The Anthropological Paradigm of Practice-Based Learning

  • Catherine HasseEmail author
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


The anthropological approach to studying culture has implied observations of and participation in other people’s practices however strange and exotic they may seem. These practice-based experiences are the backbone of the anthropological profession. Anthropology has for a long time been more or less consciously entangled with defining these experiences as learning experiences and subsequently defining culture as the result of learning processes. It is, however, primarily in relation to the general focus on practice that the anthropological paradigm of practice-based learning takes shape.

The article introduces the early anthropological interests in the concept of learning as tied to teaching and culture transmission in ‘exotic’ cultures and discuss how ‘learning’ from the 1970s and onwards gradually began to establish itself as a major subfield in anthropology including cross-cultural studies of schooling ‘home and abroad’. The studies of practice and the studies of learning, however, for a long time went their separate ways. Since Margaret Mead learning theory in anthropology has been intertwined with concepts like enculturation or socialisation (Schwartz 1980, ix) but often without a clear cut definition relating learning to practice. Some anthropologists have called for an explicit exploration of the concept of learning in relation to ethnographic practices and knowledge making as well as a lentil for studying cultural transmission (e.g. Hansen 1982; Wolcott 1982). Others have made an implicit use of the concept of learning as an explanatory term pointing to the anthropologists’ journey from novice to a more experienced knower of exotic cultures (e.g. Stoller 1987; Briggs 1970). The field where anthropological learning theory has been most systematically developed is in relation to the anthropology of education, but here little has been done in terms of developing concepts of practice-based learning (see e.g. Anderson-Levitt 2012). Finally some anthropologists studied people’s everyday life ‘at home’ and found new ways of understanding culture using a cognitive rather than a practice-based learning perspective. Over time the anthropological engagements with teaching and learning have turned towards an explicit interest in learning in connection with practical activity and agency (Pelissier 1991) and most recently the concept of practice-based learning has been considered a key concept for the practice of anthropology itself (Lave 2011; Jordan 2014). This expansion has been developed in close collaboration with primarily Vygotsky- or Piaget-inspired cultural psychologists on the one hand and researchers of work-place learning on the other. More or less simultaneously a new interest in workplace practices began to appear in anthropological research but it was rarely connected to an interest in learning and cognition. These work-oriented anthropologists developed a practice-based framework of understanding workplace activities, but often without an explicit interest in connecting learning to practice. With the seminal fieldwork and subsequent publications by anthropologists like Jean Lave, Brigitte Jordan, Dorothy Holland and Ed Hutchins the interest in combining learning and practice spurred a new paradigm for studying practice-based learning through participant observation. The final section take a closer look at this last development combining theoretical issues with the future perspectives of theories on practice-based learning in the field.


Anthropology Practice-based learning Ethnography Fieldwork Participant observation Cognitive anthropology Cultural learning Materials and materiality Cultural transmission 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationUniversity of AarhusAarhusDenmark

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