Participation as Dis-Identification With/in a Community of Practice


Diane Celia Hodges

University of British Columbia


[Creative practice] can be the long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness: a process often described as development but in practice a struggle at the roots of the mind - not casting off an ideology, or learning phrases about it, but confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships.

(Raymond Williams, 1977, p. 212)


In this article, I re-visit Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger's (1991) analysis of participation in communities of practice (Situated learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation) in ways which more explicitly account for political aspects of participation and activity. Bringing a language of identity and difference into a sociocultural analysis makes more apparent the intersections of normative practice with difference. This work emerges from my efforts to understand the dynamics of my own participation in a teacher education curriculum, here seen as an apprenticeship program in Early Childhood Education.

This effort is usefully complicated by my inability to identify as a teacher upon completion of such an apprenticeship. This is to say that as I have worked to understand learning as participation and identification, I have been simultaneously unable to account for my own (non)participation and eventual dis-identification with teaching.

This anomalous disjuncture deserves scrutiny. Lave & Wenger have, of course, considered that "legitimate peripheral participation is . . . implicated in social structures involving relations of power;" (p. 36) however, this paper tries to build further on that consideration by analyzing how political/historical inequities, and (hetero)normative relations effect what I am provisionally calling "non-participation."

Non-participation constitutes an identificatory moment where a person is accommodating in participation and yet is experiencing an exclusion from any "normative," or unproblematic identification with practice. Quite crucially, non-participation describes conflict in the space between activity and identification, where there is a moment of multiplicitous identifications, or, identificatory possibilities. This "space" emerges in the midst of participation as a conflict which engages both practice and the identificatory relations associated with the practice; a split between a person's activities and their relations with participation, a rupture between what a person is actually doing, and how a person finds herself located in the "community." Non-participation describes how a person might be participating in the contexts of grappling with possible, albeit mutable, identities.

This "shift" can be characterized as dis-identification, in that a person may be rejecting the identity connected with the practice, and yet is re-constructing an identification within the context of conflict and exclusion. This is where we might begin to acknowledge that we are not born with complex identities, but rather that we become "multiplied" through ongoing sociality.

This article is interested, then, in the complex dynamics of identity and practice, and it is interested in ways which might further illuminate the complexities of situated participation in socio-political/historical contexts.

Work of this kind is called for in Lave and Wenger's acknowledgment that "[a]ny given attempt to analyze a form of learning through legitimate peripheral participation must involve analysis of the political and social organization of that form, its historical development, and the effects of both of these on sustained possibilities for learning." (p. 64). Since "learning," is an ontological movement, it is significantly a question of "sustained possibilities" for identification.

As a way of accounting for my own non-participation, I rely on the methodology of "memory-work" (Haug, 1987), which will be explained in the next section.

After a brief outline of this method, I then provide an example of how material practices organize identificatory possibilities within a particular community. My discussion supplements Lave & Wenger's description of the AA community and demonstrates the kind of materialist analysis that I engage to understand Early Childhood Education.

I then focus my attention on the Early Childhood Education community, beginning with an historical accounting of how ideological/historical relations organize and are organized by the participation of women and children in Early Childhood Education.

I follow this by going to great lengths to explain how the early childhood education program I participated in can be analyzed as a community of practice. I then perform a re-reading of Lave & Wenger's (1991) theory of legitimate peripheral participation, and consider more specifically participation within social activity, with artifacts, and with power. I conclude with an interested discussion of the historicized (multiplicitous) self; its relevance to, and relation with, identification and difference in the contexts of a community of practice; i.e., in the contexts of describing social activity.

My goal here, and throughout, is to twine language practices in ways which articulate identity and difference in a sociocultural analysis. At the same time, this critique of Early Childhood Education is foregrounded as an historical accounting of dis-identification in a community of practice. As such, this article articulates a dialect which tries to speak both about, and with, sociocultural theories of participation, directed towards the politics of identification in Early Childhood Education.

Memory-Work as Methodology

Frigga Haug (1987), in "Female Sexualization: A Collective Memory-Work," explains how memory-work performs necessary linkages between social relations and the socio-historical self. This process entails, literally, the work of remembering one's body as situated, historically, and locating these experiences as memories which infiltrate the present; thus, "[i]f we allow ourselves to subject our own past to dispassionate scrutiny, we may perhaps be able to effect some change in the present" (Haug, p. 51.) Most poignantly for women, Haug suggests that memory-work is a tool for situating oneself within the relational organizations of socialization, and this, in order to

. . . [identify] the ways in which individuals construct themselves into existing structures, and thereby themselves are formed; the way in which they reconstruct social structures; the points at which change is possible, the points where our chains chafe the most, the points where accommodations have been made. (p. 41)

To advance an understanding of my own peculiar and contradictory status (where, for example, I continue to study within a faculty of Education while struggling with my inability to identify as a teacher), the work of remembering what took place for me during those three years has emerged as a substantive practice for this analysis. As well, re-reading this teacher education program as a community of practice requires that I re-call my locations within those relations as useful experiences with the instances of mis-recognition and dis-identification. I position these experiences as a way to engage with an analysis of how the engendered and historicized body enters into new social relations of practice, and participation.

