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Situated learning Legitimate peripheral participation

Situated learning
Legitimate peripheral
In this volume, Lave and Wenger undertake a radical and important rethinking and reformulation of our conception of
learning. By placing emphasis on the whole person, and by
viewing agent, activity, and world as mutually constitutive,
they give us the opportunity to escape from the tyranny of the
assumption that learning is the reception of factual knowledge
or information. The authors argue that most accounts of learning have ignored its quintessentially social character. To make
the crucial step away from a solely epistemological account of
the person, they propose that learning is a process of participation in communities of practice, participation that is at first
legitimately peripheral but that increases gradually in engagement and complexity.
fWoac R Vuma Jr.
Situated Learning
practice. Giddens (1979) argues for a view of decentering that
avoids-the-pkfalls of “ structural determination” by considering (ntentionalkyjhs afi ongoing flow^pf reflective moments of
monitorrngTn^tfie context of engagement in a tacit practice.
We argue further that thisCflow of reflecti^p moments is organized around trajectories^of participation. This implies that
changing membership in communities of practice, like participation, can be neither fully internalized nor fully externalized.
If participation in social practice is (the)fundamental form of
learning^ we require a more fully worked-out view of the sosdal world. Typically, theories, when they are concerned with
the sitttmed nature of learning at all, address its sociocultural
character by considering (6my its immediate contex). For instance, the activity of children learning is often presented as
located in instructional environments and as occurring in the
context of pedagogical intentions whose context goes unanalyzed. But there are several difficulties here, some of which
will be discussed later when we address the traditional connection of learning to instruction. ______ _________
,/^Of concern here rs^lT abseTlce oF theorizing about the social
(world as it is implicated in processes of learning’ We thirilTit
is important to consider how shared cultural systems of meaning and political-economic structuring are interrelated, in general and as they help to coconstitute learning in communities
of practice. “ Locating” learning in classroom interaction is
not an adequate substitute for a theory about what schooling
as an activity system has to do with learning. Nor is a theory
Practice, Person, Social World
ofjthgjaciohistorical structuring of,sehooling (or sitnpie°extrapolations from it) .laiiccouat fot other
communities and the forms oTlegltimate peripheral participation therein. Another difficulty is that the classroom, or the
school, or schooling (the context of learning activity cannot be
unambiguously identified with one of these while excluding
the other two) does not exist alone, but conventional theories
of learning do not offer a means for grasping their interrelations. In effect, they are more concerned with furnishing the
immediate social environment of the target action/interaction
than with theorizing about the broader forces shaping and being
shaped by those more immediate relations.
To furnish a more adequate account of the social world of
learning in practice, we need to specify the analytic units and
questions that would guide such a project. Legitimate peripheral participation refers both to the development of knowledgeably skilled identities in practice and to the reproduction
and transformation of communities of practice. It concerns the
latter insofar as communities of practice consist of and depend
on a membership, including its characteristic biographies/trajectories, relationships, and practices.
Legitimate peripheral participation is intended as a conceptual bridge – as a claim about the common processes inherent!
in the production of changing persons and changing commu-j
nities of practice. This pivotal emphasis, via legitimate peripheral participation, on relations between the production of
knowledgeable identities and the production of j^omiqunities
of practice, makes it possible to think of/Sustained learnings
embodying, albeit in transformed ways, me structuraTcharacteristics of communities of practice. This in turn raises questions about the sociocultural organization of space into places
of activity and the circulation of knowledgeable skill: about
Situated Learning
the structure of access of learners to ongoing activity and the
transparency of technology, social relations, and forms of activity; about the segmentation, distribution, and coordination
of participation and the legitimacy of partial, increasing,
changing participation within a community; about its characteristic conflicts, interests, common meanings, and intersecting interpretations and the motivation of all participants vis a
vis their changing participation and identities – issues, in short,
about the structure of communities of practice and their production and reproduction.
In any given concrete community of practice the process of
community reproduction – a historically constructed, ongoing, conflicting, synergistic structuring of activity and relations among practitioners – must be deciphered in order to
understand specific forms of legitimate peripheral participation
through time. This requires a broader conception of individual
and collective biographies than the single segment encompassed in studies of “ learners.” Thus we have begun to analyze the changing forms of participation and identity of persons who engage in sustained participation in a community of
practice: from entrance as a newcomer, through becoming an
old-timer with respect to new newcomers, to a point when
those newcomers themselves become old-timers. Rather than
a teacher/learner dyad, this points to a richly diverse field of
essential actors and, with it, other forms of relationships of
For example, in situations where leaming-in-practice takes
the form of apprenticeship, succeeding generations of participants give rise to what in its simplest form is a triadic set of
relations: The community of practice encompasses apprentices, young masters with apprentices, and masters some of
whose apprentices have themselves become masters. But there
Practice, Person, Social World
are other inflection points as well, where joumeyfolk, not yet
masters, are relative old-timers with respect to newcomers, y-
^The diversified field of relations among old-timers and newcomers within and across the various cycles, and the importance of near-peers in the circulation of knowledgeable skill,
both recommend against assimilating relations of learning
to the dyadic form characteristic of conventional learning
Among the insights that can be gained from a social perspective on learning is the problematic character of processes
of learning and cycles of social reproduction, as well as the
relations between the two. These cycles emerge in the contradictions and struggles inherent in social practice and the formation of identities. There is a fundamental contradiction in
the meaning to newcomers and old-timers of increasing participation by the former; for the centripetal development of full
participants, and with it the successful production of a community of practice, also implies the replacement of old-timers.
