Tim on Etienne (Part II: Identity in Learning)
This post constitutes the third, and thus last, endeavor in preparing myself to lecture the Knowledge Management 2009 course at the University of Amsterdam. Again, this part is based on Wenger’s (1998) seminal work on communities of practice. Whereas the previous posts dealt with Learning in Practice and Design for Learning, this posts actively explores the concept of identity.
Whereas the first part of Wenger’s book (that deals with Practice) gained massive attention in academic undertakings, it is my belief that the second part (that deals with Identity) remained relatively unnoticed. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this part is also more difficult to read an to put into practice, or with the fact that the issue of identity remains are rather ‘wicked’ concept (please care to read the previous post if you want to understand wicked).
The need to introduce identity next to practice, is to delve deeper in how people become, instead how people engage. The theory on practice described how people engage with each other in group formation in order to learn, and took as beneficial the community of practice. The theory on identity will bring back the person into focus, and explain how persons experience become and become themselves in order to learn.
Identity in practice
Identity and practice can be seen as a duality, because practice requires engagement, engagement requires participation, participation requires recognition and recognition requires identity. People shape and acquire their identity in the engagement in practice. The social processes construing your identity resemble thus those that construe practices:
Identity as negotiated experience (meaning)
An army member’s identity is reified based on the stripes he has on his shoulders and the medals of honor he wears on his chest. However, in absence of institutional reification, participating in the act of graffiti spraying also shapes one identity as ‘who is who’ and sets the toys (unskilled newbees) apart from the kings (those revered by other artists).Identity is thus experienced by gaining a label and acting upon it, it is ‘a way of being in the world’ (p.151). Identity in this sense varies from the psychological belief, that ‘identity is […] an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity’ (Wikipedia, 2009). ‘Identity in practice is defined socially, not merely because it is reified in a social discourse of the self and of social categories, but also because it is produced as a lived experience of participation in specified communities’ (p.151). Identity then is a layering of events of participative experience and reificative projections.
Identity as community membership (community)
Membership alerts us of our competence. Within the community we are eligible to fully participate, yet at the boundaries we are confused and are not able to participate, which shapes our identity.
Identity as learning trajectory (learning)
Identity is not an object, but temporal and a constant becoming. Via diverse trajectories we unfold our identity, like peripheral trajectories (legitimate participation at the boundary – apprenticeship), inbound trajectory (newcomers participating to become full members – new hires day), insider trajectories (inward movements to become core members – leadership development), boundary trajectories (boundary spanning actions to act across community borders – international rotation program), outbound trajectories (moving outside the community – outplacements). Trajectories often help us in sorting out what matters and what does not, which actually becomes significant learning. Trajectories actually enable people to learn outside the locality of their practices and thereby expand their identity.
Identity as nexus of multi-membership (boundary)
Identity until now is discussed as having one single representation; “your identity, instead of your identities”. However, we do not participate in a single community of practice, but in a multitude of them, yet our identities might differ; “As a salesman he really uses aggressive negotiation tactics, however as a father he is persuaded by rational reasoning”. Thus it might appear if we have fragmented identities. Our identity is a nexus of multiple trajectories, that partially overlap, conflict, clash or reinforce with each other. While these multiple trajectories reflect multiple identities, it’s the actual nexus that reflects our idiosyncratic individuality. In order to cope with this inherent fragmentation our identity needs constant reconciliation between the tensions of opposed trajectories in order to temporarily coexist. Learning is all about reconciliation, not only by being able to interpret new information, but also must revisit their competence and identity; “You get introduced at your in-laws, who support other religious beliefs”.
