Intimate and Imagined Communities
Communities of cyclists (or any other collective group) may be said to consist of two kinds, which I will call intimate and imagined (after Anderson 1991). The intimate community consists of other cyclists one knows personally. Most typically, these will be cyclists with whom one rides or against whom one competes. Such communities are not simply groups of individuals who do the same thing; they also have a structure and dynamic recognised by their members. Some members will be more central, perhaps leaders of the group, and others more peripheral. Core members, we can imagine, are likely to be more active cyclists in the community but also more experienced and hence probably more skilled and more knowledgeable about cycling. Considered in terms of Bourdieu’s (1986) metaphor of cultural capital one might say that within the cycling community there are many currencies of this capital, which would include knowledge and experience, such as mechanical know-how, knowledge of human physiology and training, but also riding strength and skills. Individual specialised knowledges and roles—some of which may be professional (such as bike fitter, wheel builder or cycling coach), others of which may be community specific (such website administrator, ride leader or regular forum and ride participant)—contribute to the potential of the community as a whole. On the periphery would typically be not only less experienced or newer members who learn from the group but also people with appropriate knowledge or skills who are nevertheless not active participants in the community.
The structure and dynamics of communities have been described in a way that is pertinent here by Lave and Wenger (1991; Wenger 1999) with reference to communities of learning, including those of corporate culture, and developed and applied to a wide range of communities (Barton and Tusting 2005). These communities are referred to as ‘communities of practice’. Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice model is based on the idea that communities congregate around specific knowledge and practices and that an important function of the community is the dissemination of community knowledge and the adoption of its practices. This is done through those at the core actively sharing their knowledge and practices, and those on the periphery voluntarily seeking to adopt these practices and knowledges. A community can thus be represented using concentric circles consisting of a core group, an active group, and a peripheral group, with outsiders outside of this (see Fig. 5.1). The distance from the core implies that these differences form a continuum rather than being discrete. The model implies a more fluid model of learning relationships and identities than those of educational
Fig. 5.1 Degrees of participation in a community of practice (Wenger et al. 2002, p. 57)
establishments, such as schools where the roles of teachers and students are fixed and separate. Identities within a learning community are constantly changing as beginners learn from more experienced members and in turn pass on their knowledges. In addition, Wenger et al. (2002, pp. 56-57) point out that members may occupy more or less active roles according to the topic. It is generally an organic conception of communities, though Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) have proposed ways in which such communities may be actively promoted within organisations. That the knowledges and practices disseminated within communities of practice do not necessarily have validity outside the community but rather are established norms within the community may indeed be central to the identity of the community itself.
The communities of practice model is potentially compatible with the SFL model outlined in Chap. 1 and explored in various ways in the previous chapters. As with the SFL model, the communities of practice model sees knowledge as being produced and communicated in the social context. As Wenger-Trayer explained in an interview concerning the origins of the model:
Community of practice became such an important concept for us, theoretically, because it was the embodiment of this view of learning as happening at the boundary between the person and social structure—not just in the social structure or not just in the individual, but in that relationship between the two. (Omidvar and Kislov 2014, p. 269)
This has obvious parallels with Hallidays account of how language develops in children through social interaction. Moreover, what might be considered a key piece missing from the communities of practice model is the role of semiotic resources in doing this. On the other hand, Hallidays model (Halliday 2004) focuses on the interaction between mother and child because his original study focused on the interaction between his son Nigel and Ruquia Husan (Hasan et al. 2005). Painter’s study, which builds on Hallidays account of Nigel’s language development, also highlights the role of siblings and other social interactions. Meanwhile, Hallidean social interaction is at the heart of the regularities that shape genre and language more generally. The communities of practice model could therefore be seen as a potential link to describe how practices of semiotic usage operate within communities. Online communities, particularly thriving ones like the one discussed in this section of the book, therefore offer a potentially productive focus for exploring how a communities of practice model and a semiotic account of communication, such as SFL, might complement each other.