Alcoholics Anonymous: A Brief Analysis

Lave & Wenger's analysis is richly invested with an insistence upon the critical importance of the historical relations that are produced in situated understandings of participation. Theirs is an explicit accounting for the necessity of incorporating the ways "practice . . . in, and with, the social world [is] situated in the historical development of ongoing activity." (p. 51) This acknowledgment of the interrelatedness of the historicity of participation, and the inherent sociality of activities and practices, points towards the contexts of "broader social systems of relations in which they have meaning," (Lave & Wenger, p. 53; Bourdieu, 1972). Taking this statement to task requires that we begin to elucidate the ways these historicized social systems manifest in terms of, for example, the cultural and social (re)production of participation as it is maintained through implicit privilege and marginalization.

Specifically, Lave & Wenger's analysis provides a depiction of the apprenticeship of nondrinking alcoholics:

An apprentice alcoholic attends several meetings a week, spending that time in the company of near-peers and adepts, those whose practice and identities are the community of A.A. At these meetings old-timers give testimony about their drinking and the course of the process of becoming sober . . . In the testimony at early meetings newcomers have access to a comprehensive view of what the community is about. Goals are also made plain in the litany of the "Twelve Steps" to sobriety, which guide the process of moving from peripheral to full participation in A.A . . . (p. 79-80.)

To politicize this sociocultural analysis effectively, then, one must consider more critically the historical relations of A.A. This entails the identification of the historical traditions of "testimony" as a gendered practice of non-confrontational narratives, the textual source of the "Twelve Step Program" as an artifact of patriarchal privilege and socio-cultural dominance, and the ways these historical relations of inequity effectively define the organizing relations of AA meetings and AA practices (Hall, 1996; Rosenqvist, 1991).

Alcoholics Anonymous is an organization founded by an anonymous group of American white men in the 1930s. The Twelve Step Program originates in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), also known as the "Big Book," a text written collectively by these same co-founders. It is a book written by and for men, since at that time women were not believed to be alcoholics; and so the illnesses and social crises facing women alcoholics were never included in either the text's formulation or in the program of the twelve steps one must take to achieve sobriety (Kaskutas, 1996.) This book not only presumes the existence of a masculine God, but advocates the necessity of surrendering one's will to this God as a condition for sobriety.

The practice of "testimony," as well, as non-confrontational (or "monologic") narrative, is a very particular practice for men who were (and are) socialized into kinds of hegemonic "masculine" practices which organize their social interactions. Through her detailed and extensive discourse analysis of men's and women's speaking patterns and preferences, Tannen (1990) has observed how men are more inclined to communicate with statements which invite no response, whereas women are socialized into discourse practices which invariably invite responses. In other words, women are inclined to rely on dialogic encounters, and men are inclined to rely upon monologisms. The "testimonial," a dominant discourse practice of AA, relies on monologic communication, or, non-confrontational narratives. As a practice devised by the men who originally designed the Twelve Steps, the AA "testimonial" thus can be understood as privileging a specific activity of dominant "masculinity." (Hall, 1996; Rosenqvist, 1991).

In this case, then, the absence of any socio-political/historical accounting for the traditions and ideologies which organize the AA-meetings as a community of practice serve to eclipse the interactions of male privilege and dominance in determining the practices of the AA meeting, and the Twelve Step Program. The ways the historicized and gendered relations of power operate to organize the ways women participate also signifies, crucially, how women's sobriety is made contingent upon their willingness to identify with/in the practices which comply with traditions that are historically organized around their socially subordinate status. In this case, identification is complicated by their participation in a community of practice which is premised on the marginalizing of women's health.

It is important to acknowledge that AA meetings have been transformed since women have been participating (Kaskutas, 1996.) There are many women-only meetings, lesbian-only meetings, gay and lesbian meetings (Hall, 1996; Kaskutas, 1996; Rosenqvist, 1991.) The third step in the Twelve Step Program, "We made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God," has since been modified with the deliberately ambiguous phrase, "as we understood him." [sic] in order to accommodate differing conceptions of "God" and differing spiritual manifestations of "a higher power" (Raynes, 1990.) And yet, the interpretations offered by these modifications remain contingent upon an acceptance of one's subordination to a higher power. As Margaret Raynes (1990) has noted,

This spiritual act of 'surrendering one's will' over to God is implicitly appealing to men, since this invokes the privilege embedded in the construction of God as paternalistic, and as having 'made man in His own image' . . .

Women are, historically, expected to surrender their will to men; that is, a patriarchal order specifically organizes social relations in ways which subordinate women to men's domination. Women's participation with the Twelve Step Program unavoidably re-invents this subordination . . .

. . . The contentiousness here is not in the reconstructions of a spiritual belief, but in the hierarchical organization of these as a "Higher" power; and the insistence that one must "surrender her will" to this power.

(Raynes, 1990, p. 23)

In other words, the participation of women in A.A. entails identification within a position of subordination encoded in the masculine discourses of sobriety. It is both participation with, and identification through an historicized relation with powerlessness and marginalization.

The Politics of Early Childhood Education

Of particular interest in this article are the relations and practices of women and children within community membership in Early Childhood Education. Here the formations of women's relations to children are underlined with hegemonic assumptions concerning women's relations with children. Certainly, these ideological formations do not exclusively originate in early childhood education, yet, it is important to consider the ways the larger social systems impact upon, and weave their formations into more localized sets of practices.