This contradiction is inherent in learning viewed as legitimate
peripheral participation, albeit in various forms, since competitive relations, in the organization of production or in the formation of identities, clearly intensify these tensions.
One implication of the inherently problematic character of
the social reproduction of communities of practice is that the
sustained participation of newcomers, becoming old-timers,
must involve conflict between the forces that support processes
of learning and those that work against them. Another related
implication is that learning is never simply a process of transfer or assimilation: Learning, transformation, and change are
always implicated in one another, and the status quo needs as
much explanation as change. Indeed, we must not forget that
communities of practice are engaged in the generative process
Oseas B. Viana Jr.
Situated Learning
of producing their own future. Because of the contradictory
nature of collective social practice and because learning processes are part of the working out of these contradictions in
practice, social reproduction implies the renewed construction
of resolutions to underlying conflicts. In this regard, it is important to note that reproduction cycles are productive as well.
They leave a historical trace of artifacts – physical, linguistic,
and symbolic – and of social structures, which constitute and
reconstitute the practice over time.
The following chapter begins the exploration of legitimate
peripheral participation with a description of apprenticeship in
five communities of practice and their location in relation to
other structuring forms and forces. These studies raise – at one
and the same time – questions about persons acting and the
social world in relation to which they act. The questions focus
on relations between forms of production and the reproduction
of communities of practice, on the one hand, and the production of persons, knowledgeable skill, and identities of mastery, on the other.
Mid wives, Tailors,
Quartermasters, Butchers,
Nondrinking Alcoholics
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
Actual cases of apprenticeship provide historically and culturally specific examples which seem especially helpful in exploring the implications of the concept of legitimate peripheral
participation. As we have insisted, however, the concept should
not be construed as a distillation of apprenticeship. Ethnographic studies of apprenticeship emphasize the indivisible
character of learning and work practices. This, in turn, helps
to make obvious the social nature of learning and knowing. As
these studies partially illustrate, any complex system of work
and learning has roots in and interdependencies across its history, technology, developing work activity, careers, and the
relations between newcomers and old-timers and among coworkers and practitioners.
We have already outlined some reasons for turning away
from schooling in our search for exemplary material, though
schooling provides the empirical basis for much cognitive research on learning and also for much work based on the notion
of the zone of proximal development. Such research is conceptually tied in various ways to school instruction and to the
pedagogical intentions of teachers and other caregivers. In this
context, schooling is usually assumed to be a more effective
and advanced institution for educational transmission than
(supposedly) previous forms such as apprenticeship. At the
very least, schooling is given a privileged role in intellectual
development. Because the theory and the institution have common historical roots (Lave 1988), these school-forged theories
are inescapably specialized: They are unlikely to afford us the
historical-cultural breadth to which we aspire. It seems useful, given these concerns, to investigate leaming-in-practice in
situations that do not draw us in unreflective ways into the
school milieu, and to look for “ educational” occasions whose
Situated Learning
structure is not obscured quite so profoundly as those founded
on didactic structuring.
For present purposes, we have gathered together examples of
apprenticeship from different cultural and historical traditions.
This process clearly requires us to assume the validity of applying such a rubric across widely disparate times and places.
It is not our intention to carry out here the searching exami-
, nation that this assumption requires, though we would be glad
to see our use of it get such a discussion under way. MeanN > while, since we found it useful to investigate the common,
^ ^ readily identifiable features of apprenticeship in craft or
^ „ “craftlike” forms of production and to push toward the com-
” monsense boundaries of the concept with our choice of examples, a brief foray into the controversies surrounding the
^ v, £ concept of apprenticeship is in order.
r The historical significance of apprenticeship as a form for
| producing knowledgeably skilled persons has been over-
( looked, we believe, for it does not conform to either functionalist or Marxist views of educational “progress.” In both traditions apprenticeship has been treated as a historically
significant object more often than most educational phenomy^ena – but only to emphasize its anachronistic irrelevance. It
> > • connotes both outmoded production and obsolete education,
vv When its history is the pretext for dismissing an issue as an
object of study, there is good reason to reexamine its existing
historical and cultural diversity.
We take issue with a narrow reading of apprenticeship as if
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
it were always and everywhere organized in the same ways as
in feudal Europe. Engestrom, for instance, associates apprenticeship with craft production, emphasizing the individual or
small-group nature of production, the use of simple tools and
tacit knowledge, a division of labor based on individual adaptation, and the prevalence of traditional protective codes (1987:
284). But this does not fit the descriptions of apprenticeship
presented here. In fact, we emphasize the diversity of historical forms, cultural traditions, and modes of production in which s
apprenticeship is found’ (in contrast with research that stresses
the uniform effects of schooling regardless of its location).
Forms of apprenticeship have been described for, among
other historical traditions, ancient China; Europe, feudal and
otherwise; and much of the contemporary world including West
Africa and the United States (e.g., Goody 1982; Coy 1989;
Cooper 1980; Geer 1972; Jordan 1989; Medick 1976)fflHARkb
sgst of apprenticeship, especially wherever high levels of
kntHR»ledf& and skffl att indemawdfc.g., medietHe, law, the
acjideHiy, professional sports, and the arts). The examples
presented below come from different cultural traditions that
have emerged in different periods in their separate and related
histories in different parts of the world. All are contemporary
and each reflects the complex articulation of modes of production in which it is embedded, fjjij WlffHllMilHi jftitfli nhffiw hmr
imateperipheraf participation.
