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Posted by on Jan 21, 2013

Intersections between Community of Practice and Multimodality: Writing of “New” Texts via mobile technology

You need to align yourself and your new texts (with existing practice) before you wreck yourself (to paraphrase Ice Cube).

You need to align yourself and your new texts (with existing practice) before you wreck yourself (to paraphrase Ice Cube).

Reader: please note that this post is littered with (half-baked) references and ideas related to my thesis. And it is long. I thought, however, it might be useful to air out some initial thoughts I had on the intersections between these two theories and how one is evidence or enactment of the other. Not surprisingly, this is related to my doctoral work at the Institute of Education. It is (highly) abridged from the original so there is that small mercy.

Community of Practice (CoP) and Multimodality, both rooted in the Vygotskian tradition of constructivist (social) learning, predictably both stress the social importance of meaning-making. This shared thread of meaning-making as a social process provides a useful bridge for employing these two theories to the production of multimodal texts in the Humanities, as my thesis attempts to do. It will be obvious early on that I am struggling to characterize writing or texts through these theories and I am limited at the moment to referring to them as ‘new’ texts. Please bear with me on that one. The broad intersections of Community of Practice and Multimodality theory include the following:

  1. Meaning-making is social (yes, I thought it needed to be said)
  2. Evolution or shifts in community discourse
  3. Engagements with new modes of communication and writing
  4. Engagements with technology

Communication is meaning-making: social

Both Community of Practice theory and Multimodality theory are grounded in the social nature of learning in meaning-making. Community of Practice is built on engagement with a community sharing a common domain, a common joint enterprise, and a shared repertoire of practices. Interaction within the community is supported through Wenger’s features of engagement, imagination, and alignment, features particularly relevant to the production of’ ‘new’ texts and engagement with technology. Within that Community of Practice, Multimodality reveals the salient characteristics of how that practice is enacted through the production of texts and engagement with technology. The production of texts and engagements with technology are social events fashioned from existing community resources. They are assembled to make meaning both for the individual and the community as a whole, as made evident by Jewitt (2009) in the following quote:

“Multimodality is built on the assumption that the meanings of signs fashioned from multimodal semiotic resources are, like speech, social. That is they are shaped by the norms and rules operating at the moment of sign-making, influenced by the motivations and interests of sign-maker in a specific social context” (Jewitt, 2009, p 15).

These multimodal semiotic resources and the meaning made from their assembly are governed by the social norms at work in the community; for the Humanities, these norms are formalized (somewhat) into accepted practice and modes of production. The semiotic resources employed in the community are produced by the community and carry with them the embedded attributes of community practice and memory. This production speaks to semiosis as defined by Barton (2005): “meaning is produced by embodied, intentional, practically skilled actors, shaped by their whole history of interactions, engaging in material action. This action is situated within, and reproduces particular configurations of social relationships” (Barton, 2005, p. 42). This material action in the Humanities is represented by the production of texts; more specifically in this thesis, this production is limited to the production of texts through mobile technology. Multimodality reveals, in this application, the semiotic resources and artifacts employed by the Humanities towards engagement with the joint enterprise of the community: engagement with the knowledge structures of the Humanities towards research and writing.

*Note: Much of this drawn from The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis (Jewitt, 2009), in particular the Ivarsson chapter (on or around p. 210)


A further intersection between Community of Practice and Multimodality theory is the nature of discourse itself as a socially assembled representation of meaning. How and in what form these discourses are assembled to make meaning is an order of discourse, which Cope (2000) speaks to: “an order of discourse is a socially produced array of discourses, intermeshing and dynamically interacting” (Cope, 2000, p20). The role of order of discourse in both Community of Practice and Multimodality theory suggests the importance of assembly, the identification and use of multiple modes or media towards representing meaning. This assembly can include seemingly disparate semiotic resources; however, if aligned with community practice and the social “norms and rules operating at the moment of sign-making”, they present meaning both for the individual and the larger community (Jewitt, 2009, p. 15). “It may include a mixture of different semiotic systems, for instance, visual and aural semiotic systems in combination with language…” (Cope, 2000, p.20). Alignment in both choice and order of discourse as well as through the selection of semiotic resources for representation of that discourse provides an intersection for the study of the construction of ‘new’ texts through new technologies (or new applications of existing technologies). Fairclough suggests how we might do this:

“in terms of styles, he suggests that we examine aspects of identification such as modality, that is, what people commit themselves to in a text, with respect to truth (epistemic modality), with respect to obligation (deontic modality) and with respect to values (evaluation, including both explicit evaluative statements and perhaps, more importantly, implicit value assumptions, which are often the main source of value judgments in texts)” (Barton, 2005, p.47).

This provides a structure from which to gauge the epistemological and social validity of new texts. While the subject of this thesis is not the interpretation of new texts for their validity in terms of truth assertions or applicability to the larger body of literature (Fairclough’s epistemic modality), it is through deontic modality, this obligation towards engaging with and improving the community of practice, that we begin to see the illustration in new texts their alignment with community practice. Novel not for novelty’s sake, but for the improvement of the community of the Humanities overall.

Engagement with new modes of communication, writing

This thesis focuses on the production of new texts through technology as evidence of both imagination and alignment, core features of Wenger’s vision of CoP. Multimodality provides further guidance on how the imagination exhibited in new texts is an alignment of discourse and semiotic resources towards meaning-making. This assembly of resources and discourses, aligned and hopefully received by the community, is an artifact of the community itself. It is embedded with the social practices, values, resources, and discourses; its interpretation and meaning, however, are relative to the community and individual needs present at the moment of engagement. Novel texts, through their use of community resources and processes, are invariably related to past memory and present need. O’Gorman (2006) elaborates on this phenomena through a critique of the ‘unity’ of the book:

“The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network….The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelpiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses it self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse” (p.22)

According to O’Gorman, the book is a material object, yes, but one that has meaning only as a part of a larger system of activity; the community constructs it as meaningful. Novel texts are only meaningful if received and constructed as such by the community. But what comprises a new text? A subject for a subsequent post.

Cairo University with some preliminary sketches and notes

Assembling community through structure, artifacts, and semiotic resources: Cairo University (October, 2008)


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  1. oh Michael, if I read your posts it becomes so clear to me that my mind is but a foggy, though enthusiastic being wanting to be enlightened, loving reading enlightened ideas and posts … but not equipped to do the same. Every post I read fills me with aw again and again. It also makes it clear to me that I should focus on more earthy things for my dissertation, as grand philosophical writings are beyond my grasp. That being said, reading your thoughts helps me to focus and accept myself and that feels excellent. Admiring strengths in others while walking and accepting the personal path feels the right way to live.

  2. Hello there, Inge! Terribly kind of you to say such nice things, but I disagree completely with you that anything is beyond your grasp. You created MobiMOOC out of thin air and that is something I am in awe of. In fact, I was just about to share your presentation on MobiMOOC here so forgive me for gushing about you. I love our collaboration and I only hope we have many more chances to do that in the future. You have so much to offer and I am inspired by your example. Truly.


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