Tag Archives: Etienne Wenger

#Rhizo15: balancing cohesion and openness in communities

So Dave Cormier is now getting us to think about “the dark side of the rhizome”, and whether it is invasive and smothers other possibilities. To add further provocation, he notes that the volumes of tweets relating to #rhizo15 is rising, but the number of participants is falling. A closer knit group of people are communicating more intensively with each other. To paraphrase, if I may, he is wondering whether a community based on the principles of openness and discovery is actually becoming something of a closed group, and whether this matters.

For me, the obvious point of comparison relates to my original university studies in theology. Religious groups are fascinating case studies in developing and maintaining communities. They are frequently committed to principles of outreach and welcoming people in, but on the other hand they define themselves quite clearly in ways that of necessity exclude people. Put another way, in order for some to “belong” it is necessary to be clear about who does not belong. This may be related to obvious factors (e.g. who has been baptised or confirmed), or more subtle signals (e.g. what vocabulary you use). My personal experience, from the days when I was a practising Christian, showed me that church groups, despite their ideals, are often very closed and difficult to break into without huge effort.

There is a paradox here for all communities. In order to thrive, they need some element of cohesion – shared understanding, vocabulary or, as Etienne Wenger (1998) has taught us to think of it, shared practices. But the stronger that cohesion becomes, the more this group will turn inward, rejecting outside influences and challenges, with consequences that can be severe. The American psychologist Irving Janis (1972) developed the concept of “groupthink” to describe irrational and even dangerous decision-making that can take place within closed groups. Active measures are needed to prevent this. A few days ago, the General Election in the UK resulted in over 180 new MPs taking up seats in Parliament – we can perhaps see the wisdom of a system that builds in systematic and significant institutional renewal every few years.

So how does this relate to the rhizo15 group? The fact is that, over the few weeks it has been running, those with the inclination to get deeply involved with it have coalesced into a group with distinctive interests and vocabulary, which undoubtedly makes it harder for others to “break in”. This is probably an inevitable aspect of community formation (certainly not unique to rhizomes) and is something that established participants should try to be aware of. However, the community will shift over time and next year (hopefully) offers a brand new chance for anyone who wants to to get involved. The balance here between cohesion and openness seems reasonable to me.


Janis, I. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .


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