In a useful caution to recent enthusiasm about the efficacy
of apprenticeship learning, Grosshans (1989) points out that in
Western Europe and indeed in the United States (where its
renewal in the 1920s and 1930s served as a convenient means
Situated Learning
of exploiting workers), apprenticeship has a long reputation as
a traditional form of control over the most valuable, least powerful workers. In contemporary West Africa, however, for
complex reasons, among them the poverty, large numbers, and
unorganized state of craft masters, there appears to be a relatively benign, relatively egalitarian, and nonexploitive character to apprenticeship. There is no point, then, either in damning
apprenticeship absolutely, on the basis of its sorry reputation
in Western Europe, or in glorifying it unreflectively. Although
f apprenticeship has no determined balance of relations of power
1 as an abstract concept, it does have such relations in every
f ^concrete case. Any 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.
The need for such analysis motivates our focus on communities of practice and our insistence that learners must be legitimate peripheral participants in ongoing practice in order for
learning identities to be engaged and develop into full particiafinn ^â– nndmnnt, fltatftlace nfewcortters in deeply adversarial
re}atk»irwith m&sters, bosses, or managers; in exhauMing fi>yorin;
partially or ooiBpletely,
Our viewpoint suggests that communities
of practice may well develop interstitially and informally in
coercive workplaces. What will be learned then will be the|
sociocultural practices of whatever informal community takes \
place in response to coercion (Orr in press). These practices
shape and are shaped indirectly through resistance to the prescriptions of the ostensibly primary organizational form.
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
We present excerpts from five accounts of apprenticeship: among
Yucatec Mayan midwives in Mexico (Jordan 1989), among
Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia (Lave in preparation), in the
work-learning settings of U.S. navy quartermasters (Hutchins
in press), among butchers in U.S. supermarkets (Marshall 1972),
and among “ nondrinking alcoholics” in Alcoholics Anonymous (Cain n.d.). Even though this last case is not usually
described as a form of apprenticeship, the learning this study
describes is so remarkably similar to the first four in its basic
character that it serves to highlight common features of the
These studies illustrate the varied character of concrete realizations of apprenticeship. But it is noteworthy that all of
them diverge in similar ways from popular stereotypes about
apprenticeship learning. It is typically assumed, for example,
that apprenticeship has had an exclusive existence in association with feudal craft production; that master-apprentice relations are diagnostic of apprenticeship; and that learning in apprenticeship offers opportunities for nothing more complex than
reproducing task performances in routinized ways. The cases
also call into question assumptions that learning through apprenticeship shows some typical degree of informal organization.
The first three cases, as well as the last, are quite effective
forms of learning; the fourth – butchers’ apprenticeship in
contemporary supermarkets – often doesn’t work. The technologies employed, the forms of recruitment, the relations between masters and apprentices, and the organization of learning activity differ. The Yucatec midwives provide healing and
Situated Learning
ritual services using herbal remedies, their knowledge of techniques of birthing (including a manual cephalic version to prevent breech births), massage, and ritual procedures. The tai-
/ lors are engaged in craft production for the market, using simple
technology (e.g., scissors, measuring tape, thread and needle,
and treadle sewing machines); masters work individually, assisted only by their apprentices. The quartermasters utilize high
‘ technology in “knowledge production” involving telescopic
sighting devices called alidades, radio telephones, maps and
nautical charts, a logbook, plotting devices, and collaborative
labor. The butchers perform a commoditized service (meat
cutting) using powered cutting tools and plastic-wrapping machines. And the members of A. A. band together to cope with
i ^what they perceive to be an incurajafcdisease,
i Apprentice Yucatec midwives ‘{all women) are almost always the daughters* of experienced mitfwives – specialized
i knowledge and practiccis passed down within families. In the
Case of the tailors ((all me the apprentice and his family negotiate with a master taitbr to take a newcomer into his house
and family and make sure he learns the craft. The master is
rarely a close relative of the apprentice. Quartermasters leave
home to join the Navy, and become part of that total institution
for a relatively short period of time (two or three years). They
have “ instructors” and “ officers” and work with other “enlisted persons.” Butchers’ apprentices join a union and are
placed in trade schools; they receive on-the-job training in supermarkets, where they are supposed to learn meat cutting from
the master butchers and journeymen who work there. A. A.
members join the organization, attend frequent meetings, and
gradually adopt a view of themselves, through their membership in A. A., which becomes an integral part of their life. The
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
butchers and in some respects the quartermasters are wage laborers; the midwives and tailors’ apprentices, and of course
A. A. members, are not.
“There is variation in the forms of apprenticeship and the
degree of integration of apprenticeship into daily life, as well , f
ks in the forms of production with which apprenticeship is associated. For instance, apprenticeship is not always, or perhaps even often, “ informal.” For midwives in Yucatan, apprenticeship is integrated into daily life and it is only recognized
after the fact that they have served an apprenticeship. They
aescribe the process as one in which they receive their calling
and learn everything they know in dreams, though they are
middle-aged adepts when this happens (Jordan 1989: 933). On
the other hand, Vai masters and apprentices enter into a formal
agreement before apprenticeship begins, there is some explicit
structure to the learning curriculum, apprenticeship is their daily
life, and at the close of the apprenticeship the new master must
receive the official blessing of his master before he can begin
a successful business independently. Quartermasters enter training programs and receive certificates, as do butchers. The apprenticeship of nondrinking alcoholics is sanctified by an explicit commitment to the organization and passage through
well-defined “ steps” of membership.
