Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Communities of practice: reification

Dorine asked: Do Wenger et al. also outline some ideas on HOW to bring balance to situations where there is too much emphasis on reification?

I'm very scared that I interpret the theory differently as intended summarizing it so much :), so her question gives me the opportunity to explain more as I read it. Wenger writes in communities of practice, meaning, learning and identity:

Reification can take a great variety of forms: a fellting smoke signal or an age-old pyramid, an abstract formula or a concrete truck, a small logo or a huge information-processing system, a simple word jotted on a page or a long silence, a private knot on a handkerchief or a controversial statue on a public square, an impressionist painting of a butterfly or a scientific specimen in an entomological collection. What is important about all these objects is that they are only the tip of an iceberg......

An an evocative shortcut, the process of reification can be very powerful...

But the power of reification- its succinctness, its portability, its potential physical persistence, its focusing effect - is also its danger. The politician's slogan can become a substitute for a deep understanding of and a commitment to what it stands for. The tool can ossify activities around its inertness.

I find this part very important because I have seen it happening so many times that a tool (eg. PRA tools) start leading their own life and the whole idea behind the tools and methodology is not understood. For people who do not possess sufficient knowledge and skills about a topic, tools are very appealing and gives them something to hold onto. But the danger is that they do not understand the deeper levels of practice. So tools can never replace a thorough understanding and knowledge of a subject. And the development arena seems to be particularly fond of tools and toolbooks. (what a great opportunity to get this out!!). To answer the question: so reification is never a substitute for connecting people in practice and this may often mean working together or allowing people to come in an observe and observe.

Another example: at my posting about my daughter's school exercise there was a comment to add it as a good reason for homeschooling. Whereas I'm a big fan of the Dutch schoolsystem and would never be in favour of homeschooling!

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