‘Identity in practice’, ‘Participation and non-participation’

These are the titles of Chapters 6 and 7 in Etienne Wenger’s Book – Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. (p. 143-172)

This is one of the sections of his book that participants in the forthcoming Academic Betreat (starting July 30th) have been asked to read and then think about Highlights, Key Words and Questions.

I have been interested in the question of Identity for the past few years, because I am aware that the many different aspects of my life have shaped my identity, just as my identity has shaped the many aspects of my life. I am also aware that I still have unanswered questions about the place of identity in learning.

On p.5 of his book Etienne defines Identity as

‘a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities’.

More recently I have heard him talk about the increasing complexity of managing your identity in multiple landscapes of practice –  which relates to the work that Bon Stewart is doing for her PhD – where she writes about ‘The unbearable lightness of being … digital’  and Digital Identities

My Highlights and Questions from the two chapters

  • Identity is not just what we say about ourselves or what others say about us. It is not about self-image, but rather a way of being in the world – the way we live day by day.

Q. So how then do I come to know who I am? How do I keep the ‘knowing who I am’ distinct from what I say about myself or from what others say about me?

  • Identity is a constant becoming, and a constant negotiation of the self through participation and reification. ‘It is not equivalent to a self-image; it is not, in its essence, discursive or reflective’ (p.151). Negotiation can be silent.

Q. If identity is not discursive or reflective, how is it negotiated? If negotiation is silent, how is it realized?

  • Identity is rich and complex because it is produced within the rich and complex relations of practice (p.162) Identity can’t be compartmentalized. You do not cease to be a parent because you are at work.  Identity results from multi-membership of many communities and associated multiple convergent and divergent trajectories. ‘…multiple trajectories become part of each other, whether they clash or reinforce each other. They are, at the same time, one and multiple.’ (p.159). Identity is an interplay between local and global and between the past, present and future.

Q. If this is the case, i.e. identity is too complex to be compartmentalized, then where does this leave work which is looking at digital identities, such as Bon Stewart’s work on ‘six key selves’  If we don’t compartmentalize identity in some way, e.g. I am a consultant, ‘team member’, mother, researcher, wife, teacher, daughter etc. how do we discuss it so that it is meaningful? It’s easy to understand that identity may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without breaking it down into parts does it have any meaning?

  • Identity is not only about knowing who we are, but also about knowing who we are not. ‘In practice, we know who we are by what is familiar, understandable, usable, negotiable; we know who we are not by what is foreign, opaque, unwieldy, unproductive’ (p.153). We define our identities through a mix of participation and non-participation.

Q. To what extent is identity related to perception and alternative perspectives, i.e. how do we know whether the perceived identity, by ourselves or by others, is ‘true’?


  • Negotiation
  • Participation, non-participation
  • Reification
  • Trajectory

Final Questions: Why is learning about identity important? How does an understanding of identity impact on teaching and learning?

8 thoughts on “‘Identity in practice’, ‘Participation and non-participation’

  1. Bev Trayner July 1, 2012 / 5:06 pm

    … just thinking that you can embed a blogpost into a wikipage (via a widget). You could embed this blog into your journal – a page we’ll be opening soon.

  2. fred6368 July 1, 2012 / 5:31 pm

    Interesting reflections Jenny, as always, I think identity is at the root of everything we do and that we havent yet developed an epistemology that allows our natural identity to flourish. I also think that getting our digital identity right is a key to developing the network society, some ideas on that here;

    In fact I think our rational post-Enlightenment nation-state based societies do just about everything to stop us assuming our identity. I put the tension like this;
    “being” is the relational aggregation of overlapping communities within a speciifc body,
    “self” is the egocentric diminution of that being.