\ /
Jordan (1989) describes the process by which Yucatec midwives move, over a period of many years, from peripheral to
full participation in midwifery. This work poses a puzzle con67
Oseas 8. Viana Jr.
Situated Learning
r<~cerning the general role of masters in the lives of apprentices.
Teaching does not seem to be central either to the identities of
master midwives or to learning.
Apprenticeship happens as a way of, and in the course
of, daily life. It may not be recognized as a teaching
effort at all. A Maya girl who eventually becomes a
midwife most likely has a mother or grandmother who
is a midwife, since midwifery is handed down in fami l y lines. . . . Girls in such families, without being
“ identified as apprentice midwives, absorb the essence
\ of midwifery practice as well as specific knowledge
‘J’ about many procedures, simply in the process of
| growing up. They know what the life of a midwife is
like (for example, that she needs to go out at all hours
of the day or night), what kinds of stories the women
and men who come to consult her tell, what kinds of
herbs and other remedies need to be collected, and the
like. As young children they might be sitting quietly
in a comer as their mother administers a prenatal massage; they would hear stories of difficult cases, of miraculous outcomes, and the like. As they grow older,
they may be passing messages, running errands, getting needed supplies. A young girl might be present as
her mother stops for a postpartum visit after the daily
shopping trip to the market.
Eventually, after she has had a child herself, she
might come along to a birth, perhaps because her ail-
\ ing grandmother needs someone to walk with, and thus
< nSnd herself doing for the woman in labor what other
| women had done for her when she gave birth; that is,
ijslje may take a turn . . . at supporting the laboring
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
woman. . . . Eventually, she may even administer
prenatal massages to selected clients. At some point,
she may decide that she actually wants to do this kind
of work. She then pays more attention, but only rarely
does she ask questions. Her mentor sees thefr association primarily as one that is of some use to her. (“Rosa
already knows how to do a massage, so I can send her
if I am too busy.” ) As time goes on, the apprentice
takes over more and more of the work load, starting
with the routine and tedious parts, and ending with
what is in Yucatan the culturally most significant, the
birth of the placenta [Jordan 1989: 932-4],
Vai and Gola tailors enter and leave apprenticeship ceremoniously. Their apprenticeship is quite formal in character compared to that of the Yucatec midwives. In an insightful historical analysis, Goody (1989) argues that in West Africa
apprenticeship developed a formal character in response to a
diversification of the division of labor. This development involved a transition from domestic production in which children learned subsistence skills from their same-sex parent, to
learning part-time specialisms in the same way, to learning a
specialized occupation from a specialist master. Household
production units have moved from integrating their own children into productive activities, to including other kin, to incorporating nonkin, to production separated from the household. Today, many Vai and Gola craft shops are located in
commercial areas, so that craft production is separated from
â–  b ” ” – .
U ”7
1craft masters’ households by time and space. (These households, however, still include the apprentices who work in the
shops.) Goody notes that there have been corresponding transformations in the relations between learners and communities
of practice: from the child’s labor that contributes use value to
the household, to exchange of child labor between related families for political/social resources (fostering) or economic ones
(pawning, slavery), to apprenticeship where learners’ labor is
exchanged for opportunities to learn. Learning to produce has
changed thereby from a process of general socialization; to
what might be called contrastive general socialization (as children grow up in households different from their own); to apprenticeship, which focuses on occupational specialization
{loosely within the context of household socialization. Learners
shifted from participating in the division of labor as household
j members, growing up in the “culture of the household’s laI bor,” to being naive newcomers, participating in an unfamili a r culture of production.
In summary, formalized apprenticeship in West Africa has
developed as a mechanism for dealing with two needs generated by increasing diversification of the market and of the division of labor: the demand for additional labor, on the one
hand, and on the other, the desires of individuals or families
to acquire the knowledgeable skills of diverse occupations, desires which simply could not be met within the household
(Goody 1989). The developmental cycles that reproduce domestic groups and other communities of practice, the relations
of newcomers to those who are adept, and the way in which
divisions of labor articulate various kinds of communities of
practice in communities in the larger sense all shape the identities that may be constructed, and with them, knowledgeable,
skillful activity. Nonetheless, the examples of the midwives
Situated Learning
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
and the\tailors reveal strong similarities in the process of moving from peripheral to full participation in communities of
practice through either formal or informal apprenticeship.
Between 1973 and 1978 . . . a number of Vai and
Gola tailors clustered their wood, dirt-floored, tin-roofed
tailor shops along a narrow path at the edge of the
river at the periphery of . . . the commercial district.
