Archive for October 21st, 2009

A year or so back I did the language and culture module with Ruby and we looked at the notion of ‘discourse community’.

1. Discourse community

According to John Swales (1987: 5-7) there are six defining characteristics of a discourse community:

  1. a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. participatory mechanisms used primarily to provide information and feedback.
  4. the use of one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. some specific lexis.
  6. a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

2. Communities of Practice

Another influential definition of  community derives from the work of Lave and Wenger who have articulated the concept of a ‘community of practice’ (CoP) with its:

  1. specific community (social fabric)
  2. domain (the common ground or topic)
  3. practice (the repertoire)

CoPs really influential concept in many professional domains (e.g. academic staff development). I’m not wholly sure why this term has triumphed over other similar concepts (e.g. ‘discourse communities’ and ‘epistemic communities’) though. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on ‘practice’ (doing, making, acting) and the idea of a dynamic movement from periphery to centre. Central to CoPs is the notion of identity transformation: starting to acquire the knowledge practices and particular identities/ways of being needed to enter that CoP and participate fully. I don’t fully sign up to the concept though; it still feels like a description of apprenticeship, observing master craftsmen/women before becoming one yourself.

3. Affinity spaces

An alternative to the CoP is the concept of ‘affinity spaces’. This comes from James Paul Gee (2004) who argues that the more familiar notion of ‘communities of practice‘ doesn’t capture emerging forms of technology-enabled sociability. Affinity spaces are spaces in which people from a variety of backgrounds come together to pursue a common endeavour or goal. One of Gee’s examples of an affinity space is the strategy game Age of Mythology in which the common endeavour of playing and transforming the game takes precedence over questions of racial, class or gender identity.  Gee makes a strong case that educationalists have much to learn from affinity spaces. Here are Gee’s defining characteristics of an affinity space:

  • there is a common endeavour (interests, goals or practices);
  • the space has content;
  • the content is organized;
  • individuals can choose to interact with content and/or each other;
  • individuals share the same space- even if fulfilling different roles;
  • there are many ways (portals) of entering the space;
  • new content can be generated;
  • many types of knowledge (individual, distributed, dispersed and tacit) are valued;
  • group endeavour is valued and encouraged;
  • interactivity  is required to sustain the affinity space;
  • newbies and masters occupy the same domain – there is no segregation;
  • there are many ways of participating and these can change temporally;
  • leadership is ‘porous’;
  • there are many ways of gaining status;
  • the organisation of the space can change through interaction;
  • learning is social and enjoyable.

Am I a member of any virtual communities? Several possibly. But because communities are not necessarily formally constituted and don’t always name themselves as such, you don’t always recognise that you’re in one.

On Twitter, for example, could the people I follow – and who follow me – be termed a community? Perhaps, although I think there are multiple interests tweeted about. Perhaps  ‘affinity space’ is a better term here?

I’m a member of the M25 group of learning technologists; we all work at London-based unis in the area of ed tech and meet at workshops, participate in discussion board forums etc.. This feels much more like a community. There are no masters and no apprentices so it’s not really a CoP I guess.

Is this MSc a CoP? Lave and Wenger don’t view CoPs as operating in the context of formal learning as I understand it though. However, there are masters (yes, that’s you Jen and Sian!) and apprentices (sadly, that’s us).


Gee, J.P. (2004) Situated Language and Learning: a critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge

Lave, J.and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Swales, J. (1987). Approaching the Concept of Discourse Community. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.