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Expert and Lay Knowledge in Pacoima

Public Anthropology and an Essential Tension in Community-based Participatory Action Research

Carl A. Maida

This paper explores the role of 'public anthropology' in the dialogue between practitioners of professional and lay knowledge about urban quality of life. The focus is on community building in Pacoima, a working-class Latino community in Los Angeles, and explores how professionals and residents established an arena and moved towards common ground on environmental health issues, including lead and other toxic exposures. Similar to Pacoima, arenas have emerged in the more engaged communities, worldwide, where quality of life issues, such as health care, housing and the environment, are debated. Within these arenas, experts and laypersons have resolved disputes over competing claims about the definition of an issue, and for equity and greater access to common resources, or public goods, despite vast disparities in knowledge and perspectives that have been shaped by divergent occupational techniques, habits of mind and world images.

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Carl A. Maida and Sam Beck

The community of practice is an organisational form that complements the current knowledge economy, which since the late twentieth century has accelerated with advances in information production and dissemination (Wenger 2000). Communities of practice ensure greater engagement for sustainability by the public as local and global actors. A paradigm that arose through the anthropological imagination, the community of practice is an organisational form that complements the current knowledge economy (Lave 1988). A community of practice provides a framework for understanding social learning in complex organisations, specifically the notion of knowing. For novices and experts alike, knowing within a community of practice is based upon socially defined competence, or the ability to act and to be viewed as a competent member. Belonging to a particular community is based upon engagement, imagination and alignment within a social learning system that supports and sustains members and the community itself. Communities of practice provide the framework for social learning, because members: share a sense of joint enterprise, indicative of the level of learning energy within the community; interact on the basis of mutuality, which points to the depth of social capital generated by mutual engagement; and share a repertoire of resources, indicating the degree of participants’ self-awareness (Lave and Wenger 1991). This framework – of knowing, belonging, and social learning through more informal styles characteristic of a community of practice – provides members with the skills to engage meaningfully in knowledge production, exchange and transformation in complex organisations by creating new ways of ‘being in the world’.

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Carl A. Maida and Sam Beck

This is Part Two of a set of articles related to how communities of practice inform global sustainability; a more extensive introductory essay (Maida and Beck 2016) is included in the first of this two-part special issue. The community of practice is an organisational form, which since the late twentieth century, has accelerated with advances in information production and dissemination (Wenger 2000). Communities of practice ensure greater engagement for sustainability by a public as local and global actors. As a paradigm that arose through the anthropological imagination, the community of practice is an organisational form that complements the current knowledge economy (Lave 1988).