Historically identified as being more "naturally" predisposed to the work of caring for children, (Miller, 1992; Smedley, 1994; Walkerdine, 1991), women teaching young children " . . . has been ideologically congruent with notions of female domesticity." (Labaree, 1992, p. 132). This politic indeed comes from participation within a social stratum "outside" of the early childhood community of practice; nevertheless, it is an ongoing privilege of heteronormativity. It is a practice which marginalizes women in ways that organize, and are organized by women's participation with/in early childhood education's community. In addition, in early childhood education there are normative constructs which organize "children" within specific relations and practices, where children's behaviors are interpreted through particular developmental theories of child development, specifically those of Jean Piaget, (e.g., 1953; 1971; 1976) and Erik Erikson, (e.g., 1950).

What emerges as early childhood education practices are pre-structured methods of teaching young children which strictly adhere to specific theories of child development. Apprentice-educators interact and intervene with children on the basis of these decidedly un-interrogated assumptions about "normal" participation. Behavior is interpreted as "normal" for a particular age-group; not only are children thus segregated into age-specific groups on the basis of this belief, but interventions and discipline tactics, as well, are organized according to what a certain child "ought" to be doing/knowing at a certain age.

"Developmentally appropriate practices" are ideological practices which constitute age-specific presumptions about "normal" development. This circumstance organizes not only the ways children participate in early childhood education (and are identifying, through their participation, with, or in proximity to, "normality"), but also the ways women/teachers interact with children (Walkerdine 1991).

Early Childhood Teacher Education as a Community of Practice

Throughout Lave & Wenger's (1991) text, there are cautions concerning any impulse simply to apply their analysis to institutionalized settings (e.g., pp.. 39-41), and specific and frequent warnings about the inappropriateness of trying to squeeze school-based sites into the frames of a community of practice. They write, for instance,

. . . pervasive claims concerning the sources of the effectiveness of schooling (in teaching, in the specialization of schooling in changing persons, in the special modes of inculcation for which schools are known) stand in contradiction with the situated perspective we have adopted.

(p. 40)


We have insisted that exposure to resources for learning is not restricted to a teaching curriculum and that instructional assistance is not construed as a purely interpersonal phenomenon; rather, we have argued that learning must be understood with respect to a practice as a whole, with its multiplicity of relations - both within the community and with the world at large. (p. 114)

To clarify, then, how the teacher education program I participated in might usefully be understood as a community of practice, I will offer here a brief overview of the relations which constitute this particular university's teaching-degree structure.

Because more than half of the three-year program requirements place the students in a variety of "field" contexts (Bourdieu, 1979/1984,) such as daycares, child-care centers, nursery schools, kindergarten, and primary grades (one, two, and three), developmentally appropriate practices which are particular to early childhood education are ideologically sustained; however, kinds of relational engagements and interactions are manifold and diverse. Student-teachers must manage their time between university-based experience and the differently organized and differently situated social contexts which are gathered under the early childhood education banner, sites which are vastly disparate with respect to space, location, and social interaction. Schools and child-care centers that accept student-teachers for participation in apprenticeship relations are situated widely throughout the city, in varying socio-economic structures, (wealthy, middle-class, lower-class, poverty), as well as suburban-based schools and inner-city schools. Student-teachers in these contexts are not responsible for the curriculum or for the existing structures of the schools, but rather are expected to apprentice themselves to the teachers, to interact and participate with school-based staff, children, and parents.

Student-teachers are sent "out" to the "world" of early childhood education in order to learn, via their relational associations with education-based personnel and children, how to "be" a teacher. This is most explicitly manifested in the required practice of journalizing the experiences and observations of the field placements, with the emphasis being not on "what did you do?" but "how did this make you feel?" and "what would you have done differently?" (that is, "if" you had "been" the teacher, what might you have done? and so on.)

In the cases of curriculum, we were guided by faculty through much of the course-work as though we were the children we would eventually teach, so that the method of instruction could be "modeled" to us. We read children's literature, participated in exploring literature webs, manipulated and "played with" various educational games and toys, and in turn we were expected to design developmentally appropriate activities from scratch, for our classmates, following these same pretenses, to "pretend" we were teachers teaching a room full of children.

Our fields of interaction were much more vast than a classroom; our curriculum was much more complex than an instructional dependence on textbooks; and social interactions were organized more through aspects of modeling, role-playing, peer relations, observation, and mentoring than direct instruction. Of course, this complexity does not release this analysis from the cautions advanced by Lave & Wenger concerning schooling as too specifically-situated, and its contradictory relations of decontextualized knowledge. It is the traditions and practices that specifically organize early childhood education and that set it distinctly apart from, for example, middle-school and high-school practices and relations. Early childhood education is predominantly comprised of women and children. It is the gendered relations, and the explicit engagements with child development theories, which serve explicitly to delineate early childhood education and its fields of practice as exceptional within the larger culture of schools.

(Non)participation and Dis-identification

The ontological aspect of Lave & Wenger's analysis grows out of their concerns about participation in a community of practice. Here I will elaborate Lave & Wenger's discussion of ontology of participation by accounting for moments when participation is organized by structures of privilege that deny difference and diversity. An analysis of this kind points to ways for enabling more equitable, more inclusive practices. What is at stake here is the question of difference, and the identificatory relations which shift between participation and normative practice.

This shift describes a specific internal movement, where what shuttles between participation and normative practice are conflictual moments of identification. More concretely, I propose there are "lags" in participation, when a person is engaged in "doing" and yet is withdrawing from an identification with the practice. In these instances, identification is in-relation to the practice, but invokes an "agonized compromise" within the community. As a question of difference, this analysis must try to "spy" a fleeting instant, literally, between the moments of participation, when one engages with a practice and that instant of colliding with(in) difference. Normative practice is most profoundly recognized as normative when those on the "margins" actively participate; and these are the "ontological gaps" where normative practice and participation intersect, where the two don't quite touch, (queers in school, for example.) It is from this space of exclusion, marginalization, or, alienation, that I want to be analyzing.

