Submitted by Leah, Pei-Wei and Arjana
An interesting point raised by Wenger is that identity is not a category nor a personality trait and it is definitely not a self-image, but a combination of:
- how we perceive ourselves (this perception consists of what we think about ourselves and what we say about ourselves) and
- what others think and say about us.
Furthermore, identity is not only being but also doing. What we do in our everyday life, who we interact with, what roles we take on, how we participate in specific communities are all factors that shape our identity. All these interactions and activities build layers of our identity and as such, identity is not to be seen as a finished product that will be fully shaped by a certain point in time or after a required task is accomplished or after a desired goal has been achieved. Identity, according to Wenger, exists in the constant way of negotiating the self and it is a constant becoming.
We constantly engage in all kinds of different communities and in each of these communities our identity may be different. In some of them we participate infrequently or peripherally, while in others we contribute significantly to the community and fully participate in its activities. These variations of participation can, and often do, happen at the same time. The question that we raise here is if at that particular moment our identity consists of particular layers that are a constant at that particular time, why do we act differently in different communities? In other words, do we have multiple identities or are the voices we hear in our head our other selves? For example, if during the same semester a student attends two different classes in both of which she is a newcomer, it can easily happen that she becomes fully engaged in one, yet completely marginalized in another. Even though the layers of her identity are identical at the given time, does this difference in community participation occur because the voices in her head instill different amounts of self-confidence in her or the competency she develops in these two courses influence her identifies differently? Does that mean that despite our being, thinking and doing, our participation is dependent upon the willingness and openness of community members to allow us to shape the way of how we either participate or non-participate?
Wenger distinguishes between participation and non-participation, however, both are constituent parts of our identities. What’s more, these two types of participations closely interact with each other. These interactions can be peripheral or marginal. In the case of peripherality, he claims that some degree of non-participation is necessary as it will lead to participation, whereas in the case of marginality, full participation is prevented by non-participation. Does that always happen? Can marginality be transformed into participation and can peripherality eventually lead to the prevention of participation? Participation and non-participation are not just decided by our personal choices, argues Wenger, but depend on the trajectories of learning in a community, the demands of the multimembership as well as on the position of the community within broader institutions.
Multimembership is another important characteristic of our identity. We belong to different kinds of communities and may move from one to another in the course of our lives, and while doing so we bring along the knowledge we gained, the behaviors we learned or the experiences we acquired. However, sometimes these are not aligned with the demands or the rules of a new community and we need to find an identity that can reconcile all these differences. According to Wenger, reconciliation is a constant process and it requires a lot of work. Multimembership and the work of reconciliation are at the core of being a person, of belonging.
Three important modes of belonging, engagement, imagination and alignment, expand our identity through space and time in different ways. They are not mutually exclusive, they complement each other. Each of them is important for the formation of our identity and require work. Interestingly, Wenger describes the work of imagination as the ability to disengage and to look at our engagement from the outside in order to reinvent ourselves and the world around us. His definition of imagination refers to the process of “expanding our self by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves”. Can we all do that? Is imagination a trait we are all born with, but some of us mute it (consciously or unconsciously,) have it stifled, or allow it to run wild? Sir Ken Robinson would certainly agree with it. Would you?
While Wenger suggests components of identity and their relationships in communities of practice, there are many questions we have regarding various elements found within the various descriptions and how the answers play out in this discussion. But, as we all know, our identities continuously develop and are shaped while participating in all kinds of communities of practice in our lives.