3.3 Communities of practice
Eckert’s (2000) study combined a more traditional sociolinguistic quantitative analysis of speech variation with ethnographic research which enabled her to examine the subtle, ongoing process of language use in reconstructing aspects of social identity like class and gender. On a theoretical level, the concept of ‘community of practice’ enabled her to investigate how language use was related to other aspects of personal style, aspirations and approach to school and to treat activity, relationships and group and individual identity as all mutually constitutive.
Mary Bucholtz (1999) also used the concept of ‘community of practice’ to investigate the identity of girl students in an American high school who called themselves ‘nerds’. Her article included a theoretical argument about the limitations of the traditional sociolinguistic concept of a ‘speech community’, that is, a community of people who share linguistic norms.
For Bucholtz, this concept focused too centrally on language and tends to marginalise other aspects of social practice. It assumed that there was consensus in community language norms and often studies central members of the group rather than those at the margins, and it tends to view ‘identity’ as a set of static categories. In arguing for the use instead of the concept of ‘community of practice’, Bucholtz illustrated the shift we described earlier in this section from treating identity as a set of fixed attributes to seeing it as a more fluid, contested ongoing social process. In arguing that traditional sociolinguistic theory marginalises certain kinds of gender issues, she also illustrated the important point that any body of theory will privilege particular beliefs and values and particular kinds of knowledge, while underplaying, or rendering invisible, others.
Bucholtz was interested in ‘the performances of identity and the struggles over it, which are achieved through language’. Mainstream norms in traditional sociolinguistics have been based on male speakers; she was looking not just at a different social category, women speakers, but at a marginalised group within this. Like Eckert, she used ethnography and argued that through focusing on language, not in isolation but as part of social practice, she could capture something of the complex relationship between broader social structures and individual agency, ideology and identity, norms and interactions.
A similar term to ‘community of practice’ is ‘discourse community’. The term ‘discourse community’ was created to explain how groups of people, sometimes but not necessarily involved in face-to-face relationships, use language for collective activity and thinking. The focus is therefore primarily on language, whereas the term ‘community of practice’ invokes language use as just one explanatory aspect. The terms ‘discourse community’ and ‘community of practice’ thus emerged in relation to different kinds of research interest and evidence, but end up covering some similar ground.