Communities of Practice

Critical to Lave & Wenger's analysis is their recognition of multiplicities in participation, that there "may well be no such simple thing as 'central participation' in a community of practice." (p. 35); rather, participation is socially constructed, interwoven with the detailed fabrics of the community of practice and the negotiated processes of membership and participation. In this way, participation is defined as ways of belonging, where belonging is, " . . . not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content." (p. 35.)

Because communities of practice are most usefully delineated in "processual, historical terms," (p. 99) participation is understood as engaging members through an historical (temporal) focus. An example of this historicity within a community of practice is provided by Lave & Wenger in their analysis of the ways that participation necessarily changes over time, as newcomers gradually become full participants within a community, and potentially, in turn, participate as old-timers with other newcomers. "Learning" in this fluid context - situated within the practices of the community of practice in ways which are inseparable from the community's shifting membership - is understood through the analysis of participation. This effectively changes the unit of analysis from one of knowledge-construction (what is being learned?) to an ontological emphasis on identity as relational (who are you becoming?) Learning, through this perspective, is an ontological transformation, not an epistemological effect.

What emerges as crucial, then, is less the "content" of education, and more substa ntially, the quality of a person's participation within this educative community. That is, what can be " . . . accounted for by underlying relations of legitimate peripheral participation." (Lave & Wenger, p. 63)

The "quality" of "legitimate" participation is that which evokes a sense of belonging, that identificatory movement which occurs with/in membership. As Lave and Wenger state, "The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content." (p. 35) Moreover, membership is not merely the claim to belong to a certain community, but is an on-going process of shifting locations and transitional participation which fulfill identificatory possibilities over time. To belong, as such, is to engage as a member of a vast and complex set of relations which are, through on-going membership, transformed, rearranged, produced and reproduced through the community of practice as socially desirable. Elspeth Probyn (1996) describes belonging as desire, and is worth quoting here:

. . . desire is productive; it is what oils the lines of the social; it produces the pleats and folds which constitute the social surface we live. It is through and with desire that we figure relations of proximity to others and other forms of sociality . . . The desire to belong propels, even as it rearranges, the relations into which it intervenes.

(Probyn 1996, 13, my emphasis)

Belonging, and the desire for membership in a particular community of practice further shape, and are shaped by, the quality of participation in the community of practice.

. . . of the twenty-five women who were accepted into this program, there were about ten of us who openly sought friendships with each other, and in our zeal for support and partnerships, we formed a peer group we called, "The Community of Cooperative Learners". We met weekly in the evenings to commiserate, complain, share resources, ask each other the questions which never seemed to get asked in the program; and, frequently, to express our anxieties about "becoming" teachers. It became apparent to me quite early on that not only was I the only lesbian in this group, I seemed to be the only lesbian in the Early Childhood Education program.

My difference was daily reinforced through relations with women with whom I had little in common.

I was the only woman who didn't wear make-up to classes, I didn't wear dresses, or "pretty" things . . .

No husband, no fiancé, no boyfriend, no children.

I didn't have color-coded notebooks and rainbows

of hi-lighter pens. I didn't carry a pencil case. I didn't sit scribbling meticulous notes during course lectures. I didn't brush my hair or check my nails in class.

Questioning theory came easily to me - I was the only student who came from a background of psychology, philosophy and literature. I was the only student who seemed to argue the taken-for-granted assumptions about children and child development . . . I was the only one who seemed to actually remember being a child . . .

and from this I gained a reputation amongst the students and faculty for being out-spoken and confrontational: arrogant, argumentative.

My voice seemed too loud. My frustrations too explicit. My gestures too effusive. In the halls I would blurt a barrage of profanities and my colleagues would blush - I was too coarse, too rude . . .

I became self-conscious about my difference: I was not very girlie. I was not feminine. I was not subdued. I was not obedient. At that point, a few weeks into the first year of this program, I found myself "closeting" my queerness, fearful that "girliness" and feminine heterosexuality were the unofficial pre-requisites for teaching young children.

The Community of Cooperative Learners became a regular encounter with my fears of being 'found out.'

Lave & Wenger acknowledge the impact peer relations have on learning, and stress that social relations within a community are not solely that of master to apprentice, " . . . but rather [are] the apprentice's relations to other apprentices and even to other masters that organize opportunities to learn . . . It seems typical of apprenticeship that apprentices learn mostly in relation with other apprentices." (p. 92-93). This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by my participation in the peer-organized Community of Cooperative Learners, while simultaneously elucidating the conflictual position of being the only gay woman in the decidedly feminine/heterosexual relations which constituted the early childhood community of practice in which I was participating.

Lave & Wenger's analysis of communities of practice does not fully account for the contradictions and complications which can be ideologically structured into community discourses and practices. For example, the authors write that legitimate peripheral participation,

. . . crucially involves participation as a way of learning - of being both absorbing and absorbed in - the 'culture of practice'. An extended period of legitimate peripherality provides learners with opportunities to make the culture of practice theirs.

(Lave & Wenger, p. 95)

If the "culture of practice" is historically and ideologically organized on the basis of marginalizing difference from the dominant heteronormative relations, however, the process of identification with the practice is fraught with complications (Bryson & De Castell 1993). Making the Early Childhood Education Program "culture of practice" my own specifically requires that I deny my lesbian identity.

