‘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?