I found Communities of Practice (CoP) by Etienne Wenger to be one of those strange books that lots of people told me I must read – and it is relevant to taxonomy work (although this post digresses) – but when I did read it, it all seemed so totally obvious I could hardly believe it had taken until the 1980s to be formulated. Barbara Rogoff and Jean Lave also pioneered the thinking, but I feel sure the ideas must date back at least to medieval trade guilds. It is one of the odd features of academia that sometimes the obvious has simply not been noticed and it is the recognition of the obvious that is revolutionary.

The core ideas are that we don’t just learn about doing something or even how to do something, we learn to be a person that does those things, and this shapes our identities. So, I can get my editorial assistants to read Judith Butcher on copy editing to teach them about editing, I can give them practical exercises so they learn how to copy edit, but it is only after they have been given real copy editing work, amongst other copy editors, that they experience how copy editors behave, and so learn how to be copy editors. Learning is therefore a continuous lifelong process.

In the UK there has traditionally been a divide between learning about (academic) and learning how (vocational), with learning to be happening outside the educational system, in workplaces (e.g. via apprenticeships). Wenger emphasises the need to encourage learning to be, and of course it is vital, but politically it worries me that too much responsibility for this is currently falling on academia and not enough on employers (I’m probably misrepresenting Wenger here). As an employer I think I ought to invest in training new staff (and in ongoing staff development), mainly because I can train staff to be exactly the way they need to be in the specific employment context. There is no practical way that a national education system could be so specific, unless it only caters to a handful of big corporations, which don’t need the help or the additional social power. On the other hand, I really don’t want to have to teach new staff lots of learning about – grammar and spelling, for example – that can be taught perfectly well in the classroom.

I think a civilised society should be willing to pay collectively for some essentially uncommercialised public spaces (e.g. universities) where people can just think in order to get better at thinking. A vocational element is great (I have personally enjoyed and benefited from the vocational aspects of my course) but part of my motivation for returning to university was to have time to explore questions and experiment with ideas without limiting myself to only those that I could show in advance would bring in some cash.

How does all this relate to taxonomy work? A taxonomy may be needed within a single community of practice, in which case recognising the user group as a CoP may help make sense of the project and the terminology required. Conversely, a taxonomy may need to be a boundary object between CoPs, perhaps even linking numerous CoPs together. By recognising and identifying different CoPs in an organisation, a taxonomist can get a picture of the different dialects and practices that exist and need to be taken into account.

A new taxonomist also needs to learn to be a taxonomist, and the taxonomy communities of practice (both specific and theoretical) already out there play a vital role in this process.