Communities of Practice and Communities of Trust: global culture and information technology

Anthropology Ireland;  4 (1);  1994; pp. 33-45

©Lee Komito
Department of Library and Information Studies
University College Dublin.


Let me begin by noting what will soon be obvious in any event -- the paper that follows has a strong polemic element. Anthropologists in Ireland are dispersed thinly, and this journal provides an opportunity to encourage debate and discussion of issues that might concern anthropologists who either study Ireland or reside in Ireland. Hopefully, this working paper will spark further discussion; it is certainly intended to do so!


In recent decades, the study of complex societies has become a legitimate and almost respected project for social and cultural anthropologists, with the number of anthropologists studying complex societies increasing dramatically. In most cases, the preferred method has been to focus on geographically-bounded communities. Aside from occasional forays into the cognitive maps of drunks or other occupational groups, most ethnographic studies have been of rural communities or encapsulated urban ones (e.g., ethnic enclaves). That is to say, face-to-face communities where individuals reside in the same locale, and where social relations tend to be multiplex and overlapping. There has been very little research on other aspects of complex societies. For instance, the areas of inquiry described as the 'anthropology of work' or `industrial anthropology' have existed for many decades, but have remained marginal, vis-à-vis mainstream anthropology. Anthropologists continue to visualise their work as describing cultural units, even though the communities which constitute such units are becoming small segments of much larger systems.


The interest in complex societies has rarely extended to the larger system -- that is, the culture of complex societies. There was a brief foray into national culture which derived from personality and culture studies (e.g., Mead, Benedict); but little else. This lack is ironic since, outside anthropology, the rise of cultural studies has been meteoric. These cultural studies address both complex societies and organisations within complex societies. One can not pick up a management book without reading long about organisational culture. Historians and political scientists discuss `imagined communities', and sociologists examine `global culture'. Anthropology has been marginalized, it seems, in this new industry of culture as an academic commodity.


The paucity of such studies in anthropology, and the marginalization, within anthropology, of those who are interested in either the culture of organisations or the culture of large scale groups (e.g. "states" or "nations"), is linked to another issue: the current unease about the concept of culture. In the `good old days', anthropologists presumed that cultural uniformity existed in the societies they described. All members of the group knew one another, could predict each other's behaviour and shared a sense of belonging to the same moral community. Even though this was unjustified, in retrospect, anthropologists described (or constructed) societies with a homogeneous culture. The class, regional, ethnic, and occupational distinctions of industrial society make such an intellectual stance untenable when studying modern societies. Many social relations in complex societies are not face to face, and they would be described as single-stranded, rather than multi-stranded. Such relations may form the basis for social interaction, but do not foster the same 'community' that anthropologists have felt comfortable with. Substituting `part-culture' for `culture' provided a quasi-solution, and enabled anthropologists to study rural communities and urban enclaves. Here, uniformity could still be found, or, as necessary, constructed. Outside these areas, anthropology has not been very successful in talking about culture. Even within these safe havens, the extent of uniformity is fast diminishing; if anthropologists aren't careful, they will run out of objects to study.


It has been left to others to apply culture to complex societies because, once anthropologists leave the safe haven of holistic unities of culture and society, the whole enterprise becomes fraught. The use of sub-culture to describe smaller segments of an overall culture (e.g., working-class culture or rural culture) is not satisfactory, as it does not incorporate cross-cutting identifications such as class and ethnicity. Nor does it give sufficient recognition of the way individuals opt in and out of various social groups and collective identifications. In complex societies, the shift from multiplex or many stranded role relations to uniplex, single stranded role relations, as well as the increased importance of non-formal social networks, has altered the way individuals participate in society as well as the way they share values and perceptions. If anthropologists are going to venture beyond the ghetto of local communities, part-cultures, sub-cultures and encapsulated communities, they must either abandon the culture concept or rework it significantly to include such variability.


