee in chapter 10. A wrap-up or conclusion by the editors, even a short one, could have provided readers some direction, aside from their own impressions, on the future of CofP as a research tool. The title of the book certainly seems to suggest that the term-concept's weaknesses are substantial enough to call for a move to the next level. A clearer final statement of what that level is would have strengthened the volume over all.
This sole criticism aside, the introduction and the individual chapters were clear and well argued. Although there was some unevenness in styles, the book is remarkably cohesive and readable. It is worthy of a thorough read by anyone who uses the communities of practice model on a regular basis, because it contributes to a deeper understanding of the model itself and of the contexts in which it is normally applied.
Meyerhoff, Miriam (2002) Communities of Practice. In Chambers, Trudgill, and Schilling-Estes, Eds., The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. oxford: Blackwell, 526-548.
Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Matthew H. Ciscel is assistant professor of linguistics in the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT. His research projects have addressed topics such as language and identity in ex-Soviet Moldova, social aspects of second language acquisition, and immigrant bilingualism in the USA.