Participating contradictorily within my historically situated body, there is a moment of internal collision, an instant of (non)participation in the early childhood education community, both as an adult gay woman and as a child:

First year, first day, first class with our first instructor. She broadly described how over the next three years we would all get to know each other quite well. She then talked about her research with young children, and showed us drawings provided to her during one of her data-gathering sessions with children ranging in ages from three to six. She asked us to guess how old the children were by looking at the drawings, and began to hold them up, one by one. She laughed quite frequently, kindly, bemused, as though charmed by the "innocence" of the drawings . . .

. . . flashback to kindergarten, I'm five years old, sitting on the cold linoleum floor, we are all painting with thick, fat-bristled paint brushes, on large sheets of newsprint, scooping the paint out of plastic containers, scrambling around on our knees to find the container with the right color . . .

I'm depressed, I'm grieving,

my stomach is tight, and I'm not sure why,

I'm tired, tired, as though I haven't slept in years,

and so I draw a picture of myself,

and I labor to make the mouth sad, sad, I'm so sad,

and it still doesn't look like I feel,

so I spoon my bulky tool into a pot of black paint and carefully delineate wide, black circles under my eyes, now my picture looks grotesque and it is perfect, that is me,

this is me,

and I ask my teacher to write that on my picture,

"This is me in the morning" and she laughs.

I'm thinking she'll be horrified by the tragedy of this depiction but she throws her head back and laughs, calls her teaching partner over, "Look at this, oh you've got to see this, it's the funniest thing . . . " and they laugh together, it's so cute, how funny children are, oh my, and they pin the picture to the kindergarten wall for the other children to admire, for the parents to see, this is me, grotesque, a monster, this is me, depressed, this is me . . .

. . . and then she held up a picture of a young girl who had drawn herself in fragments, her head separated from the body, suspended above her body as though floating there, hovering just out of reach. She asked us what we thought of the picture, and no one said anything, they smiled, nodded knowingly, it's cute isn't it? . . . a few chuckled, isn't that cute, and I said, "From my understandings of children's art, the separation of the head and the body, the way she's drawn it, is an indication that some sort of sexual abuse has been taking place . . . " and the teacher's eyes poured black into me. "Well we're not really qualified to make that judgment . . . " She faltered, as though suddenly remembering the girl who drew the picture, then stammered, "Besides, she was . . . No, no." Her face shifted, freakish, to the cheery "Isn't it cute" expression and she chirped, too gaily, "How old do you think she is?" I looked at each picture then with a small stab of pain; this is how it was, this is how it's going to be.

It is tempting, though not easy, to linger where we are most disturbed. It is like pulling up our shirt sleeves, pointing to the uglier scars and holding these up to the lights as evidence: see? see? But the body here is not a map to trace the routes so easily, as though flesh can speak directly to theory. The example above signals the ways contradiction operates and undulates on multiple levels, and most importantly, the ways contradiction stutters in an identificatory moment, in that gap between normative practice ("Isn't she cute?") and (my) participation.

Untangling Contradictions

Acknowledging how contradictions are unavoidably organized within a community of practice, Lave & Wenger note,

. . . a major contradiction lies between legitimate peripheral participation as the means of achieving continuity over generations for the community of practice, and the displacement inherent in that same process as full participants are replaced (directly or indirectly) by newcomers-become-old-timers . . . This tension is in fact fundamental - a basic contradiction of social reproduction, transformation and change. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 114)

In this way, newcomers (novices) to a community of practice are invariably participating paradoxically as their positions within the community are constantly shifting, and as their movement is expressed as both displacement from one position to another, and in continuity of their participation within the community.

What is not accounted for in this model of reproduction, transformation, and change are the ways an individual's historical-cultural "baggage" is evoked and shifting, displaced and continuous through participation. It is my memory of participating as a child in an early childhood education context which is evoked, and reinforced through my participation as an adult in this same community. In an instant of identificatory collision, the same relations are taking place - bluntly put, a dismissal and a reconstruction of the child through a mis-interpretation which gives rise to laughter. In this case, there is continuity of early childhood education practices; and yet I am participating differently, both by recalling my childhood experience, and by contradicting the professor's interpretations. In both instances, as a child and as an adult, I am participating as a member of the community, but I am conflicted to the extent that teaching is being implicated as a practice of betrayal. In both cases - as a child and as an adult - there is nothing observable taking place which suggests I don't belong, nor does my participation seem to lack a quality of membership. And yet, in both instances, I am participating with explicit beliefs about children that operate to dismiss my difference not once, but twice; and in two different historical contexts.

Since communities of practice are engaged "in the generative process of their own future" (p. 57-58), it is expected that there will be conflict and struggle between " . . . the forces that support processes of learning and those that work against them." (p. 57). Learning is transformative within the community of practice, (thus implicating identity as transformative), where " . . . [l]earning, transformation, and change are always implicated in one another, and the status quo needs as much explanation as change." (p. 57.)

Lave & Wenger claim that the contradictory relations which are an integral part of a community of practice afford the necessity of "working out" these conflicts through participation. This process indicates both social reproduction, and production (transformation, creation), where contradictory relations imply a "renewed construction of resolutions to underlying conflicts" (p. 58). However, in the case of early childhood education, it is the dominance of specific traditions which organizes the community's continuity. Here contradictory participation does not fulfill the need to re-direct participation to more inclusive practices, and membership is contingent upon an ongoing engagement with the dominant traditions.

