Introduction also interpreting how society, culture and



The conception of the learner can be understood in multiple distinct conceptualisations. This essay shall examine the multifaceted conceptions of ‘the learner’ whilst considering the complex process of learning in relation to the philosophical stances of two psychosocial perspectives: neoliberalism and communities of practice. This exploration analysis shall compare the contrasting perceptions of the individual learner and their role in addition to the lived experience between the individual learner and their environment with regards to the chosen theories, also interpreting how society, culture and politics all significantly influence the very nature of such. This exposé shall also elucidate how the attributes of each theory differ in relation to epistemology, ontology and methodology as well as the debate over individual capacity and collective endeavour.

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Conceptions of Neoliberalism with Regards to ‘the Learner’ and Learning


The libertarian perspective was originally elaborated by Hayek (1900s) and its neoliberal reincarnation was formulated by Friedman (Turner, 2008) in the 70s where the ideology that state-responsibility must be minimised whilst individual self-determination should be fostered; essentially, the philosophy that advocates privileging market forces over state intervention across all margins of societal life. Marginson (1997) argues that the libertarian philosophy perceives the learner as a direct ‘consumer’ of knowledge rather than a producer and influencer (potentially a prosumer) (Antonio, 2015), arguably recognising them as a commodity of which their education is seen to be an investment in their future so as to enhance economic growth to return value above and beyond the cost of their initial education. However, it could be argued that the learner is not just a consumer of knowledge but rather a multiplex of products/services/consumers in a neoconservative/neo-libertarian context and socioenvironmental approach. Essentially, neoliberalism identifies education as a commercial good that delivers return or investment enhancing the learners own market thus creating a ‘knowledge market’ (Olssen and Peters, 2015) whereby the learner (post education) is viewed as a market good in themselves, with the economic perspective coming to determine the entire societal life. Initially the ‘learner’ is exploited and commodified to be indoctrinated into an asset to the educational establishment they essentially are owned by (Giroux and Giroux, 2006). Neoliberalism has ideologically exerted influence on school policy in which the ‘utility’ of the learner is calculated by exams and thus league tables resulting in intra-competition between schools in the ever-growing skills economy (Barry, Osbourne & Rose, 1996) and knowledge market (Olssen and Peters, 2015). Academically successful students become an asset to the school as their results are purported to reflect the quality of teaching. The neoconservative ideology promotes itself as education is regarded as providing social mobility to the ‘learner’ in addition to the aptitude, skills and expertise needed to succeed in a competitive capitalist working environment. The academic knowledge they gain during schooling is only a tool to pass exams in order to achieve top qualifications – a supposed catalyst to acquire high-end jobs (Slaughter and Rhodes, 2004). This particular variation of capitalism can be considered to be rogue ‘libertarianism’; tailored to be only a means to an end, not a means to itself in order to inspire innovation and free thought. There is a considerable variation in the angles or facets of an economic characterisation and elucidation of the learner and their environment. Expectedly, neoliberalism perceives the learner as compliant to their environment, potentially submissive and passive as to not critique or question the status quo of their own learning context. There is no promotion of outside thought as the learner is expected to accept the establishment’s proceedings and are not encouraged to reflect and consider their own educational situation. Instead of promoting any curiosity or free thought, neoliberal education emphasises the principal focus of learning to be preparation for the job market in a consumerist society (Harris, 2007).


Conceptions of Community of Practice with Regards to ‘the Learner’ and Learning


In sociology, the term community has proved challenging to define in coherent terms (Cohen 1985) thus defining the term ‘community of practice’ is just as problematic (Lave and Wenger 1991), however there are numerous possible examples which would constitute as one: essentially an assembly of people ‘bound together by location, purpose, activity or labels’ (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2005). One of the foundations of communities of practice is that learning is an ongoing process based on social participation (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2005). It is said that learning occurs through the learner being modelled and helped by existing members of the community until they can participate fully themselves: seemingly an intergenerational cycle of members inheriting the social norms, morals, practices and knowledge of elder members. Newcomers eventually develop into old-timers through a social process Lave (1991) uses the analogy – apprentice to master – (admittedly one which Wenger later criticises {1998}) resulting in a progressive successive system. Learners change, reproduce and transform each other; a collaborative approach which nurses the very identity of the learner. It could potentially be argued that communities of practice are more of an active practice rather than passive, viewing participation as a key aspect of the learning process. Peripheral participation (Lave, 1991) offers a complementary binding between the development of knowledgeable skills and identity – fundamental to developing the identity of the learner. Learning is conceptualised as a cooperative journey: trusting and allowing other members to aid and encourage those who require help. The identity of the learner and their inclusive community they belong to is moulded by the context and practices of their environment and who they learn from. It could be argued that the practices displayed are ones that are associated and encouraged by that community. Wenger (1998) reflects on the fact that a collective learning approach produces ‘practices that reflect both the pursuit of (the) enterprise and the attendant’s social relations’ (Wenger, 1998).  The role of the learner is not to simply accept notions taught in class (like neoliberalism) but instead learn by observation and peripheral participation. Tobbell and Lawthom (2013) argue that the sole purpose of communities of practice are for the learner to acquire the ‘practices valued by the system’. The nature of participation provides a structure in which members share understandings concerning the context in which they are a part of and what that means for their lives and for the community itself. Contrary to neoliberalism, communities of practice promote groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). The aim is to create rather informal groups disregarding the boundaries of large establishments specifically to share knowledge and solve problems as a collective. Such an aim completely contrasts to the individualistic nature of neoliberalism. Lave (1991) criticises the current capitalist societal structure quoting ‘widespread deep knowledgeability appears to be diminutive’. Embedded into this ideology is the politics of knowledge control – currently there is no meaning or significance behind the knowledgeable skills passed on to the learner post school. This commodification donates to the devaluation of the learner’s knowledgeable skill by ultimately controlling and dividing work; by which control is instigated over workers. The standardisation of curricula and exams (evaluation through grading) also contributed to this, something that communities of practice aims to disassemble. When the products of human labour (including knowledge) are converted into commodities, they cease to be made for value, an on-going process regarding neoliberalism. As the process of learning is not wholly subjective or fully encompassed in social interaction it could be interpreted as not mutually exclusive from the social world, but in fact a fundamental component of it. When one compares this to neoliberalism where education is viewed a means to an end, communities of practice appreciates that learning is an ongoing process and is to be valued at every stage.