Identity as relation between local and global (locality)
If we project these identity processes onto social media manifestations, we uncover ample directions for improvements. The first related to the objectification of such an rich concept as identity: Social networking sites tend to project identity as static self-images reified on profile pages. Social media tend to use rather naïve institutionalized reifications, based on input, instead of social structures or ranks. Social bookmarking sites might indicate you’re an expert on hemoglobinopathy because you were the first one to have tagged it. The second relates to the intend of humans to retouch their identity. Wenger holds back that identity might not always be a product mimicking reality. On social networking sites we often see a tendency by people to finger or ‘front stage’ their identity. Front stage is a term by Goffman (1959) to elucidate that part of the self that the individual seeks to gain a positive reaction from others; where expression hopes to meet the expression given off. Hyves profiles often display model-like images, conforming to public images of beauty. The back stage can be conceived of as a private space, where the individual may in fact not be giving a dramaturgical performance, but rather is the closed to what that individual may “truly” be like.
Participation and non-participation
‘We not only produce our identities through the practices we engage in, but we also define ourselves through practices we do not engage in’ (p.164). Obviously, not all non-participation would affect our identity, only those non-participations we encounter upon because they are aligned with trajectories of participation. For instance, when first year economic students start a conversation with sociological PhD students, both will experience regimes of non-participation.
The experience of non-participation can be triggered via marginality and peripherality. There is a subtle difference between the two. Marginality has a negative connotation. It is about being restrained to engage in trajectories to broaden one’s understanding, thereby confining the tapping into new resources and repertoires to participate in other positions or other communities. Peripherality has a positive connotation. It is about fulfilling trajectories that enable participation in more senior positions, as a way to become a full member. In order to trigger marginality and peripherality design of communities of practice need to afford for trajectories, boundary relations and multi-memberships and institutional non-participation. Trajectories have already been discussed in the previous post Learning in Practice on Learning.
Boundary relations and multi-memberships
Multi-memberships can also give rise to coexisting identities of participation and non-participation. For instance, when you buy a new laptop it is operated, either by Apple, Linux or Windows. Engaging in one of them, actually excludes you from another user community. Or when you become a Team Lead, you are neither one of the guys from operations, nor are you seen as fully fledged member by higher management.
Institutional policies, salaries, being non on mailing lists, being bound to rigid procedures contribute to marginalization, resulting in an experience of non-participation. Not only institutions can instigate non-participation, also members can willingly subject themselves to non-participation. For instance non-participation as compromise. Because of the availability of a company’s call center agents, its agents made a trade off to not join the team meetings at once, but those that don’t, receive the minutes. Or, because mentally disabled people are not delegated to their supervisory team meetings, they have their own meeting of which the minutes are a fixed item on the agenda of the supervisory team meetings. Another form of non-participation is non-participation as strategy, which has to do with de-identifying yourself being part of an assignment, but a function, makes it possible to leave to door at 5 ‘o clock, instead of working over hours to finish the assignment. A last strategy is non-participation as cover. Although working for Enron, not identifying yourself with the Enron Management Board, but ‘front staging’ yourself as an administrative wage slave, legitimates your insensitivity to the swindles practiced by Board.
Modes of belonging
To make sense of the process of identity formation we need three modes of belonging. Because you cannot define your own identity independent of your social structures, it is important to know how we can belong in order how our identity is formed. In order to belong to a community of practice we already introduced engagement. In order to go beyond we also need imagination and alignment. Identities of workers are influenced by picturing their job within the broader context, and by aligning their activities with the policies and guidelines used within their organization.
Modes of belonging (Wenger, 1998, Figure 8.1, p.174)
The work of engagement is about forming a community of practice. Engagement is bounded to time and space limitation, you can not possibly engage in endless relations, because we can only be at one place at a time and dispose only a finite number of hours per day (off course we aim for realistic relations, instead of rather the superficial on-off associations mediated by social networking sites). The backfire of a narrow view on engagement is that it will lead to an monogamous practice of insulars. Engagement is all about relating to each other in an endurable and pleasant way, however it could also lead to blocking of brokering and avoiding discontinuities by doing away with deviating insights.
