The problem with communities… a consideration of alternatives

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Why do I explore ideas like being, belonging and becoming in relation to networks, but I hardly talk about communities any more? In this post I will look at why networks and affinity spaces more than communities have come to dominate my thinking. My professional context is as educational developer and innovator – that means I think about staff development and the spaces we devise for learning in equal measure. However, my outlook is shaped more by my own history of being a musician in bands and an artist in studios – these settings have attuned me to the significance of creating co-operative spaces for creativity. Learning is the ultimate, unifying act of creativity – we all continually experience, struggle, resolve and learn independently in a social context.

The concept of Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998) sits within this learning ecosystem. A community of practice (CoP) is a,

“learning partnership among people who find it useful to learn from and with each other about a particular domain. They use each other’s experience of practice as a learning resource”

Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011, p.9

Wenger (2004) explains that a CoP is composed of :

  • Domain – topic of common interest
  • Community – the group for whom the topic is relevant and who interact with the purpose of learning
  • Practice – “the body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories, cases, documents, which members share and develop together”

I agree with J.P. Gee (2005, p. 215) that “the key problem with notions like ‘community of practice’, and related ones like ‘communities of learners’, is that they make it look like we are attempting to label a group of people.” He argues that there may be various ways of describing a group as a community but people within the group, or beyond the group may not perceive or experience that grouping as a community. Even where they do, the reasons for, and the levels of, commitment may vary to such an extent to make the intended description of the group meaningless. Further, the dimension of change over time makes the labelling of a group in this way problematic. How is a community of practice delimited, and who decides?

A CoP, then, is a convenient way of organising and communicating how a group has/can coalesce around a topic and engage with it for mutual benefit. Knowing that you are part of something and having a shared understanding and commitment to that something is important. For a band (and I have been in many!), making an initial commitment to some creative endeavour needs to be simple, clear, bold and well-framed because you are forever basing your artistic decisions on one of the few solid things that you have. It’s why manifestos and ‘frameworks’ and principles are important in my world – everyone can sign up to these things or not. They create tangible roadmaps. But the trouble is such things do need to be refreshed and renegotiated – especially when you come to the ‘difficult second album’!

My own reservations about the term CoP are to do with its inadequacy in representing fluid learning networks; a concept which I believe reflects learning through online social networks and which is potentially of great use in understanding blended learning and hybrid learning, as well as the spatial design needed to support fluid learning. Savin-Baden (2015) calls this ‘liquid learning’.

Hence, we would like CoPs to be solid and well-defined, but experience tells us creative bonds are pragmatic, never solid and always fluid.

Affinity spaces

“many young people today have lots of experience with affinity spaces and, thus, have the opportunity to compare and contrast their experiences with these to their experiences in classrooms”

Gee, 2005, p. 223

Affinity spaces are places of,

  • common interests, endeavours, goals or practices
  • sharing of common space
  • portals or ways of engagement
  • internal grammar (practices) shaped by external grammar (evidenced notions of accepted practice)
  • intensive and extensive knowledge
  • individual and distributed knowledge

Gee’s ideas extend CoPs usefully. For example, the idea of a space that is shared recognises the dynamic nature of mutuality. I still worry about that idea of common goals – or rather, how it may be read. In my band analogy, that idea of goal is, in reality, tenuous and pragmatic. Only this morning I have been discussing aesthetic decisions with band members and can see how, after all these years, we still have to sensitively negotiate around some very deeply held values. In fact, the more experienced you get, the clearer and more entrenched you get potentially. Negotiation requires a creative maturity – more than ‘thick skin’, it is an ability to stand outside of and observe what you are doing.And to be generous in doing that. Aspirations and senses of becoming are very subjective and emotional. As learning advocate, the teacher’s role is to ensure a learner’s goals have space to develop, grow and form in relation to the student’s own changing world view and to help facilitate the social space so that it works well for the individuals who become associates in joint enterprise.

Hodkinson (2004) proposes that CoP theory needs to be extended by, integrating individual learners into social theorising about learning, considering and accommodating what we know the impact of power differentials in relation to access to learning, and going beyond the binary of formal and informal conceptions of learning.

Good learning is an outcome of common experience, one in which mutuality and shared repertoires frame our creativity. Ultimately, such a space is dynamic and fleeting in nature. As teachers, our attention may be on ‘the now’ and how we establish the construct of a communal endeavour. However, the bigger lifewide, and lifelong interest is better served by recognising the need for the individual learner to develop themselves in terms of ‘owning’ their knowledge and identity, valuing their social capital, enjoying their cultural identity, and curating their resilience.

A networked learning paradigm and appreciation of constellations, affinity spaces, distributed cognition, and assemblage theory (Delanda, 2016) catch my eye more than the CoP construct.


Gee, J.P. (2005). Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces: From the age of mythology to today’s schools. In: Barton, D., & Tusting, K. “Beyond communities of practice (Learning in doing : social, cognitive, and computational perspectives).” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Delanda, M. (2016). Assemblage theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hodkinson, H. (2004). A constructive critique of communities of practice: Moving beyond Lave and Wenger. OVAL research working paper, 04-02. [Sydney]: OVAL Research. (

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. London: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.2307/2804509

Savin-Baden, M. (2015). Rethinking learning in an age of digital fluency: Is being digitally tethered a new learning nexus? London & New York: Routledge.

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

Wenger, E., R. McDermott and W. M. Snyder (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., & de Laat, M. (2011). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework. Heerlen, The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The problem with communities… a consideration of alternatives

  1. Debbaff says:

    Reblogged this on Debs Open Learning Journey and commented:
    Reblogging this really helpful blog post from the lovely Andrew Middleton – some interesting thoughts and useful references that will be soooo helpful for my own research 🙂

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