In a daycare practicuum, less than a year into the teacher education program, I was asked by my supervising teacher to perform the calendar routine with the children in her group, which consisted of eight 4-year old children. During this routine, one of the children was suddenly overcome with a fit of giggles. I knew I was being "observed", evaluated on my ability to "manage" the group, but this girl's giggles were infectious: even I began to laugh.

The supervising teacher instructed me, then, to direct this girl to the "silly chair" because she was being disruptive. While I thought that disrupting the calendar routine was a welcomed interruption, I complied with the instruction and, effectively echoing the authoritative voice of the observing teacher, I told the girl she would have to sit in the silly chair. (The silly chair is a chair positioned outside the circle area, the purpose being to isolate the child from the rest of the group.) The girl went to the chair and cried, while I continued with the obligatory monotony of naming week-days, the month, and so on.

Following this activity, I approached the girl and apologized to her, comforted her; I was powerfully aware of a feeling that I identified more with the children thanwith the teacher. My sense of alliance with the girl was embarrassing to me because I knew I was expected to perform as an authority figure, the teacher, the adult in charge of young children, and so on.

After my conversation with the girl, the cooperating teacher reprimanded me for apologizing, and explained to me, patiently, speaking to me as though I were one of her four-year olds, that by apologizing I undermined my own authority. What struck me profoundly was that I never spoke to the children in the manner that she spoke to me, and I was significantly offended by what I perceived to be condescending speech: I was both resenting the way she was talking to me, and experiencing a sense of displacement, for I thought that I could never talk to children that way, and I believed that this, too, was a necessary practice for early childhood educators.

This is not so simply a case of "resistance" to practice, neither the child's nor my own; but is an intersection of identificatory possibilities, when conflict is internalized while accommodating to the normative practices. It was indeed desirable to resist the "silly chair"; however, what remains significant is that I did not act on that desire. Most crucially, the practice is the "doing" of the thing, and whether I thought differently or not, it is the "doing" which stirs the body into somewhere else. When I obliged the rules, I acted "as a teacher," and in doing so, withdrew from my body in the conflict, that is, stuttered between the gap of "who am I becoming/who am I." As Raymond Williams (1977) notes,

The true condition of hegemony is effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms: a specific and internalized 'socialization' which is expected to be positive but which, if that is not possible, will rest on a (resigned) recognition of the inevitable and the necessary. (p. 118, my emphasis)

To affiliate with a community, to participate as a member, the newcomer is inevitably participating in accordance with, (and at times, in defiance of) the traditions that organize that community of practice . According to Williams (1977), and congruent with Lave & Wenger's analysis, tradition is transformed over time; however, and this is a significant point, tradition is invariably reflective of the interests served by the dominance of a very specific set of relations. These are the social relations which privilege certain persons through ideological traditions (e.g., "heterosexual" women, "normal" development).

Williams describes tradition as

. . . an aspect of contemporary social and cultural organization, in the interest of the dominance of a specific class. It is a version of the past which is intended to connect with and ratify the present. What it offers in practice is a sense of predisposed continuity.

(Williams, 1977, p. 116)

William's perspective is compatible with the contradictory process of continuity/displacement as discussed by Lave & Wenger (1991). Tradition, in a community of practice, is not inert, nor is it merely a "historicized segment of a social structure . . . as the surviving past." (Williams, p. 115); rather, tradition is a selectively controlled version of the past, ". . . used to ratify the present and to indicate directions for the future . . ." (Williams, p. 116).

Traditions may change through on-going participation, but these gradual transformations are, nonetheless, informed through the practices of a dominant order. In other words, tradition is a deliberately selective and connecting process which enables the reification of a contemporary order: identifying through participation within the traditions of a community of practice, then, can involve a conflictual relation between one's socially marginalized differences, and one's peripheral relations within the community of practice.

The difficulty here is in attempting any complete distinction between marginalization and peripherality. Both terms describe kinds of locations and relations that constitute participation, and both terms imply a kind of alienation from the community's center; both marginalization and peripherality are linked to historical practices and traditions which organize the social structures within which we participate. Nevertheless, a person whose relations are peripheral to a community of practice is not necessarily "marginalized," or "alienated," because peripherality is an inclusive location within the community of practice, a location specifically built into the community as an aspect of a person's learning." Marginalization, on the hand, is not negotiable, and does not lead to more inclusive practices; rather, marginalized persons are always outside the dominant social structure. Thus those who are marginalized by a dominant social order will indeed participate differently from members who have not constructed themselves historically on the basis of social exclusion.

There is, then, a potential inconsistency to the relation between "marginalization" and "peripherality." The historical and material effects of being socially-marginalized on the basis of "difference" are manifested quite differently from peripherality in participation. To participate peripherally, in other words, is to participate legitimately/inclusively within the community of practice. Marginalization, as a larger social effect, can be structured into participation in a community of practice, manifesting itself as repetitions of alienation and isolation.

What matters, here, is how my difference collides with my participation, how my marginalized relation to heteronormative practices is a relation which, instead of engaging me with the practices of the community, actually subordinates me to the extent that I identify with the powerless members of this community: the children. It is indeed a transformative shift in participation, but it is a shift away from being a teacher, and instead, is an utter identity crisis brought about through my (non)participation. My membership shifts in oppositional directions: towards participating in accordance with the traditions of teaching young children, and yet away from identifying as a teacher.