Neoliberalism with Regards to Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology


There are two primary perspectives that correlate to neoliberalism in terms of the epistemological, ontological and methodological adoptions. It could potentially be construed that neoliberalism adopts the theory of functionalism whereas each element of society is interpreted in terms of how it contributes to the stability of society itself. Society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each part of society is ‘functional’ for the stability of the whole, primarily harmonious and as having a crucial contribution to its survival and sustainability (Durkheim, 1892). However, at face value, it could be interpreted that the theory of structuralism correlates more to neoliberalism. This ideology perceives particular elements as having no absolute meaning or value: their meaning or value are relative to other elements. An element cannot be perceived by itself. Neoliberalism conceive a deregulated, competitive and financialised capitalist structure as the most efficient structure to promote citizen well-being, without state intervention (Danzelot, 1984). Such an approach to societal control results in controlling the learner to seek no alternative notion of the truth. Margret Thatcher infamously quoted: ‘there is no such thing as society’ (1987). This demonstrates neoliberalism recognises the subjectivities of society’s citizens (Hall, 1988). Their notion of education actively neglects common discourse in order to protect the very culture of its systems so as to not seek alternative visions in the way society could be restructured. The positivist and essentially fundamentalist stance neoliberalism adopts demonstrates its belief in scientific psychosocial research regarding the notion of learning.


Communities of Practice with Regards to Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology


Again, the philosophy of communities of practice could also be interpreted as a functionalist theory as its very nature emphasises on consensus and proceeds on a basis that everyone has a role in societal life, but compared to neoliberalism it takes a much more compassionate stance on such roles. Contrastingly, the community of practice theory’s ontological view takes the perspective that learning is not an intramural, industrialised process of fact learning and conformity but rather ‘a process of becoming a member of a sustained community of practice’ (Lave, 1991) through building knowledge through an on-going excursion where each learner is equal. It is a privileged locus for the creation of knowledge (Wenger, 1998). This theory conceptualises learning as moving from being a new peripheral member to an experienced core member (Lave, 1991) and this process is arguably exponential as more members join and learn the norms and values of the community through a ‘commitment to shared understanding’ by all parties (Wenger, 1998).


Neoliberalism and Individual Capacity


Sampson (1988) provides an insightful account of the bloodthirsty culture of self-contained individualistic convictions that drives neoliberalism, scrutinising the ideology that each citizen is exclusive from their peers and the learning community they belong to. It is painful to describe the indication that the learner’s primary focus and thus motivation should be spent solely on themselves. The state is supposedly not responsible for the public’s prosperity; it should only provide the opportunities for one to become self-sufficient in terms of capital investments and academic success. Such an ideology is manifested across a spectrum of political dogmas. The most obvious one to note would be the Thatcherite infamous and controversial right-to-buy scheme (1980). It is a disgraceful display of the government withdrawing funds from society’s most vulnerable.


Communities of Practice and Collective Endeavour


The collectivist nature of the communities of practice theory actively promotes engagement with peers, taking the viewpoint that participation with others is integral to the process of learning through positive social interdependence; supposedly the ideal context for such, requiring a ‘strong bond of communal competence’ (Wenger, 1998). Wenger also recognises learning as fundamental to the social order we live, thus regarding the collectivises of the learner; ‘theorising about one is tantamount to theorising about another’ (Wenger, 1998). People in a community of practice do display a ‘fluid sense of self and other’ (Sampson, 1988) as they do things collectively towards a common goal/aim. This adopted principal benefits all rather than the individual. Nonetheless, the theory does acknowledge the contribution of an individual learner to promote original thought as individual participation ignites thought and consideration in others. 



This essay has demonstrated how neoliberalism perceives the learner as a consumer of knowledge meanwhile the theory of communities of practice interprets the learner as part of a collective in which they are the ‘producers’ of knowledge and unrestricted thought. It could be argued that both take functionalist perspectives however I construed neoliberalism leans towards the theory of structuralism. Neoliberalism places emphasis on the individual whereas communities of practice promote collectivism. Neoliberalism sees the leaner as a commodified market asset whilst communities of practice take a less individualistic and exclusive approach (Jehangir, 2012) promoting collaboration with others to help those who require it by facilitating participating (Tobbell and Lawthom, 2013). It is my view point that although I find the ideology of communities of practice more beneficial to society, neither provide a comprehensive explanation to the nature of learning as the adoption of one isolated theory is not sufficient to elucidate such a complex notion.