Book Summary: Lave & Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation


To explore the relationships between communities in which learning occurs and the situated nature of learning, remembering, and understanding. This sociocultural perspective was in contrast to the cognitive perspectives of learning that were popular at the time (i.e., that studied learning as a change in the brain and focused on individuals in isolation from the learning context).

Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Legitimate peripheral participation evolved from observations about cognitive apprenticeship and situated learning in communities of practice. A community of practice is a learning environment that includes a spectrum of participants from inexperienced members who are joining the community (or apprentices) to experienced members who have a lot of knowledge about practicing an occupation (or masters). Legitimate peripheral participation describes how apprentices learn from each other and masters to engage in the community and develop skills. An important feature of legitimate peripheral participation as a sociocultural theory (rather than a cognitive theory) is that it seeks to explain social practice within a community, and learning is only one characteristic of that practice. As such, Lave and Wenger say that there is likely no “illegitimate peripheral participation,” “legitimate central participation” (because there is no one center to a community), or “legitimate peripheral nonparticipation.”

Practice, Person, Social World

This section of the book explores the interactions and relationships between practice in a community, people’s internal and external activities, and the culture that they exist within.

“A theory of social practice emphasizes the relational interdependency of agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing.” p.50

As such, it decries theories of learning that conceptualize learning as an internalization of knowledge because learning and knowing  are embedded (i.e., situated) in aspects of the environment, such as culture and community. Knowing is not universal but exhibited by specific people in specific circumstances. Lave and Wenger highlight that learning changes the relationships between a person and their community of practice and social world, which impacts their identity.

Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, and Nondrinking Alcoholics

In this section of the book, Lave and Wenger critically analyze the theory of legitimate peripheral participation in an array of fields that historically rely upon apprenticeships (and each use apprenticeships in a different way). They use this analysis to argue that LPP is broader than theories of learning in school, which are “inescapably specialized [and] unlikely to afford us the historical-cultural breadth to which we aspire” (p. 61). Each example discusses how an apprentice becomes a master within that community of practice, transforming from a newcomer who has just entered the community to an old-timer who fully participates in the community.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Communities of Practice

Communities of practice are built on relationships between apprentices and masters, but they rarely include master-apprentice relationships that characterize craft apprenticeship in feudal Europe (i.e., the stereotypical apprenticeship). Instead, Lave and Wenger argue that relationships between masters and apprentices vary person-to-person and community-to-community, and that it is more important for masters to confer legitimacy on apprentices than it is for them to teach. Moreover, typical apprentices learn mostly from each other within a community.

Legitimate peripheral participation starts with apprentices joining the community and observing the culture of the community (i.e., how the masters practice, how the community relates to people outside of the community, how people within the community relate to each other) until they “assemble a general idea of what constitutes the practice of the community,” (p. 95). A member’s general idea evolves as they change how they participate and practice in the community and as the community shifts around new apprentices entering, masters leaving, and what masters deem legitimate. In this context, learning is primarily driven by the member/learner as they negotiate participation community, making learning not only contextualized within the community but also within the specific time period in which the learning occurs.

This section of the book further discusses how communities of practice are affected by transparency and sequestration within the community, use of language among members (especially of different ranks), motivation and identity as apprentices start to participate in more consequential activities (and the role of masters in motivating apprentices), and contradictions and conflict within communities (especially as membership and participation changes). There are too many good pieces of information in these 20 pages (p. 100-117) to do justice in a summary.

Why this is important

This book was published at the same time that the movement away from purely cognitive models of learning was gaining popularity and the new field Learning Sciences was forming. It described a compelling sociocultural theory of learning that remains relevant and popular today (according to Google Scholar, this book has been cited ~65,000 times). Not only is the theory sound, but it demonstrated the importance of community in learning and convinced many cognition-focused researchers to think about the context of learning in addition to the content of learning. This balance between cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on learning is still being considered in the Learning Sciences (Danish & Gresalfi, 2018).

Danish, J. A., & Gresalfi, M. (2018). Cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on learning: Tensions and synergy in the Learning Sciences. In International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 56-65). Routledge.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.

One thought on “Book Summary: Lave & Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation

  1. Pingback: Article Summaries: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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