Chapter 4 focuses on the idea of practice as something that is tied to tradition and community, which is something Nicolini sees Giddens and Bourdieu departing from. Nicolini is presenting this chapter mostly in order to critique the idea, because its focus on people transmitting ideas to each other, when left unexamined, tends to give solidity to social actors and groups:

I will argue that while a coherent theory of learning and transmission is a requisite element of any theory of practice, there is a fine balance to be struck between recognizing that all practices need to be recognized by a group of practitioners, and the reification of such a collective into a social body that exists independently of the practice. (p. 78)

Socialization (family and schooling) is important to the work of Durkheim, who influenced Giddens. Apprenticeship is another concept that has been used to explain how practices are transmitted–but it requires the master/pupil power dynamic, and hence the acceptance of inequality of social positions. It is also more limited in that it is focused primarily on learned skills of craftsmen or artists.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) is a term introduced by Lave & Wenger (1991) that attempts to take apprenticeship out of the particular historical environments (the craftsman’s shop) and explain apprenticeship as a learning process. They do this by making it essential that the learner take responsibility for the thing they are doing – this is what makes it a practice. Nicolini cites Foucault in pointing out that this acceptance of responsibility also means an acceptance of the social order and power dynamics present in it. It’s interesting that the term community of practice was first introduced in Lave & Wenger (1991) as well. Well, at least for me since I find myself using that phrase quite a bit. The idea of apprenticeship is decentered, as not only happening between master and apprentice, but includes advanced novices, other apprentices, other master craftsmen, and the material artifacts used. So practice becomes socially situated.

Apparently Lave & Wenger (1991) gave rise to many ethnographic studies of situated learning, that loked at learning as a social phenomena rather than something that happens inside someone’s head. Nicolini sees two drawbacks to LPP. The first is similar to his criticism of Boudrieu’s idea of habitus: it fails to account for non-incremental change in a convincing way. And the second is that it doesn’t take into account the wider socio-historical context, and specifically the role that power, ideology and domination play in practice. This criticism can be found in Contu & Willmott (2000).

It is clear that Nicolini doesn’t particularly like the term community since he launches into a critique of its fuzziness, morality and the way that it is used ideologically to define groups of people in order to obscure power, conflict and differences. He references Foucault (1966) by calling community a discursive formation that controls what can and cannot be talked about. He sees the use of the term community with practice as problematic, because one obscures what the other is attempting to make clear. It might be interesting to look closer at this criticism, especially since I have used the term community of practice myself so often. Nicolini says that Handley, Sturdy, Fincham, & Clark (2006) has a good review of the debate.

With these criticisms in mind it does still seem like Wenger (1998) has some useful concepts for the study of practice in the idea of situated learning, which involves:

  • mutual engagement
  • communal negotiation
  • shared repertoire
  • shared history
  • boundaries (Star & Griesemer, 1989)

Nicolini makes a case for dropping the use of community and instead simply talking about practice, because of the way community obscures processual, social, temporary and conflictual properties. He seems to be saying that communities do exist, but they are an effect of practices in operation. Making communities the unit of analysis obscures the way that practices create communities. But then he goes on to say that it’s not practical to remove it because it is such a useful term in management circles. More importantly it does highlight the importance of shared practices, that things don’t just happen in our heads–they are social.

Nicolini cites Barley & Orr (1997) to explain how the phrase “community of practice” can in fact be a way for “semi-professions” to legitimate themselves–which is kind of an interesting idea. In fact Barley & Orr (1997) looks like it could be a very useful example of an ethnographic study of technical work, that could possibly be a useful model for my own examination of web archiving work. Here’s the summary from Amazon:

Between Craft and Science brings together leading scholars from sociology, anthropology, industrial relations, management, and engineering to consider issues surrounding technical work, the most rapidly expanding sector of the labor force. Part craft and part science, part blue-collar and part white-collar, technical work demands skill and knowledge but is rarely rewarded with commensurate status or salary. The book first considers the anomalous nature of technical work and the difficulty of locating it in any conventional theoretical framework. Only an ethnographic approach, studying the actual doing of the work, will make sense of the subject, the authors conclude. The studies that follow report daily practice filled with disjunctures and ironies that mirror the ambiguities of technical work’s place in the larger culture. On the basis of those studies, the authors probe questions of policy, management, and education. Between Craft and Science considers the cultural difficulties in understanding technical work and advances coherent, practice-oriented insights into this anomalous phenomenon.

Now I’m kind of wondering if I need to adjust what I read next this semester…


Barley, S. R., & Orr, J. E. (1997). Between craft and science: Technical settings in US settings. Cornell University Press.

Contu, A., & Willmott, H. (2000). Knowing in practice: A “delicate flower” in the organizational learning field. Organization, 7(2).

Foucault, M. (1966). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Pantheon.

Handley, K., Sturdy, A., Fincham, R., & Clark, T. (2006). Within and beyond communities of practice: Making sense of learning through participation, identity and practice. Journal of Management Studies, 43(3), 641–653.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge Ueniversity Press.

Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ’translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387–420.

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