Home   |   Lg & Gender   |   Lg & Adolescence   |   Gascon   |   Courses   |   3rd Wave   |   Vowels for NPR   |   Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice, Style and Personae

In 1989, I went to the newly-founded Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto. IRL was a non-profit research institute, funded by the Xerox Foundation and dedicated to an interdisciplinary exploration of learning. The main attraction for me was to be able to work with an interdisciplinary group to bring together social and cognitive perspectives - something that linguists weren't trying to achieve - and particularly to work with anthropologist Jean Lave and computer scientist Etienne Wenger, whom I found incredibly congenial and inspiring. In its early years, IRL offered an open, intimate, interdisciplinary, and collaborative environment, and my time in that environment was without question the most important period in my intellectual development. It was at IRL that Jean and Etienne began to develop the construct of communities of practice, which became central to IRL's approach to learning. It also spread quickly into business and education, and while it has been an incredibly valuable tool in the hands of some, others have latched onto it in an attempt to justify studying any old group of people, generating some truly awful stuff. Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne. 2000. Communities of practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, Penelope and Etienne Wenger. 1994. From School to Work: an Apprenticeship in Institutional Identity. Working Papers on Learning and Identity, 1. Palo Alto: Institute for Research on Learning.

Eckert, Penelope, Shelley Goldman and Etienne Wenger 1997. The School as a Community of Engaged Learners.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice. Annual Review of Anthropology. 21, 461-90.

Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. New York: Cambridge University Press.

A community of practice is an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations - in short, practices - emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavor. A community of practice is different as a social construct from the traditional notion of community, primarily because it is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages. And this practice involves the construction of a shared orientation to the world around them - a tacit definition of themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to other communities of practice. The individual constructs an identity - a sense of place in the social world - through participation in a variety of communities of practice, and in forms of participation in each of those communities. And key to this entire process of construction is stylistic practice.

Stylistic Practice

Traditionally in variation, style has been treated as a speaker's situational adjustments in use of individual variables. The other side of style is how speakers combine variables to create distinctive ways of speaking. These ways of speaking are a key to the production of personae, and personae in turn are particular social types that are quite explicitly located in the social order. Stylistic practice involves a process of bricolage (Hebdige 1984), by which people combine a range of existing resources to construct new meanings or new twists on old meanings. It involves adapting linguistic variables available out in the larger world to the construction of social meaning on a local level. It is primarily within communities of practice that people interpret the social landscape, making connections between the apparent characteristics of people out in that landscape and their ways of speaking (Gal and Irvine 1995, Irvine 2001.) By appropriating elements of style, speakers can incorporate the meanings that they associate with those elements.

Linguistic variables can range widely in meaning, from the quite specific to the merely intensifying, and from social types and stances to emotions. What they rarely mean is a major demographic category (e.g. "female"), or a place (e.g. "Detroit"). For some time, linguistic anthropologists (Ochs, 1991; Silverstein, 1976) have stressed the fact that linguistic choices rarely index social categories directly; rather, they index attitudes, stances, activities that are in turn associated with categories of people. It is this indirect nature of the relation between variables and categories that allows variation to be a resource not simply for the indexing of place in the social matrix but for the construction of new places and of nuanced social meanings.

Studies in the Third Wave explore the indexical value of variables through their functions in styles:

Campbell-Kibler, Kathryn. 2007. Accent, (ING) and the social logic of listener perceptions. American speech, 82.32-64.

Eckert, Penelope. 2008. Variation and the indexical field. Journal of sociolinguistics. 12.453-76.

Podesva, Robert. 2007. Phonation type as a stylistic variable: The use of falsetto in constructing a persona. Journal of sociolinguistics, 11.478-504.

Zhang, Qing. 2005. A Chinese yuppie in Beijing: Phonological variation and the construction of a new professional identity. Language in society, 34.431-66.

Zhang, Qing. 2008. Rhotacization and the 'Beijing Smooth Operator': The social meaning of a linguistic variable. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12.201-22.

Gal, Susan and Judith T. Irvine. 1995. The boundaries of languages and disciplines: How ideologies construct difference. Social research, 62.967-1001.

Hebdige, Dick. 1984. Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Methuen.

Irvine, Judith. 2001. Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation. Stylistic variation in language, ed. by Penelope Eckert and John Rickford, 21-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ochs, Elinor. 1991. "Indexing gender". Rethinking Context, ed. by A. Duranti and C. Goodwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. Meaning in anthropology, ed. by Keith H. Basso and Henry A. Selby, 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language and Communication 23: 193b