Attempts at reworking `culture' have been going on for over a decade, but have produced less than satisfactory results. One post-modernist solution has been to argue that all descriptions are particularist, and an authoritative descriptions of any culture is difficult, if not impossible (see Marcus and Fischer 1986). Such descriptions are projections of Western mind-sets, imposed on other cultures. Such a solution is a `solution' only because it denies the relevance of any model of generalizable culture, and thus disposes of the problem. Clearly the sacrilized voice of the anthropologist, as the authoritative author of ethnography, needs both demystifying and problematising, however there must still be agreed procedures for describing and comparing the collective sharing of beliefs and values that most anthropologists articulate as `culture'


A different strategy for reworking `culture' has been to focus on emergent trans-cultural forms, using terms such as global and national culture. Anthropologists such as Hannerz (1992) and Appadurai (1989), for instance, distinguish aspects of global culture and analyse each aspect or segment. This approach is akin to Lowie's `shreds and patches' approach to culture, except at the international level. Culture, defined as communal practices and shared values characteristic of social collectivities, disappears in this sort of analysis. It is replaced by cultural traditions: practices in which individuals participate. Cultures are the emergent properties of these practices, but, in the move from individual to culture, the 'social group', so crucial in earlier anthropological studies, disappears. Individuals participate in a variety of cultural themes and commodities, creating, voluntarily, their own unique mix of cultural elements. This is an `a la carte' model of culture, in which individual participation in a common practice is sufficient to make that practice the object of description and study. Such an assumption is not unlike one made in linguistics, when a shared language practice defines a common linguistic community. In linguistics, the individual's commitment to that particular language is irrelevant. In the context of culture, such a model begs the question of the individual's participation in, and commitment to, that practice. Early studies of mass communication assumed that all people who viewed a television programme participated in the same experience. In actual fact, people make quite different things of the same television viewing experience. Similarly, one must wonder whether communal practice of global traditions is sufficient for the creation and maintenance of shared cultural forms. If culture is a common view of social reality, is common practice sufficient evidence of a common social reality?


As noted, the social group is conspicuous, by its absence, in approaches such as those of Hannerz and Appadurai, as analysis moves between individuals and global cultures. Does this mean that social relations are irrelevant for the study of shared meanings? Anthropologists have previously argued that the ongoing, and constantly recreated, social group is closely linked with the shared mental world of culture. Does that collective experience no longer require social contact to create or sustain it? This issue becomes especially relevant with changes in communications technologies. One reason for the growth in 'globalization studies' has been the perception that technology has altered the nature of human society, due to the reduced costs of communication and transportation. Whether one looks at movement of individuals, the movement of cultural artefacts such as clothing, food, music, or movement of information (via videotape, telephone, or computer), it is now possible for an individual to live in one physical location and be surrounded by all the paraphernalia of another milieu. One can live in Germany, for instance, and listen to Irish news, eat food imported from Ireland, wear clothes produced in Ireland, read Irish newspapers, communication relatively cheaply with friends in Ireland, and so on. Previously, this would have, at the very least, required the presence of other Irish expatriates, which would have given rise to an 'encapsulated community' for anthropologists to study. Now, however, individuals may maintain such identifications and associations without the assistance of other like-minded individuals. Or, if such like-minded individuals do get together in a pub to watch an Irish sports match, they don't necessarily have much else to do with one another. Do these constitute the shared meanings and experiences which anthropologists label as 'culture'? Do they constitute social groups? Are the motivations and perceptions of the individuals who participate in these shared meanings relevant? Although culture is the shared beliefs of a society or community, it emerges out of the process of interaction between individuals. If we take this seriously, then the development of electronic communication must alter our ideas about how culture is shared and who may share it.


A return to social groups might be necessary, as the culture concept is reworked for application to modern societies. I don't mean social groups as enduring and stable structures studied as a normative systems, but rather as contested and created systems emerging out of interactions between individuals. In modern society, people interact on the basis of status attribution, and a sense of participation in a community is difficult to sustain. People are intuitively aware of this, and often attempt to recreate that community. One strategy has been to transform single-stranded or instrumental role relations into multiplex ones by altering the content and context of relations, or, in some cases, simply by attributing personal motivations to other participants (projecting a shared morality that doesn't necessarily exist). The `imagined communities' of solidarity based on ethnicity or nationalism also fit in here. These are all to be placed on a continuum of social interactions, from single-stranded, narrowly defined, instrumental exchanges at one end, to multi-faceted solidarities (`communities') at the other end. When such solidarities emerge out of instrumental and single-stranded relations, there is often a tension between those who wish to maintain instrumental relations and those who wish to create moral bonds amongst participants. It is here, as moral communities are created and maintained through interactions that one might combine studies of global culture with studies of social groups.