    Hope this helps

  3. Scott Johnson July 2, 2012 / 4:24 am

    Great questions! Not sure I can answer the identity question so I’ll offer this from Christian Smith “What is a Person?”:

    “Persons, first and foremost, are centers of something. This is absolutely crucial. It means that persons are not mere conglomerations, inventories, or compilations of diverse features. At the core of a person is a centering, interior focal point of personal being, consciousness and activity. Persons exhibit structures of internal organization that provide a hub or nucleus of coherence and a continuity of awareness and action. It is not that persons are perfectly unified, harmonized or consistent internally. We are not. Personal being involves certain degrees of internal disconnection, disjuncture, and lack of integration between parts. People’s structures of belief and patterns of behaviors, for example, do not always consistently add up. But those disconnections always operate relative to what for all normal persons is a more dominant controlling center of coordinated center of mental and physical activity.”

    Identity defined as the wholeness of a person seems important to sharing with others from a position of uniqueness (including all the personal peculiarities). Because individuals are different, they are vital to productive sharing.

  4. jennymackness July 2, 2012 / 6:50 am

    Hi Fred – thanks for your comments and the link. I’m not sure that I understand what you mean by

    “being” is the relational aggregation of overlapping communities within a speciifc body,
    “self” is the egocentric diminution of that being

    and how would you recognise an epistemology that allows our natural identity to flourish?

  5. jennymackness July 2, 2012 / 7:03 am

    Hi Scott – that quote is wonderful and very helpful. Etienne also writes about uniqueness of the individual (p.146)

    ‘It is shaped by belonging to a community, but with a unique identity. It depends on engaging in practice, but with a unique experience. In other words, it is as misleading to view identities as abstractly collective as it is to view them as narrowly individual.’

    Thanks Scott 🙂

  6. fred6368 July 2, 2012 / 8:56 am

    Hi Jenny, so you could substitute “identity” for “being” in my little epistemological mantra, which I came up with in 1981. I note that identity is the an emerging issue, same as it ever was, but is being conflated into a narrow, educational space, as is participation. I’m with Ben Hammersley in Internet of People who says we are moving from hierarchical to network society and see addressing both identity and participation as being part of that larger social shift which is becoming increasingly necessary.
    Cochrane’s work on intentional communities of practice & technology stewards (some of the TS stuff with me) moves Wenger’s, quite narrow (if exciting) work on. For example see

    When would you recognise an epistemology that would allow our identity to flourish? When it enabled people to move out of hierarchical models of thinking to network modes of thinking! Perhaps that is what Downes & Siemens are trying to do with Connectivism?

  7. jennymackness July 3, 2012 / 8:21 am

    Hi Fred – my understanding of Etienne’s work is that it is not any particular model that enables identity to flourish, but that learning is fundamentally social and that issues of identity are integral to social participation, practice, community and meaning, whether it be in a large network or smaller group, and whether either of those is dominantly hierarchical or horizontal.

    I am still thinking though about the extent to which learning alone is possible and how that might affect identity.

    And I don’t think that networks are necessarily non-hierarchical, as is evident in all the discussions about power in networks and was demonstrated by Stephen Downes in CCK08 when in a single stroke he flooded everyone’s inboxes with forum posts.

    Many thanks for the link to Cochrane’s work – interesting.

  8. Digital Citizen Network July 3, 2012 / 8:34 am

    Well we live in a particular set of social organisations dominated by the mediaeval institutions of the nation state and the extractive industries of finance. Any attempt to de-compromise behaviour from the priorities of those surroundings is only ever a small first step, so Downes cant do it with one idea. We all have to be consciously involved in transformation, else we are just re-creating hierarchy; the default UK position. Hammersley talks about the need to move from hierarchical institutions to network society in the British Council lecture in An Internet of People http://vimeo.com/21477023 or rather that we have new network affordances but with organisations run by people. In Together Sennet says the 20th century was dominated by the agendas of political left as the defeat of the PAris Commune left people suspicious of “social” left solutions, so recent history is against collaborative, co-operative solutions.
    So, in terms of identity, if you dont know how your own cultural history shapes your values how can you even begin to understand who you are, and so organise education, let alone society, accordingly?
    Mr Gove certainly thinks he knows who he is, as do the Bullingdon boys.

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