. . . There were several masters present in each shop
visibly doing what masters do – each ran a business,
tailored clothes, and supervised apprentices. Apprenticeship, averaging five years, involved a sustained,
rich structure of opportunities to observe masters,
journeymen, and other apprentices at work, to observe
frequently the full process of producing garments, and
of course, the finished products. £
The tailors made clothes for the poorest segment of (> :V
the population, and their specialty was inexpensive, \ & f
ready-to-wear men’s trousers. But they made other ‘ ,
things as well. The list of garment types in fact en- ( ’ y :’ ^ y
coded complex, intertwined forms of order integral to . y *’^ j
the process of becoming a master tailor [serving as a i <
general “curriculum” for apprentices], . . . Appren- ” Â¥ K. / J’
tices first learn to make hats and drawers, informal and
/ â–  O
v –
intimate garments for children. They move on to more ^ ^
external, formal garments, ending with the Higher -o’
Heights suit. f*
The organization of the process of apprenticeship is
jiot confined to the level of whole garments. The very
earliest steps in the process involve learning to sew by
hand, to sew with the treadle sewing machine, and to
press clothes. Subtract these from the corpus of tailor71
Situated Learning
ing knowledge and for each garment the apprentice
must learn how to cut it out and how to sew it. Learning processes do not merely reproduce the sequence of
production processes. In fact, production steps are reversed, as apprentices begin by learning the finishing
stages of producing a garment, go on to learn to sew
it, and only later learn to cut it out. This pattern regularly subdivides [the learning of] each new type of
garment. Reversing production steps has the effect of
focusing the apprentices’ attention first on the broad
^utline^ of garment construction as they handle garments while attaching buttons and hemming cuffs. Next,
sewing turns their attention to the logic (order, orientation) by which different pieces are sewn together,
which in turn explains why they are cut out as they
are. Each step offers the unstated opportunity to consider how the previous step contributes to the present
^one. In addition, this ordering minimizes experiences
of failure and especially of serious failure.
There is one further level of organization to the curriculum of tailoring. The learning of each operation is
subdivided into phases I have dubbed “ way-in” and
“practice.” “Way in” refers to the period of observation and attempts to construct a first approximation
of the garment. . . . The practice phase is carried out
in a particular way: apprentices reproduce a production segment from beginning to end, . . . though they
might be more skilled at carrying out some parts of the
process than others [Lave in preparation].
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
Hutchins (in press) has carried out ethnographic research on
an amphibious helicopter-transport ship of the U.S. Navy. He
describes the process by which new members of the quartermaster corps move from peripheral to key distributed tasks in
the collaborative work of plotting the ship’s position.\He emphasizes the importance for learning of haying legitimateTef—
{fectjve access to what is to be learned, j
Quartermasters begin their careers with rathe* limited’
dylies-aQdadvance to more complicated procedufesfas
tlieygain expertise). . . . Any new quartermaster needs
to learn to plot the ship’s position, either alone when
at sea, or in collaborative work with five others when
moving into harbors. It takes about a year to learn the
basics of the quartermaster rate. For a young man entering the quartermaster rate, there are many sources
of information about the work to be done. Some go to
specialized schools before they join a ship. There they
are exposed to basic terminology and concepts, but
little more. In some sense, they are “trained” but they
have no experience. (In fact, the two quartermaster
chiefs with whom I worked most closely said they preferred to get their trainees as able-bodied seamen without any prior training in the rate. They said this saved
them the trouble of having to break the trainees of bad
habits acquired in school.) Most quartermasters learn
their rating primarily on the job [though] some of the
experience aboard ship is a bit like school with workbooks and exercises. In order to advance to higher ranks
Situated Learning
f? 3. . novice quartermasters participate in joint activity
\ with more experienced colleagues in two contexts:
Standard Steaming Watch and Sea and Anchor Detail.
[At sea] depending upon the level of experience of
the novice he may be asked to perform all of the duties
f of the quartermaster of the watch. While under instruction, his activities are closely monitored by the
more experienced watch stander who is always on hand
and can help out or take over if the novice is unable to
I satisfy the ship’s navigation requirements. However,
even with the help of a more experienced colleague,
standing watch under instruction requires a significant
amount of knowledge, so novices do not do this until
^they have several months of experience. . . . The task
for the novice is to learn to organize his own behavior
such that it produces a competent performance. . . .
As [the novice] becomes more competent, he will do
both the part of this task that he [performed before],
and also the organizing part that was done [for him].
. . . Long before they are ready to stand watch under
instruction in standard steaming watch, novice quartermasters begin to work as fathometer operators and
bearing takers in sea and anchor detail; . . . there are
six positions involved, and novice quartermasters move
through this sequence of positions, mastering each before moving on to the next. This ordering also describes the flow of information from the sensors (fathometer and sighting telescopes) to the chart where
the information is integrated into a single representation (the position fix). . . . The fact that the quartermasters themselves follow this same trajectory through
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
the system as does sensed information, albeit on a different time scale, has an important consequence for
the larger system’s ability to detect, diagnose, and
correct errors. . . . [Besides], movement through the
system with increasing expertise results in a pattern of
overlapping expertise, with knowledge of the entry level
tasks most redundantly represented and knowledge of
expert level tasks least redundantly represented.
I__• • • The structure of the distributed task [fix taking
among the collaborating six quartermasters] provides
many constraints on the learning environment. /The way
a task is partitioned across a set of task performers has
consequences for both the efficiency of task performance and for the efficiency of knowledge acquisition. . . . [So do] lines of communication and limits
on observation of the activities of others. . . . But being
in the presence of others who are working is not always enough by itself. . . . We saw that the fact that
the work was done in an interaction between members
opened it to other members of the team. In a similar
way, the design of tools can affect their suitability for
joint use. . . . The interaction of a task performer with
a tool may or may not be open to others depending
upon the nature of the tool itself. The openness of a
tool can also affect its use as an instrument in instruction.