It may be useful to characterise those people who interact on an instrumental or habitual basis, as constituting a community of practice. In contrast, those who also share a common moral system constitute a community of trust. While both can be characterised as a community, the basis of the community differs; one is cognitive, while the other is affective. There has been a long debate between cognitive versus value-based criteria for cultural unity. Wallace (1970) argued that people can have quite different values, yet, since they share a similar cognitive framework, they are members of the same culture. The distinction helps resolve some important ambiguities and inappropriate formulations when talking about personality and culture, especially in multicultural societies. However, the focus on shared cognitive systems may not be so useful in the context of global culture. As this level, talking about shared meanings reifies symbols and reduces the significance of individual perceptions. Employees of multi-national corporations who send email messages to each across the world constitute a community of practice. Is this, however, an organisational 'culture'? If those practices foster a common identity (e.g., a corporate identity), or create links of affinity and trust between individuals, then something more than common practice is emerging. At the very least, a unique set of perceptions and understandings, and, at the most, individuals are maintaining, or developing, an emotional commitment to other individuals with whom they rarely, if ever, interact on a face-to-face basis. Whether such groups meet the anthropological criteria of 'community' is arguable, but there can be no doubt that people can, and do, extend trust and commitment to individuals that they rarely, if ever, see in person. It is the sense of trust that is part of most people's 'folk' definition of community. In this formulation, shared practice is not sufficient; there also had to be some evidence of affective or emotional commonalties.


Integral to such an approach is a focus on the interactions between individuals, out of which derives the emergent qualities of community and culture. Such a emphasis might get beyond the earlier geographical limitations of the culture concept, while at the same time, providing an alternative to the 'shreds and patches' or 'a la carte' approach to cultural practices that seems characteristic of 'global culture' discussions. The key concern is to look beyond cognitive similarities, and include emotional affinities as well. It also includes, within the scope of anthropological inquiry, communities which may not be geographically bounded and which may have shifting, as well as non-exclusive, memberships. It takes in account the desire, by so many people, to create a sense of commonality and community by any means available. The 'imagined community' of nationalism and ethnic identity are examples of such creations. This is an emphasis on the process by which perceptions of trust and mutual understanding develops. It is this process that is to be studied.


The major advantage of such a formulation lies is that evidence can be obtained for assertions. The 'authoritative voice' of the anthropologist is no longer legitimate; where, however, does one obtain the evidence in order to offer the ethnographic descriptions that are at the core of anthropological inquiry? In many discussions of `global culture', one can refer to the shared practices, but there is little empirical evidence available regarding individuals who participate in such practices. In focusing on the process of interaction, one can also provide evidence from individual behaviour. Such a method does have its critics. Studying the interactions of individuals smacks of the reductionist simplifications of early sociometry. After all, many believe that social relations can not be straight-jacketed into the rigidities of numeric formula (although the popularity of binary opposition in structural analysis a decade or two ago seems an exception). However, the significance of dyads and social networks in modern society has been accepted. The challenge is to use such interactions as evidence regarding shared beliefs and meanings; in that context, measurement problems can be overcome. Social network analysis and consensus analysis are just two methods now available which, in conjunction with traditional ethnographic description, can provide empirical data on these issues. It is not a case of multivalent symbols being reduced to numeric categories; rather such methods are used in conjunction with other means of data collection, to produce more complex, rather than more simple, descriptions.


I have argued that communities of practices and communities of trust are two useful formulations, describing the individual's participation in global society. The use to which new communications technologies are put, in efforts to re-create community, is particularly interesting, as it addresses the general issue of affective versus cognitive discussions of 'global culture'. Are new communications technologies being used to create communities of trust out of communities of interest, or maintain a sense of participation in communities that are geographically remote? To put this at its most concrete, what is the impact of frequent airline travel, cheap distribution of video tapes, inexpensive international telephone charges on the communities of trust that individuals create for themselves?


