‘Academic identity’ and ‘Identity construction and participation’ – Paper Summary

The following is a summary of the sections titled ‘Academic identity‘ and ‘Identity construction and participation‘ in Jawitz’s (2009) paper; ‘Academic identities and communities of practice in a professional discipline’ .  A copy of this paper  can be obtained using the following link.


This paper explores the dynamics surrounding the formation of academic identities in a context where the nature of academic work is contested both as a result of tensions within the discipline and in response to pressure from both the institution and the field of higher education. It is based on a case study which investigated the process of academic identity formation at the micro level of a department at a South African university. The study revealed a complex relationship between identity construction and participation within the particular configuration of teaching, professional and research communities of practice that defined the academic field in the department. Multiple identity trajectories were evident, indicating the role of individual agency, despite the dominance of a professional community of practice within the department. The arrival of new academics in the department without professional practice experience was found to have created the possibility of a changed notion of the academic within the discipline.

 Academic identity

  • Academic identity is both ‘individual and embedded in the communities of primary importance to them.’ (Henkel 2000)
  • Field of study and the organisation within which learning occurs contribute significantly to academic identity.
  • The field of study is consider to be ‘the central organising vehicle’ at university and involvement in a community centered around this discipline helps students to develop their individual and personal commitment to the field of study.
  • Research task usually involve ‘engagement with an academic community’.
  • In contrast, teaching is consider ‘an individual private affair.’

identity construction & participation

  • ‘Situated learning theory’ – ‘knowledge is distructed amongst a community of practice (CoP) and can only be understood with the “interpretive support” provided by participation in the CoP itself.’ (Lave and Wagner 1991).
  • Membership and participation in  a CoP can therefore be considered to be a ‘source of identity’.
  • ‘Identity is built around social engagement’, however, individuals move through various stages and forms of participation within the group.
  • ‘The process of learning and identity construction…is also shaped by the way in which individuals exercise their agency in the workplace.’ (Billett 2004; Fuller, Munro and Rainbird 2004; Knight and Trowler 2000)
  • ‘Learning occurs through participation in activities along a given trajectory and contributes to a growing identity within or across communities of practice.’
  • Certain ‘trajectories’ can be of greater significance as the ’employ the history of the community’.

    “Exposure to this field of paradigmatic trajectories is likely to be the most influential factor in sharing the learning of newcomers…[N]ewcomers are no foold: once they have access to the practice, the soon find out what counts.” (Wenger 1998)

Identity Trajectories for Newcomers

  • Inbound – who look to become ‘full members’ of a CoP
  • Boundary – aim to participate in a range of different CoPs
  • Peripheral – do not strive for full membership but enough to contribute to their identity.
  • Outbound – move out the CoP to explore new CoP or positions.
  • ‘Participants preference for peripheral or boundary trajectory reflects the power of “individuals and communities to define and affect our relations to the rest of the world.” ‘ (Wenger 1998)
  • CoPs change as newcomers become increasingly inovlve and relationships between those newcomers and the ‘old-timers’.


Jawitz, J. (2009). Academic identities and communities of practice in a professional discipline. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 241–251. doi:10.1080/13562510902898817



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