A good deal of the structure that a novice will have
to acquire in order to stand watch alone in standard
steaming watch is present in the organization of the
relations among the members of the team in sea and
anchor detail. The computational dependencies among
OseasO V ‘ v m h .
the steps of the procedure for the individual watch
stander are present as interpersonal dependencies among
the members of the team [Hutchins in press].
1Situated Learning
Our use of apprenticeship as a source of insights for exploring
the concept of legitimate peripheral participation cannot be
construed as a general claim that apprenticeship facilitate^
leaming-in-practice in some inevitable way. Not all concrete
realizations of apprenticeship learning are equally effective.
The exchange of labor for opportunities to become part o fa
| community of mature practice is fraught with difficulties (Becker
7972). The commoditization of labor can transform apprentices into a cheap source of unskilled labor, put to work in
ways that deny them access to activities in the arenas of mature
jractice. Gaining legitimacy may be so difficult that some fail
to learn until considerable time has passed. For example, Haas
(1972) describes how high-steel-construction apprentices are
.hazed so roughly by old-timers that learning is inhibited. Gaining legitimacy is also a problem when masters prevent learning
by acting in effect as pedagogical authoritarians, viewing apprentices as novices who “ should be instructed” rather than
as peripheral participants in a community engaged in its own
j reproduction.
The example of the butchers illustrates several of the potential ways in which particular forms of apprenticeship can prevent rather than facilitate learnings The author discusses the
effects, frequently negative, trade-school training for butchers. This study, like other studies of trade schools and training
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
programs in the apprenticeship literature, is quite pessimistic
about the value of didactic exercises (e.g., Jordan 1989, Orr
1986, as well as the excerpt from Hutchins). It should be kept
in mind that many contemporary vocational education and unionbased “ apprenticeship” programs implicitly reject an apprenticeship model and strive to approximate the didactic mode of ’
schooling in their educational programs, which inevitably adds ^
to the difficulties of implementing effective apprenticeship.
Butchers’ apprenticeship consists of a mix of trade
school and on the job training. [This program was]
started by the meat cutters’ union to grant a certificate.
The certificate equaled six months of the apprenticeship and entitled the holder to receive journeyman’s
pay and status after two and one-half years on the job.
. . . To justify awarding the certificate, the trade school
class runs in traditional fashion, with book work and x qJ
^ ’r* S ia/ ‘
written examinations in class and practice in shop. The ,,/K
work follows the same pattern year after year without ‘i
reference to apprentices’ need to learn useful things
not learned on the job. Teachers teach techniques in
use when they worked in retail markets that are readily
adaptable to a school setting. . . . Most assignments
are not relevant to the supermarket. For instance, students learn to make wholesale cuts not used in stores,
or to advise customers in cooking meat. Because these
are not skills in demand, few students bother to learn
them. . . . Apprentices are more interested in the shop
period, where they become familiar with equipment
they hope to use someday at work. But the shop, too,
has tasks useless in a supermarket. One of the first
things learned is how to sharpen a knife – a vital task
Situated Learning
only in the past. Today, a company delivers sharpened
knives and collects dull ones from meat departments
at regular intervals. . . .
On the job, learning experiences vary with certain
structural dimensions of the work settings. A supermarket meat department manager tries to achieve an
advantageous difference between the total volume of
sales for the department and the wholesale price of his
meat order, plus his costs for personnel and facilities.
To do this, the manager sees to it that his skilled journeymen can prepare a large volume of meat efficiently
by specializing in short, repetitive tasks. He puts apprentices where they can work for him most efficiently. Diverting journeymen from work to training
tasks increases the short-run cost of selling meat. Because journeymen and apprentices are so occupied with
profit-making tasks, apprentices rarely learn many
tasks. . . .
The physical layout of a work setting is an important dimension of learning, since apprentices get a great
deal from observing others and being observed. Some
meat departments were laid out so that apprentices
working at the wrapping machine could not watch
journeymen cut and saw meat. An apprentice’s feeling
about this separation came out when a district manager
in a large, local market told him to return poorly arranged trays of meat to the journeymen. “ I’m scared
to go in the back room. I feel so out of place there. I
Jiaven’t gone back there in a long time because I just
don’t know what to do when I’m there. All those guys
know so much about meat cutting and I don’t know
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
When he arrives at a store, an apprentice is trained
to perform a task, usually working the automatic
wrapping machine. If he handles this competently, he
is kept there until another apprentice comes. If none
comes, he may do this job for years almost without
interruption. If a new apprentice comes, he trains him
to wrap and then learns another task himself. . . . Stores
offer the kind of meat customers in their locale will
buy. . . . In poor neighborhoods, apprentices have more
opportunity to practice cutting meat than in wealthy
neighborhoods [due to lower error cost]. [Where there
is high volume] a division of labor among a relatively
large number of workers increases efficiency. . . . In
this situation, not only apprentices but journeymen,
too, seldom learn the full range of tasks once proper
to their trade [Marshall 1972: 42-6],
The descriptions of apprenticeship in midwifery, tailoring, and
quartermastering provide examples of how learning in practice
takes place and what it means to move toward full participation in a community of practice. A more detailed view of the^
fashioning of identity may be found in an analysis of the process of becoming a nondrinking alcoholic through Alcoholics
Anonymous. An apprentice alcoholic attends several meetings
a week, spending that time in the company of near-peers and
adepts, those whose(|)racdce )md identities are’the community
of A. A. At these meetings old-timers give testimony about
â– iP
â– w
Oseas 8 Viana Jr.