What is the relevance of all this for anthropological studies of Ireland? The Republic of Ireland is a particularly appropriate location for discussing the impact of new forms of communication and interaction, given its peripheral location, the mobility of its work force, and the commitment made by the European Union and Ireland to investment in information and communications technologies. Policy decisions have been based on the assumption that geographical distances can be bridged through enhanced communication technology; thus, the reduced communication and interaction costs which have given rise to different perspectives on culture are also the basis for important policy decisions. New information and communications technologies have, for the past decade, been seen as a partial solution to the problem of peripherality. Both Irish and European policy have focused on implementing these technologies in Ireland, because:


"...information and communications technology essentially provide a means of communicating and processing information, [thus] the economic constraints imposed by geographical location which have characterised rural areas will become less significant. This will provide an opportunity for revitalizing economic activity in rural areas." (Commission of the European Communities 1989: 2)1


This technology, it is argued, frees organisations and individuals from the constraints of geography, and so is the perfect cure for peripherality. It is thus also makes the Republic of Ireland an excellent location to examine non-territorial manifestations of community and culture.


Interestingly, this investment policy reflects an ideological imperative as much as a calculated policy decision. To some extent, Irish and European policy is driven by a set of cultural assumptions common throughout the West: investment in information and communications technology is, by definition, a `good thing'. The economic assumptions are now seen as somewhat questionable (see Lyon, 1988; Forester, 1989; Dunlop and Kling, 1991). From the anthropological perspective, the cultural corollaries are of interest: does increased interaction and communication bridge physical distances so that the term 'culture' can be applied to individuals whose shared experiences are largely mediated by technology, or are these assumptions also incorrect?


The flow of people out of Ireland, in their search for employment all over the world, provides an additional example of the relevance of a redefined concept of culture. In most policy discussions of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), one talks about ICT bringing jobs to people. This is how ICT is supposed to solve problems of peripherality in Ireland. However, another consequence of ICT could be that, if people go where there are jobs in Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States, and so on, ICT can make it affordable for individuals to bring their `culture' with them. Anyone watching television or listening to radio will see or hear Telecom Éireann advertisements, aimed at encouraging family members to keep in contact with those living in the United States. The thrust of the advertisements is that a phone call is almost as good as actually being there. The salience of this ad is demonstrated by the telephone bills of most Irish families, with many long distance phone calls to the U.S., the U.K., or the Continent. Private telephone companies, such as MCI, find that a market exists for cheaper communication between the United States and Ireland. Airline companies have also benefited, as Irish people living abroad return home with far great frequency than previous generations. Telephone calls and personal visits are an effective, but costly, way of maintaining emotional ties. However strongly motivated, individuals find it expensive to continue to participate in distant communities. Suppose these are supplemented by other, less expensive, modes of electronic communication? For instance, do video tapes of national events (sports matches, for instance) as well as personal events (weddings, christenings) enable individuals to participate simultaneously in the community in which they now live, and the 'community' that they left behind in Ireland?


In the Irish case, this reversal of the expected ICT impact is a real issue. All modes of electronic communication, whether text based email, or multi-media, are becoming 'richer' in terms of emotional content. At the same time, the cost of communicating is decreasing. The cost of fax machines is decreasing, answering machines are proliferating rapidly, and it is easier and easier to send audio and video cassettes throughout the world. The result is a real ability to keep in contact with close kin and friends, and participate in their daily lives in a way that would never have been possible before. As the obstacles of cost and technology decrease, the strong motivation to use any means, whether fax, electronic mail, or voice mail, to maintain family and friendship links can become an important force.


What are the social consequences of maintaining such links? Compare the Irish who migrated to the United States even as late as the 1950's with those who migrate now -- the differences in their participation in family life, in the cultural life of Ireland and the changes taking place in Ireland. Irish-Americans of previous generations remained static, vis-à-vis Ireland, once they left. The Ireland they imagined was different from the changed Ireland in which they no longer participated. Eventual integration, even if as an ethnic group, into the United States was inevitable. In contrast, modern Irish continue to participate in Irish life, wherever they are in the world. If someone can't return for a wedding, a video cassette of the wedding can be posted out instead. If they can't be at a ceremony in person, they can phone. If they want to follow events in Ireland, they can receive audio or tape cassettes of RTE programmes, phone a number to hear Irish radio news or programmes, or receive a next day edition of the Irish Times. They can sit in a pub in the United States and watch Irish sports events on big screens. They can even receive, free, a weekly summary of news via an electronic newsletter, world-wide. Over 1400 individuals did so in 1992; in late 1993, the number soared to over 2500. It is now easier to remain Irish, emotionally, socially, and culturally, regardless of geographical distance.


