Legitimate Peripheral Participation 

This clumsy phrase is the central principle of a quite different kind of learning theory, situated learning, which is primarily social rather than psychological and originates from Lave and Wenger (1991).

Based on case-studies of how newcomers learn in various occupational groups which are not characterised by formal training, they suggest that legitimate peripheral participation is the key. The case-studies include traditional midwives in Yucatan, tailors in Liberia, butchers in supermarkets, and quartermasters in the US Marine Corps. (I am not quite clear what quartermasters do in that service, but it is clearly different from in UK services)

  • It is legitimate because all parties accept the position of “unqualified” people as potential members of the “community of practice”
  • Peripheral because they hang around on the edge of the important stuff, do the peripheral jobs, and gradually get entrusted with more important ones
  • Participation because it is through doing knowledge that they acquire it. Knowledge is situated within the practices of the community of practice, rather than something which exists “out there” in books. 

It may be clumsy but it is worth almost as much as "Zone of Proximal Development" in the jargon stakes



The inadequacy of the diagram is that the whole situation is seen as fluid: there is no one boundary to the community of practice, and the position of “master” as I have labelled it following the apprenticeship model (which this resembles but which is only one instance of it) is not held by a particular figure. Note that communities of practice overlap, so that someone who is “central” in one may be peripheral in another. For present purposes, the diagram will serve.

The model has a number of implications:

  • Knowledge is defined as what is done, and as far as I can gather its rationale is subordinate to its embodiment (pardon the language).
  • It therefore suggests that in terms of the hidden curriculum, and the distortion of knowledge which takes place in making it learnable within a curriculum (its categorisation into discrete elements and its grading from easy to difficult), training is inimical to learning:

There are links with the question of how people become "experts" in their field

    "The central grounds on which forms of education that differ from schooling are condemned [in conventional educational argument/ policy/ discourse] are that changing the person is not the central motive of the enterprise in which learning takes place [...]. The effectiveness of the circulation of information among peers suggests, to the contrary, that engaging in practice, rather than being its object, may well be the condition for the effectiveness of learning."

    (Lave and Wenger, 1991:93) 

(Amplification in brackets inserted)

    This point had already been made rather more vividly by Becker (1963).


It is no criticism of the model to point out that as initially set out by Lave and Wenger, it is confined to rather special groups, and does not deal with current preoccupations with accreditation and accountability of occupational groups: it does not set out to address these concerns. But..

  • It is not always clear how legitimate peripheral participation differs from occupational socialisation, and it is well-established that such socialisation does not necessarily embody best practice (viz. "canteen culture" in the police, and the problem of the "incompetent workplace" in NVQ programmes).
  • The epistemological model — owing much to Bourdieu (1977) — is of most interest. Knowledge is performance, rather than a commodity: but this in turn implies that such knowledge only has validity within a community of practice: it is situated knowledge or part of the "habitus", in Bourdieu’s terms. See also the critique by Tennant (1997)

Communities of Practice

Wenger (1998) has built on and elaborated the idea of the community of practice, depicting its elements co-existing rather like yin and yang:

based on Wenger 1998; 63

He unpicks the interplay between features of the community, including that between its participative aspect (the fluid and ephemeral interaction with other members) and its structural or "reified" aspect, where the products of interactions and negotiations take a fixed form in documented rules and procedures and products. The reified side of the community dictates how the participation operates; the participative interprets the reified, sometimes in supporting and sometimes subversive ways. In academe it is usually the latter.

This provides an illuminating perspective on the relationship between the institutional setting of learning, including its physical setting through to its curriculum and accreditation, and the practice of teaching and learning within the community.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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