You're Not Alone Even When You Are

When we act within a community and participate in its practices, this participation is not just about collaboration but also involves political and competitive elements. Such participation, while shaping the practices of the community, will go beyond them to create meaning in all kinds of contexts. As Etienne Wenger notes in his Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, "participation is not something we turn on and off" depending on the time of the day or the place where we happen to be. Community participation makes us who we are.

From this perspective, our engagement with the world is social, even when it does not clearly involve interaction with others. Being in a hotel room by yourself preparing a set of slides for a presentation next morning may not seem like a particularly social event, yet its meaning is fundamentally social. Not only is the audience there with you as you attempt to make your points understandable to them, but your colleagues are there too, looking over your shoulder, as it were, representing for you your sense of accountability to the professional standards of your community. A child doing homework, a doctor making a decision, a traveler reading a book--all these activities implicitly involve other people who may not be present. The meanings of what we do are always social. By "social" I do not refer just to family dinners, company picnics, school dances, and church socials. Even drastic isolation--as in solitary confinement, monastic seclusion, or writing--is given meaning through social participation. The concept of participation is meant to capture this profoundly social character of our experience of life.

For more on work by Wenger and Jean Lave, see here.
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