Cycle clubs (unlike golf clubs, for example) are primarily noncommercial organisations for facilitating communication among riders and transforming cycling from an individual activity into a communal one, whether through rides or races. Cycle racing is governed by a complex code of regulations administered by officials in order to ensure both fair competition and safety. In this case, participants are typically asked to sign documents showing that they understand and agree to abide by these rules in order to participate. Nevertheless, racing etiquette, not to mention the tactics to stay safe and succeed in the race, is something more likely to be learned in an organic way through participation in races and observation of and communication with more experienced riders. Likewise, although many clubs provide (looser and more voluntary) guidelines to club-ride etiquette, many of the practices evolved to ensure safe and harmonious riding consist of unwritten rules. Shouting and pointing to indicate oncoming obstacles, signals to indicate changes of direction, and the positioning and movement of a pace line, whereby riders organise themselves to exploit the aerodynamic advantages of group formation, constitute fundamental practices. Particular clubs or groups may also develop their own specific practices that serve their needs. For example, lamppost sprints to communally recognised landmarks or ‘wait at the top’ (WATT) protocols (agreements for all riders to wait at the top of an extended climb for other riders to catch up) may be useful practices for ensuring that riders of differing strengths can push themselves on a ride while continuing to ride as a group. In addition to riding practices, cycling has a wide range of knowledges associated with it that are particularly valued in the context of competitive racing, such as training techniques, diet, bicycle fitting, and bicycle mechanics.
Fashion is also relevant to the group identity of cyclists. Specially designed lycra clothing and shoes are considerably more comfortable and practical than any other kind of clothing on a road bike, but they look peculiar to noncyclists. Not wearing proper cycle clothing and, for men, not shaving legs can signal a lack of commitment. Moreover, there are even debates about the appropriate design of clothes. Cycling fans can buy kits in the designs worn by their favourite teams and riders—and may even buy the same high-quality kits these professionals use—but this is sometimes frowned on as the sign of a newbie to the sport. Rapha also created a new kind of controversy among cyclists by creating a very high- quality cycle kit that is also very expensive. Those who can afford it appreciate the quality, while others inevitably envy what may look like a wealthy class of executive cyclists with unlimited budgets (Nash 2016). Cycle clubs, even online ones such as the one described here, have their own kits, and designing the kit itself is a communal project.
Online communities are often virtual ones with all communication being entirely digital. The online cycle club, however, can be seen as more of a cycling community for the digital age. It enables the organisation of rides and race participation, as with traditional cycle clubs, but it also both enables a broader spread of peripheral participation by online-only participants and makes possible the sharing and archiving of a broader range of knowledge and community history. The club described here illustrates how, with a responsible administrator to maintain the page and active participation of users with a range of relevant knowledges and expertise, the traditional structure of a club committee, a regular schedule for club runs and even fees can be dispensed with, replaced by a more organic organisation where participants themselves largely define their level of participation and their role in the community. At the same time, online forums have their own codes of legitimate practice associated with the practices of posting and sharing cycling-related information. The public nature of the forum also means that it potentially addresses or conceptually connects with broader notions of audience and community, such as the idea of an imagined community (in this case of cyclists).
The imagined community refers to other individuals whom one does not know personally but imagines (and indeed believes) exist. The imagined community of cyclists consists of a much wider group of cyclists whom one does not know personally but who are perceived to share the same culture. The term ‘imagined community’ derives from Anderson (1991), who used it to refer to the community to which members of nation-states are perceived to belong, consisting mostly of people one does not know but with whom one supposedly shares lived experience and cultural beliefs. Just as media outlets such as newspapers and television may serve to galvanise a nation, cycling media, such as magazines and broadcasts of professional cycling, are focal to the imagined community of cyclists. Such online media relating to cycling are often linked directly to forum posts for comment.
The forum itself may be seen as a community extending from an intimate group of cyclists, who spend a considerable amount of time together offline and include a broader community of primarily online participants, to a much wider community of cyclists around the world, who may view the posts from time to time. The fact that the forum is viewable by anyone with an Internet connection means that there is a large virtual community of unregistered viewers that corresponds closely with Anderson’s notion of an imagined community.