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Review of  Beyond Communities of Practice

Reviewer: Matthew H. Ciscel
Book Title: Beyond Communities of Practice
Book Author: Karin Tusting David Barton
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 18.101

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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

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.

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.

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ISBN: 0521836433
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Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 70.00

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ISBN: 0521544920
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Pages: 256
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