At the same time, it is also easier to distance oneself from the society one is, geographically, part of, because the psychological need, or even desire, to integrate into the life of their 'host' culture is diminished. In effect, individuals are participating in multiple cultures simultaneously. This is a change from the previous pattern of assimilation/acculturation. Previously, Irish-Americans formed an encapsulated ethnic group, a sort of monolithic halfway house. In so far as they clung to 'home' identification, it had been as an ideological device, to be understood in context of adaptation to the host culture. Now, however, new communications technologies have the potential to encourage diversity, by making it easier to maintain the social interactions and cultural associations of one's home, while also participating one's host, community. Previously, Irish-Americans moved between a real American experience and an imaginary re-created vision of Ireland; now, they move between the real and dynamic experiences of both the United States and Ireland. It is a far more complex, and constantly shifting, world that they now inhabit.


In addition, if the process by which cultural identifications are created and maintained is no longer constrained by geography, the voluntary element of affiliation becomes more important. In geographically bounded groups; interactions between individuals are involuntary, and conflicts have to be resolved (or avoided) so that the group can continue to exist. How will conflicts be settled in non-geographically bounded groups? People can participate in multiple cultures, or systems of meaning, as cultural fragmentation increases rather than diminishes, and move from one to another, as they wish. It can also be argued that individuals not only communicate less on a face-to-face basis (as compared with mediated communication forms), but that they communicate less, regardless of mode of communication. The growth of telephone answering machines partly fulfils the need for asynchronous forms of communication (i.e., telephone tag); but it is also used to screen phone calls when the individual is at home, thus permitting them to avoid interaction if they wish. Some see the advantage of computer mediated communication in the same way: it is easier to avoid communication because the individual at the receiving end can simply opt out. If, when there is an interpersonal dispute, people simply hang up the phone (metaphorically speaking), conflict resolution will become a misnomer. Indeed, as the freedom to opt in and out of `cultures' increases, it is arguable that quite new forms of community and collectivity will emerge: one in which norms can not be imposed and individuals simply leave when dissatisfied. At one extreme will be local face-to-face groups, at the other extreme will be the amorphous and shifting collective identifications of nation and ethnicity. What will be in between?


I would argue, then, that as anthropologists focus on global and national culture, they must focus on the interactive and communicative aspects of culture, and especially the creation and maintenance of affective bonds. With rapid changes in communication tking place, global culture should be of particular interest to anthropologists who study Ireland. The tools are becoming available for such studies -- social network analysis, cognitive maps, consensus analysis are all methods of collecting data that permit researchers to make general cultural statements from the actions and interactions of individuals. There are a variety of rich research sites available -- many organisations have dealings with sister branches throughout the world, others must maintain contact with national, European and international regulatory agencies, while others are simply connecting up with similarly autonomous groups in the Republic and Northern Ireland. Ireland is a good distance away from becoming a 'wired nation', but that is all the more reason to start such studies now, and study an emergent process. The material gained from such studies could make substantial contributions to redefining the concepts of culture and community, and these redefinitions are necessary as anthropologists look toward the next millenium.



Appadurai, Arjun

          1989       "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology." In Interventions: Anthropology of the Present, Ed R. G. Fox.

Commission of the European Communities

          1989       Opportunities for Applications of Information and Communication Technologies in Rural Areas: Draft Specifications for Priority Research and Technology Development Actions. Draft 4.

Dunlop, Charles, and Rob Kling, eds

          1991       Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. Boston: Academic Press.

Forester, Tom, ed

          1989       Computers in the Human Context: Information Technology, Productivity and People. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hannerz, Ulf

          1992       Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyon, David

          1988       The Information Society: Issues and Illusions. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M. J. Fischer

          1986       Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Wallace, Anthony F. C.

          1970       Culture and Personality. 2d ed. New York: Random House.



                1For a recent policy statement on rural development, see The Future of Rural Society: Commission communication to the Parliament and the Council, Bulletin of the European Communities, Supplement 4/88.