Artifacts and Technology

Participation involving technology is especially significant because the artifacts used within any cultural practice carry a substantial portion of that practice's heritage. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 101)

The one-way mirror is a tool incorporated into early childhood teacher education for enabling the observation of young children. By making covert observations possible, participation with this technology actually educates student-teachers about observation as a practice of surveillance. The technological history of one-way mirrors is indeed reflective of manipulative practices, covert surveillance, deception, and the historical shadows of these practices are encoded in the use of this mirroring device.

Lave & Wenger discuss the ways the artifacts of a community of practice are tools of mediation between the community's practices and the processes of identification with the community's practices. It is through interactions with artifacts, they write, " . . . [that] knowledge within a community of practice and ways of perceiving and manipulating objects characteristic of community practices are encoded in artifacts in ways that can be more or less revealing."

(p. 102).

In the early childhood teacher education community, the practice of observation is both technologically available, and practiced, as a way for "learning about" (identifying with) "normal" development (ideological assumptions about which behaviors constitute "normality".) The technological history of one-way mirrors is indeed reflective of manipulative practices, covert surveillance, deception, and the historical shadows of these practices are encoded in the use of this mirroring device.

Two mornings a week, as student-teachers in the early childhood teacher education program, we were required to spend two hours in the Observation Lounge, a narrow corridor sealed off from, and serving as the divide between ,the university nursery school and the seminar room. In the nursery and in the seminar classroom, microphones dangled from the ceilings and video cameras were mounted in corners: the operation of this surveillance equipment was monitored in the Observation Lounge, where we would stand in the dimly lit corridor and watch through the wall-length, one-way mirrors which looked into each room. From this concealed site we were able to observe both the nursery activities and the parents' meetings on the opposite side of the lounge.

Eerie, to spend so many hours watching them the way folks gawk at beasts in the zoo, they were only children of course but the looking glass deformed their presence, the tain was grimy, streaked with the glances and stares of all the student-teachers preceding us; and the children on the other side, they often walked up to the mirror and pressed their faces and hands to the glass, smearing our window with their sweat and saliva . . .

The historical practice of covertly observing young children has been traced to the scientization of child care which burgeoned in the late 19th century (Varga, 1991). In her analysis of The University of Toronto Institute of Child Study (from 1925 - 1960), Varga argues that scientific observation and record-keeping, as technologies of child study and as apparatuses for recording young children's behavior, operate as a process which "defines structures of proper development and constructs social forms of care giving." (1991, p. 71). Varga points out that, given the cultural parameters of scientific child study, the idea of the "natural" child developing "normally" is itself a cultural artifact, and not a biological truism. This belief concerning normalcy is embedded in the historicity of observation, both as a relational activity and as an historicized artifact.

The significance of this history of the one-way mirror as a technology of surveillance is supported by Lave & Wenger's description of the historicity of a community of practice's tools. Here they articulate how the artifacts employed in on-going practice are never distinct from participation: " . . . understanding the technology of practice is more than learning to use tools; it is a way to connect with the history of the practice and to participate more directly in its cultural life." (p. 101)

Participation with a community of practice's technologies does not necessarily reveal the history of the relations which have constructed the artifact, and so " . . . [i]t cannot be viewed as a feature of an artifact in itself but as a process that involves specific forms of participation, in which the technology fulfills a mediating function." (p. 102).

The one-way mirror helps illustrate this point. It mediates participation with the covert practices of observation in such a way that "normalcy", which is encoded in the history of the artifact's use, and surveillance, encoded in the artifact itself, are effectively transparent to the participant. Transparency implies that the history is not perceivable in the use of the thing (Lave & Wenger, p.102).

Yet I felt as though I were being watched when I participated in these ritual observation tasks. My own engagement with this scientific "looking" pulled the reflection slightly askew, for certainly I had something to hide, my own "guilty secret" about who I was. In addition, the "who" with whom I worried was tangled with childhood recollections of being watched, or worse, begin watched but never seen. Even without an articulate knowledge about one-way mirrors, I was shamed and disgraced through its use, frightened by what my reflections might betray about myself, and equally distressed by my participation with the repeating activities of observation. The transparency of the thing may conceal its historical tracings through use; however, there are residual effects of the artifact's history which impact participation.

In other words, as a tool for regulating "normal" bodies, the one-way mirror necessarily invokes its history, transparently, but not inconsequentially. "Transparency" describes how using artifacts and " . . . understanding their significance interact to become one learning process." (Lave & Wenger p. 103) Thus, participation with tools encoded with such ideological practices (i.e., regulating "normalcy") involves an identification with the ideology. Again, my discomfort was not simply a sign of resistance to the activity, but a sign of dis-identification, of not identifying with the practice, not identifying with the work of observation. In that moment of possible identifications, I identified with the terrors of being observed, with the helplessness of being "regulated" as a "normal" body, with the impossible position of concealing myself in a room full of glass and mirrors.


It is a powerful site, standing in the protected supremacy of covert observations; and as a student, I indeed experienced this opportunity as empowering. Simultaneously contradicting this powerful position, however, was my distress with the deception of the exercise, the reflection of my own childhood invisibility, my secretly sexual self, the reflection of my own experiences with powerlessness. Most importantly, maintaining my membership in the community was explicitly contingent upon my participating in this activity, and thus enduring the irreconcilable conflicts embedded in this multiply situated relations of power.