The work of imagination is the ability to disengage, ‘expanding our self by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves’ (p.176). Wenger provides an insightful example about two stonecutters, in which one tells to the other “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape”, while the other responds “And I am building a cathedral”. At the level of engagement both activities might seem similar, from the perspective of imagination their experience of what they are doing is quite different. The backfire of imagination is that it can also lead to overconnecting to broader structures. This phenomenon is very recognizable in highly theoretical works, relying heavily on the mechanism of abstraction. If these work have no or minimal references to our living reality, the reader will feel they have to assume the correctness of the statement, because of the lack of a viable frame of reference, leaving the reader in a state of uprootedness.
The power of imagination is what Weber (1947) underestimated when studying bureaucracies, and claimed that factory workers loose their biding with the product their working on, in which they ultimately loose their individual freedom. However, the lack of imagination is not inherent in the design of the bureaucracy, but in the design of their practices.
The work of alignment is to coordinate perspectives and actions in order to direct energies to a common purpose. Alignment also transcends time and space limitations, yet by coordinating energies, actions and practices. It often has to do with institutionalized styles and discourses dealing with the way something needs to be done.The backfire of to much alignment is that it becomes prescriptive thereby impoverishing the community’s ability to think for them self and negotiate their own meaning. Most of us use electronic tax declarations as a convenient aid, while on the other side we do not fully understand its logic, and have to surrender ourselves to the program’s outcomes.
In the writing of theses we see all three modes of belonging in action. Within the Maatschap all members are – amongst others – bonded to each other because of their passion for design, sociality and social media. Because of the lectures (a combination of both participation of teaching and reification by presenting slides) this leads also to students engaging in these themes. Before they can start writing their thesis, imagination needs to be aroused, to connect two or more themes together. Perhaps one of the themes of the Maatschap, like sociality, and another residing in the curriculum of the IM faculty on organizing, value, ontology, epistemology etc. Imagination is about conceptualizing the role of sociality in a broader context of society, and its – previously unknown – influence on value. To make sure that the theses meet up to University standards and are written conform in an academic logic and structure, alignment is accomplished by challenging students to use the soft systems methodology, as a way of dealing with the indeterminateness of many of the concepts they use, without relentless shredding of richness. Alignment also eases the examining of the theses’ quality.
Identification and Negotiability
Next to belonging to a community of practice via engagement, imagination and alignment, and thereby being conscious of your relation is not enough. Although you might identify yourself as a thesis student, because of the interplay between engagement, imagination and alignment, you also have to understand what it means to write a thesis, thereby understanding issues of academic competence, writing styles, relevancy, et cetera. Thus next to identification, we also need to work out what it means to be a thesis student, which is called negotiability. Identify formation is thus a dual process of identification and negotiability.
Social ecology of identity (Wenger, 1998, Figure 9.1, p.190
To explain the figure a bit more. The left part of the figure sets out identification. Identifications is who or what we identity with ‘by creating bonds or distinctions in which we become invested’ (p.191) through the modes of belonging described above. Our identification is based on both the communities we belong to and the forms of membership (or non-membership) we have within them. Engagement, imagination and alignment all three contribute to the process identification.
By engaging in practice, identification takes place in doing. By engaging in a certain task, people will recognize each other as participant, thereby we give live to our social selves. By taking part in a soccer match, people naturally coordinate and take on them the various roles needed for successful soccer, the fast one becoming an attacker, those that have tactical insight become mid-fielder, those that play flat out and aren’t as gifted with the ball become defender, and the one that lacks soccer qualities is appointed as goalie. All their qualities come to the fore in doing.
Next to engagement, also imagination plays an important role in identification. The whole celebrity industry and media industry we see on MTV is maintained by people actually imagining that by watching the stars you actually become closer to them, it yields a sense of affinity. So, you can really identify with them and understand what and how they feel. Social network sites led us to believe we have thousands of friends and are wired cosmopolitans (which may be partially true, but realistically seen we continue to act local). Management literature makes us belief that companies can be caught in two-by-two matrices and we imagine companies can be governed via the Demming cycle, Kaizen, business process redesign, ITIL3, balanced scorecards, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, et cetera. We tend to forget that all these practices are soft systems, not being objects that can be managed on its own, like a policy it needs to be propagated and its adherence requires change, all of these aspects are not captured in the actually policy itself, but in the imagination!