Situated Learning
their drinking past and the course of the process of becoming
sober. In addition to “ general meetings,” where old-timers
may tell polished, hour-long stories – months and years in the
making – of their lives as alcoholics, there are also smaller
“ discussion meetings,” which tend to focus on a single aspect
of what in the end will be a part of the reconstructed life story
(Cain n.d.).
The notion of partial participation, in segments of work that
increase in complexity and scope, a theme in all the analyses
of apprenticeship discussed here, also describes the changing
form of participation in A. A. for newcomers as they gradually
Become old-timers. In the testimony at early meetings newcomers have acceg&Jo a comprehensive view of what the community is about.(Goalfj)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 ., much as the
garment inventory of the tailors’ apprentices serves as an itinerary for their progress through apprenticeship. The contribution of an absolutely new member may be no more than one silent gesture – picking up a white chip at the end of the meeting
to indicate the intention not to take a drink during the next 24
hours (Cain n.d.). In due course, the Twelfth-Step visit to an
active drinker to try to persuade that person to become a newcomer in the organization initiates a new phase of participation, now as a recognized old-timer. Cain (n.d.) argues that the
main business of A. A. is the reconstruction of identity, through
the process of constructing personal life stories, and with them,
the meaning of the teller’s past and future action in the world.
The change men and women . . . undergo . . . is much
more than a change in behavior. It is a transformation
of their identities, from drinking non-alcoholics to non80
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
drinking alcoholics, and it affects how they view and
act in the world. . . . One important vehicle for this is
the personal story. . . .
By “ identity” I mean the way a person understands
and views himself, and is viewed by others, a perception of self which is fairly constant. . . . There are two
important dimensions to the identity of A. A. alcoholic. The first distinction which A. A. makes is al- ^
coholic and non-alcoholic, where alcoholic refers to a
state which, once attained, is not reversible. The second is drinking and non-drinking, and refers to a potentially controllable activity. . . . There are therefore
two aspects of the A. A. alcoholic identity important
for continuing membership in A. A.; qualification as
an alcoholic, which is based on one’s past, and continued effort at not drinking. The A. A. identity requires
a behavior – not drinking – which is a negation of the
behavior which originally qualified one for membership. One of the functions of the A. A. personal story
is to establish both aspects of membership in an individual. . . . In personal stories, A. A. members tell
their own drinking histories, how they came to understand that they are alcoholics, how they got into
A. A., and what their life has been like since they
joined A. A. . . .
In A. A. personal stories are told for the explicit,
stated purpose of providing a model of alcoholism, so
that other drinkers may find so much of themselves in
the lives of professed alcoholics that they cannot help
but ask whether they, too, are alcoholics. Since the
definition of an alcoholic is not really agreed on in the
wider culture, arriving at this interpretation of events
Situated Learning
is a process negotiated between the drinker and those
around her. A. A. stories provide a set of criteria by
which the alcoholic can be identified. . . . A. A. recognizes their importance, and dedicates a significant
amount of meeting time and publishing space to the
telling of these stories. A. A. members tell personal
stories formally in “ speakers’ meetings.” . . . Less
formally, members tell shortened versions of their stories, or parts of them, at discussion meetings. . . . The
final important context for telling personal stories is in
“ Twelfth Step calls.” When A. A. members talk to
outsiders who may be alcoholics in a one-to-one interaction, they are following the last of the Twelve Steps.
. . . Ideally, at these individual meetings, the member
tells his story, tells about the A. A. program, tries to
help the drinker see herself as an alcoholic if she is
“ ready.” [Members] claim that telling their own stories to other alcoholics, and thus helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety, is an important part of
maintaining their own sobriety. [At the same time]
telling a personal story, especially at a speaker’s meeting or on a Twelfth Step call, signals membership because this “ is the time that they [members] feel that
they belong enough to ‘carry the message’.”
Telling an A. A. story is not something one learns
through explicit teaching. Newcomers are not told how
to tell their stories, yet most people who remain in
A. A. learn to do this. There are several ways in which
an A. A. member learns to tell an appropriate story.
First, he must be exposed to A. A. models. . . . The
newcomer to A. A. hears and reads personal stories
from the time of early contact with the program –
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
through meetings, literature, and talk with individual
old-timers. . . . In addition to learning from the models,
learning takes place through interaction. All members
are encouraged to speak at discussions and to maintain
friendship with other A. A. members. In the course of
this social interaction the new member is called on to
talk about her own life. . . . This may be in bits and
pieces, rather than the entire life. For example, in discussion meetings, the topic of discussion may be “ admitting you are powerless,” “ making amends,” “ how
to avoid the first drink,” or shared experiences in
dealing with common problems. . . . One speaker follows another by picking out certain pieces of what has
previously been said, saying why it was relevant to
him, and elaborating on it with some episode of his
own. . . . Usually, unless the interpretation runs counter
to A. A. beliefs, the speaker is not corrected. Rather,
other speakers will take the appropriate parts of the
newcomer’s comments, and build on this in their own
comments, giving parallel accounts with different
interpretations, for example, or expanding on parts of
their own stories which are similar to parts of the newcomer’s story, while ignoring the inappropriate parts
of the newcomer’s story.