" . . . The analysis of the exercise of power cannot be confined to an analysis of the relation between the parties directly involved - those actually present in the discussion, for example" (Frazer & Lacey, p.35); rather, it is more prudent to consider the participatory practices within a community as both relational and voluntary:

It is important that recognizing that power cannot be seen purely as a possession or attribute of individuals does not result in our locating it in 'structures' where these are completely beyond our understanding or control. All exercises of power presuppose a network of social relations which make the exercise . . . [or more properly an action, or practice] . . . possible and significant. (Frazer & Lacey, 1993, p. 35)

As an example of multiple shifts of power and identificatory conflicts, the activities which took place in the Observation Room do reveal voluntary and relational practices of power. In other words, if it was so difficult for me, why didn't I quit? Why didn't I just quit the program?

This question entails an understanding of the power of social relations as something more than monolithic; rather, the processes of human agency are participating in ways which are constitutive of the power relations within these practices. Power, exercised through social practices, " . . . infuses our lives rather than staying in manageable locations where we can reify, identify, and control it." (Frazer & Lacey, 1993, p. 197).

First Narrative

I sincerely believed that if I could just become a teacher, finish the program, get the certificate, in spite of the difficulties, I could make a difference. I could be that 'special' teacher who make sa difference in children's lives. I could do what I wanted, once I was teaching, I would have the power to challenge the system, change the system from within . . . and the only way I could do this was to finish the program. So I stayed, actively participated, while the conflicts multiplied, one by one, twisting within the utter fibres of my being. I was a walking contradiction: an excellent student, an excellent student teacher, stranded between my difference and my desire to make a difference.

Second Narrative

The truth is I enjoyed being the brainiac. I reveled in my intellectual authority , I eagerly sought out the rewards available to me, "A"-grades, "90%+"-grades, I cherished professors’ comments on my writing, "well done!"; "excellent!"; "interesting!" And as my peers resisted the academic work, I embraced it as the one thing I could do successfully; as my peers excelled in the field placements, I struggled as some awkward, clumsy, too-large, too-different kind of person. I was actually in full retreat, disappearing into my head and leaving my body behind. I failed my final placement as a kindergarten teacher. To graduate, I had to write a 20-page paper on what I would have done differently.

I claimed a position of power in academic production; that is, as I disengaged myself more and more with the possibility of my "becoming" an early childhood educator, I focused on my participation in lectures, course-work, and written assignments. This was neither so neat and tidy as simply switching my passions, nor was it so apparent to me at that time. It is in the power of telling this "story" now, retrospectively, that I have the hindsight to re-read the experiences this way. For example, being "book-smart" in early childhood education actually invited criticisms from faculty. I was "too intellectual," "too abstract," and "too much in my head." My curriculum ideas were "too hard" for children. My teaching lacked "control."

The profound complexity of power relations thus penetrates beyond the community of practice, and through the histories and bodies of the persons participating. Power shapes memory. It knits itself into identity in such a way that its patterns are diffuse, writing through relations with others, with practices, activities, participation, and with identity, distorting, disclosing, encoding the historicized self.

The Historicized Self

Recognition of the historical self is pivotal to a practice of subverting traditional constructs of identity as fixed or stabilized within the individual. To actualize this kind of project, ideologies about identification can be countered through attention to the material details of the lived past. This is not to advocate self-absorption; rather, such attention enables the historicized subject to acknowledge the discursive shifts of self, to itself. To encounter one's own manipulated and manipulating self is an oppositional strategy which employs a critical and conscious reading of the internalized interplay of social forces. In this way, critical work is not directed at that situation, as opposed to this situation, but is recognizably transgressive. Situatedness, as an historical reconstruction of self, invites a constant re-reading, and so the dynamics of socio-political/ historical processes are incorporated into the inquiry.

I have tried to explicate certain political and historical social relations which organize early childhood teacher education in an effort to elaborate upon the intimacy of processes of legitimate peripheral participation. The early childhood education program which I participated in exemplifies how a community of practice is organized in such a way as to make participation contingent upon identifying, or dis-identifying, within ideological constructs, such as heteronormativity. To belong to this community of practice, accordingly, participants necessarily practice the suppression of difference.

Approaching issues of identification from the perspective that identity is inseparable from participation opens up a space where the problem of participation can be differently understood. As Lave & Wenger write,.

Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations. To ignore this aspect of learning is to overlook the fact that learning involves the construction of identities. (Lave & Wenger, p. 39)

It is futile, however, to deny the ways legitimate participation entails the loss of certain identities even as it enables the construction of others. Critical at this junction is an emphasis on participation as political activity, framed as an ongoing negotiation for position. How does a practitioner engage with ideological relations which historically and materially operate to marginalize her at the same time? Correlationally, how might practices and organizations be changed or transformed into something more discursive, more inclusive?

In this paper I have tried to bring more explicitly into a sociocultural analysis a specific language practice which describes identity as discursive, that is, as multiplicitous. I have tried here to articulate the body in sociocultural contexts of theory as a way to bring difference into the discourse traditions of socioculturalism. Communities of practice, as an integrated model of historical relations and social activity, are perhaps most significant as an articulation of how participation describes ontological transformations. Furthermore, and as I have tried to show here, within participation there are multiple possibilities for identification. These possibilities are emergent, concomitant with the conflictual nature of legitimate peripheral participation, and are inextricable from the historicized body.

The task here is not simply to seek out the conflicting acts, but to recognize how participation necessarily invokes complex interactions involving the historicized self. We bring to the community of practice identificatory possibilities which might be more usefully actualized by raising the question of difference, rather than denying its possibility.


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