Continuing the story: A case for a socially sustainable community of practice

Year: 2009

Author: Hammond, Cathy

Type of paper: Refereed paper

The Australian academic profession is being transformed by profound long term changes. Governance of the higher education sector is increasingly prioritising quality assurance, numerically based accountability measures and results orientation as a way of ensuring a more globally competitive and finely tuned institution. Such initiatives have impacted the work of academics. For some it has meant a fragmentation of academic activity and in order to meet organisational benchmarks, a greater emphasis on individualised achievement. With community, in an historical context, considered a cornerstone of academic work (Churchman & Stehlik 2007) consideration of their value in a contemporary context is important. This study investigates the practices that sustain academic life in one higher education workplace community and utilises the communities of practice model (Lave & Wenger 1991) as a theoretical framework for analysing the findings. The case study is part of a larger ethnographic study situated in an education school, exploring ways in which academic staff are re-thinking and re-shaping their work through the application of socially sustainable principles. Social sustainability is increasingly playing a more significant role in the broader contemporary sustainability discourse, requiring the consideration of values, culture, decision-making and democratic processes of the social systems of which we are a part. Barron and Gauntlett (2002) propose five principles of social sustainability: equity, democracy and governance, diversity, wellbeing and interconnectedness. These principles, among others, are evident in members' descriptions of social sustainability. The findings place agency at the heart of socially sustainable practices, underpinning the principles of equity, democracy, diversity and wellbeing. It is within the construct of a community and members' interconnectedness that agency is experienced and the principles enacted. Connections between community members provided the space for creativity to flourish. Creativity and agency increased the productivity of this community, enabling the community to achieve its agreed enterprise and be recognised in the broader university environment. This study recognises and reinforces the importance of social sustainability in contemporary discourses of higher education and reaffirms the importance of the community as a site for innovative and socially significant academic work. It contributes to the debates on both social sustainability and the sustenance of academic life.