In addition to the structure of the A. A. story, the
newcomers must also learn the cultural model of alcoholism encoded in them, including A. A. propositions, appropriate episodes to serve as evidence, and
appropriate interpretations of events. . . . Simply
learning the propositions about alcohol and its nature
is not enough. They must be applied by the drinker to
his own life, and this application must be demon-
Situated Learning
strated. . . . In A. A. success, or recovery, requires
learning to perceive oneself and one’s problems from
an A. A. perspective. A. A.s must learn to experience
their problems as drinking problems, and themselves
as alcoholics. Stories do not just describe a life in a
learned genre, but are tools for reinterpreting the past,
and understanding the self in terms of the A. A. identity. The initiate begins to identify with A. A. members. . . . She comes to understand herself as a nondrinking alcoholic, and to reinterpret her life as
We have seen apprenticeship here in conjunction with various
forms for the organization of production. There are rich relations among community members of all sorts, their activities
and artifacts. All are implicated in processes of increasing participation and knowledgeability. To a certain extent the ethnographic studies excerpted here focus on different facets of
apprenticeship. The Yucatec study addresses the puzzle of how
learning can occur without teaching and without formally organized apprenticeship. The analysis of Vai apprenticeship
contributes to resolving the puzzle in laying out the curriculum
of everyday practice in Vai tailor shops. Hutchins analyzes
relations between the flow of information in a pivotal task and
the trajectories of persons through different forms of participation in the task, in the course of which he problematizes the
question of learners’ access to important learning resources.
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
Once raised, the “ dark side” of questions of access, vividly t
laid out in the butchers’ example, helps to underline the crucial
character of broad, and broadly legitimate, peripheral participation in a community of practice as central for increasing
understanding and identity. And turned back on the Yucatec ”
and Vai studies, these questions suggest a transmutation of
preoccupations with teaching and with formal, intentional
learning situations into cases in which access to all the means
and grounds of membership is virtually a matter of course., If
masters dlon’t teach, they embody practice at its fullest in the
community of practice. Becoming a “ member such as those”
is an embodied telos too complex to be discussed in the narrower and simpler language of goals, tasks, and knowledge
acquisition. There may be no language for participants with
which to discuss it at all – but identities of mastery, in all their
complications, are there to be assumed (in both senses).
The importance of language should not, however, be ov
looked. Language is part of practice, and it is in practice tl
people learn. In Cain’s ethnographic study of identity cc
struction in A. A., talk is a central medium of transformation…
Whether activity or language is the central issue, the important
point concerning learning is one of access to practice as resource for learning, rather than to instruction. Issues of motivation , identity, and language deserve further _____________
We would be remiss, in any discussion of converging characterizations of apprenticeship, if we did not include Becker’s
pathbreaking analysis, which preceded all the ethnographic
studies discussed here with the exception of Marshall’s. Indeed, he compared research in schools with research on American trade apprenticeship, including Marshall’s research on the
butchers. He insisted on the significance of the broad initial
view that taking part in ongoing work activities offers to new85
Situated Learning
comers, the value of being in relevant settings for learning, the
existence of strong goals for learning in work-learning settings, the absence of tests, and the greater effectiveness of
apprenticeship than school. He further assumed, in contradistinction to the examples discussed here, that teaching is central
to learning through apprenticeship; and that apprentices, individually, must organize their own learning “ curriculum” and
recruit teaching or guidance for themselves.
In these respects, the present studies pose novel questions,
given their more insistent focus on learning resources in the
community than on teaching and “ pupil initiative.” However,
they are perhaps too quick to assume that an explanation of
community learning resources is to be found in the “ workdriven” nature of apprenticeship. If apprenticeship is a form
of education in which work and learning are seamlessly related, it is nonetheless a form in which the work and understanding of newcomers bear complex and changing relations
with ongoing work processes; the structure of production and
the structure of apprenticeship do not coincide as a whole (though
they may do so for given tasks, e.g., plot-fixing for the quartermasters). This has interesting, also complex, implications
for processes of deepening and changing understanding for all
members of a community of practice.
Becker raises a serious new set of concerns about the issue
of access* He recognizes the disastrous possibilities that structural constraints in work organizations may curtail or extinguish apprentices’ access to the full range of activities of the
job# and hence to possibilities for learning what they need to
know to master a trade.’ In particular, he raises more acutely
than the ethnographic studies discussed here the conflictual
character of access for newcomers, the problems about power
and control on which these studies are on the whole silent.
Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics
Neither Becker nor the ethnographic studies address the implications of conflictual community practice in conjunction with
identity development, a problem to be taken up shortly.
In sum, a first reading of these examples along with Becker’s work, takes us a considerable distance in redescribing and
resetting an agenda of questions for the analysis of situated
learning. But we will need to turn the problems of access, of
its embedding in the conflictual forms of everyday practice, of
motivation, and of the development of membership/identity
into objects of analysis. The theoretical framework of legitimate peripheral participation may be used to launch us on this
task in the next chapter.
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