Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 18
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: November 2009

2 - Language and power in communities of practice


In this chapter, I argue that elements of theories developed within the field of the critical and social study of language could develop the theory of communities of practice, by offering a clearer understanding of the role of language within the process of negotiation of meaning. We have already mentioned in the introduction the need for a more fully developed theory of language within the theory of communities of practice. This chapter explores models from critical social linguistics which elaborate notions left unexplained in Wenger's model and offer theoretical and methodological tools for addressing some significant issues which remain unexplored, demonstrating this by reanalysing some of the example material from Wenger's 1998 book.


I will begin by exploring the place of language within the theory as it currently stands, particularly the implicit importance of language as a form of meaning making within Wenger's development of the concept of practice. The concept of ‘practice’ is central to his conceptualisation of learning in communities. He defines practice as “doing, but not just doing in and of itself. It is doing in a historical and social context that gives structure and meaning to what we do” (1998:47). This concept of ‘social practice’ offers a way of analysing human activity which brings together the cognitive and the social aspects of human existence.

Chouliaraki, L. and Fairclough, N. (1999) Discourse in Late Modernity: Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Contu, A. and Willmott, H. (2003) Re-embedding situatedness: the importance of power relations in learning theory. Organization Science 14 (3) 283–296
Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R. and Punamäki, R.-L. (eds) (1999) Perspectives on Activity Theory.Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
Fairclough, N. (2003) Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London and New York: Routledge
Fairclough, N., B. Jessop and A. Sayer (2002) Critical Realism and Semiosis. Department of Sociology, Lancaster University. [On-line] Available at:
Fairclough, N. and R. Wodak (1997) Critical discourse analysis. In Dijk, T. (ed), Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, vol. 2. London: Sage
Gee, J. P., Hull, G. and Lankshear, C. (1996) The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism. Sydney: Allen and Unwin
Halliday, M. A. K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold
Halliday, M. A. K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold
Harvey, D. (1996) Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell
Lave, J. (1988) Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W. M. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press