Community of practice theory (Lave and Wenger 1991) analyses group-based processes of learning and belonging, and offers an alternative explanation of workplace induction. The theory focuses on the development of participant identity and the construction of relationships within the community. Lave and Wenger’s 1991 work “Situated Learning” examined five examples of apprenticeship learning. Whilst these apprenticeships varied in their degree of formality, all provided evidence of members contributing to the group’s work. The simple tasks of the newcomers’ were enough to legimitise their membership of the community of practice (Fox 2000: 855). Membership of the group was a prerequisite for learning to take place.
Participation is more than mere engagement in a practice, in that participation becomes part of our identity as we become part of each other. (Stacey 2003: 207)
The induction of newcomers is therefore concerned both with the development of their new workplace identity and with their increasing participation in the community of practice. Indeed, Lave and Wenger consider learning and a sense of identity to be inseparable aspects of the same phenomenon (1991: 115). Participation within the community is structured to enable the learning of all members, whilst allowing them forge their identity in the group through the practice of their skills. The peripheral participation of newcomers allows them to learn simple tasks before attempting work which is central to practice. Although newcomers have less responsibility for their activity as a whole, their partial tasks are still useful to the practice of the community (Lave 1991: 110-111).
Learning, participation and identity are all closely woven together in the induction process. Elkjaer (1999: 81) describes the learning process as learning an identity, learning a profession or skill as well as aquiring a sense of belonging to the organization. The development of identity becomes more than an individual act, it is the result of participation within the community. Wenger (in Stacey 2003: 206) describes identity as the pivot between the social and the individual. This notion of the social and the individual as mutual constructions, balanced around the notion of identity is relevant to Samaritans. The identity of the Samaritan volunteer must be founded on the existing identity, skills and beliefs of the individual. Yet the development of the volunteer into a fully functioning Samaritan depends heavily on the development of an specific Samarian identity, formed through participation in the community.
Both Billett and Somerville (2004) and Fuller and Unwin (2003) argue that participation in a community of practice has a reciprocal effect on the development of an identity within that practice. Billett uses the term “entwining” to describe the linking of work and identity, which he observed in a study of care workers. He argued that workers were committed to their work because it was a part of their core identity. This engagement, or participation in the work practice, led to a greater level of learning (Billett and Somerville 2004: 314). Likewise, Fuller and Unwin’s 2003 study of modern apprenticeships in three companies discovered that the personal development of apprentices was facilitated by their multimembership of communities of practice. The apprentices developed their work identity through participating in more than one community of practice (2003: 418).
However, criticisms of community of practice theory often centre around the concept of identity. Fuller (et al 2005) argue that Lave and Wenger assume wrongly that the individual’s identity is forged purely through participation in practice. Instead, each person enters a learning situation as an embodied individual, shaped by previous experiences, emotions, and outside activities (Eraut 2004: 203, Fuller et al 2005: 66, Hodkinson & Hodkinson 2003: 5, Elkjaer 1999: 6). Wenger goes some way to correcting this criticism, accepting that individuals belong to many communities and therefore have overlapping identities which cannot be turned on and off (Wenger 2000: 239). These multiplicity of identities do not remain separate, but “…conflict with, influence, complement and enrich each other.” (Wenger 2000: 242). Samaritan volunteers learn to accept and manage their multiple identities. Whilst on shift, the ability to listen with acceptance but without judgement must take precedence over any other professional or personal identities and related beliefs.
A major focus of Community of Practice Theory is on the relationship between participants and on the development of these relationships. This temporal perspective also accounts for conflict within the community. As peripheral participants gain experience in practice they become full participants and act as young masters to community newcomers. Eventually these young masters become true old-timers. This ‘triadic set of relations’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 56) is a prerequisite for the ongoing reproduction of the community. The master represents continuity, since the culture and artefacts of the practice are partially stored in his or her histories and experiences. Newcomers are caught between the need to engage with the existing practice and become full participants, and with their desire to take part in changing the community, thus displacing the old-timers. Yet this conflict between continuity and displacement is an inevitable part of all learning (ibid: 114) and the joint and unified participation of all generations of the community contribute to the success of the enterprise. (Becker 1972: 97). This theoretical perspective on relationships is particularly relevant to Samaritans, since befriending is defined by the web of relationships between volunteers, callers and organisation and these relationships change over time.
The strength of the community of practice theory lies in its linking of learning to membership of a community, in which all participants develop an identity, participate in the collective work and resolve community dilemmas. The theory assumes that the community is a positive factor in enabling learning amongst its participants. In contrast, Elias’ theory of the group analyses the more problematic aspects of group membership and its ability to inhibit learning.