The latter is identification through alignment. Alignment can actually transplant the identity of enterprises to become part of the identities of participants. In most companies is usual to work with key performance indicators as a way to identify yourself with the responsibly with the company as a whole. Alignment comes with a form of power, that is vested in both allegiance and compliancy, which can also break to the extreme, which ultimately led Winston Smith to mentally capitulate himself to Big Brother (Orwell, 1948).
The right part of the figure sets out negotiability. Negotiability is ‘the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for, and shape the meaning that matter within a social configuration’ (p.197). Thereby we make sense of how we perceive a certain situation. This is one of the difficulties with the transfer of ‘complex’ knowledge, because the receiving party does not get all your intentions, he is not able to make sense of it in a way you meant it. Therefore he will accept and reproduce, but not internalize and rediscover. Just like identification, negotiability is related to the social configuration we belong to and the membership we have within them. The first contains the economies of meaning, the pool we can tap into, the latter contains the ownership of meaning, or the legitimacy we have to cast our meaning as true.
Wenger uses the concept economies of meaning to indicate that especially boundary objects or concepts used on various departments in the organization, will have various local meaning that are all equally true. For instance, although organization might have implemented an incident management process, for each an everyone participating in the process it has a different meaning (one sees it as a coordinating mechanisms, someone else as his daily job, someone else as a communication outlet, others an a priority setting process, and perhaps others as a cry for attention). Thus a plurality of perspectives are involved in the negotiation of meaning. Ownership of meaning is ‘the degree to which we can make use of, affect, control, modify, or in general, assert as ours the meanings that we negotiate’ (p.200). Ownership does not imply someone having absolute saying about how a meaning should be interpreted, but that have the legitimacy to (re)negotiate meanings. Ownership of meaning refers to the example on the transfer of ‘complex’ knowledge, that you are able to fully appropriate that knowledge, thereby possibly alienating it from others, by displacing the original meaning and thereby changing the economies of meaning.
Negotiability through engagement is about producing proposals for meaning and adopting these. A striking example is given by Wenger, who reminds us of babies, and how they need to engage in babbling conversations in order for them to acquire the language. For successful engagement is necessary that adoption and production go in tandem, because else those contributing and others gaining ownership of meaning leads to marginality.
Imagination too can be a way to appropriate meaning by making scenarios. In the Middle Ages bards used to wrap their moralistic message in a hymn, fables or fictive story. Anthropology is all organized around the enterprise of understanding other times and cultures and appropriating their meaning in a vicarious way, whether this process of appropriation through imagination does justice to the original meanings or betrays them (p.204). A negative tradeoff of this phenomenon can also be that people imagine that ownerships of meanings belong elsewhere, a common though when changes are happening, which can lead to marginality.
Negotiability through alignment is about affecting the meaning that is anchored within a given social structure or institution. Process implementation is an example that is really about negotiability through alignment. The objective is to negotiate the different meanings of how people execute a process and make people conscious of the activities they do, an dhow they fit within a broader institutionalized practice. Here we also see the move from web1.0 to web2.0, as the trend is commonly labeled. In the old days the web applications lacked adaptability and were solely usable to execute routine tasks (thus generating alignment without negotiability). Nowadays, with social media residing solely on the empowerment of its user base, users are equipped – and even in charge – to set what is important and what’s not and comment on others, setting meanings by engaging with others (thus negotiability through pure forms of engagement).
About this entry
You’re currently reading “Tim on Etienne (Part II: Identity in Learning),” an entry on Observing Sociality and Reality
- Monday, 17 August 2009 at 13:39
- Tim Hoogenboom
- communities of practice