Toward transnational communities of practice: An inquiry into the experiences of transnational academic mobility

Guo, S., & Lei, L. (2019). Toward transnational communities of practice: An inquiry into the experiences of transnational academic mobility. Adult Education Quarterly, 1-18.

Shibao Guo

Professor Shibao Guo, University of Calgary, Canada

Ling Lei 1

Ling Lei, University of Calgary, Canada

Transnational mobility characterized by multiple and circular movement of people and their simultaneous interconnections across transnational borders pose challenges to the conception of a closed boundary of community of practice (CoP). Through a qualitative case study of internationally educated Chinese transnational academics, who maintained academic and professional connections with their host countries of doctoral studies, this article demonstrates the building of transnational CoPs through their sociocultural learning in transnational space. It underscores tensions, negotiation of power relations, identity trans/formation, and potentials for change in transnational social space. It overshadows the significance of physical boundaries in organizing work, learning, and identities. The study highlights conceptualization of transnational communities of practice for understanding the experiences and identities of transnational academics.

This study explores the changing dynamics of Community of Practice (CoP) in transnational space by focusing on experiences of transnational academic mobility and connectivity. The concept of Community of Practice has been used widely by academics and practitioners to explore socio-cultural learning and identity development as a process for people to claim full membership to a community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The journey from being a newcomer to becoming an expert as “legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. It accentuates relations and prior experiences in shaping people’s identity formation and transformation through their participation in different communities of their life-worlds (Lave, 2008).

Yet, as multiple and circular movement of people across transnational spaces has become the norm in contemporary societies, the spatiality of CoP is facing new challenges. The geographically local boundary of the conceptualization of community (Wenger, 1998) needs to be re-examined vis-à-vis the new paradigm of transnational mobility. This paper, therefore, explores the changing dynamics of CoP in transnational space through academic migrants’ experiences of transnational mobility and connectivity.

This paper adopts the theoretical framework of transnational social space (Faist, 2000), where those relatively stable social ties or the meso-level network structures that lead to sustained interconnections across borders become the foci of analysis. The multiple affiliations and attachments across borders form a conceptual boundary of one’s social life, irrelevant to the physical boundaries of nation states, and these affiliations and attachments constitute an integral part of the individual’s social life (Levitt & Glick Schiller, 2008; Tsuda, 2012). This study employs a qualitative case study as the research strategy to explore the central research question: How did Chinese transnational academics experience and perceive CoP in their transnational knowledge networks? Twelve internationally educated Chinese researchers currently working as university faculty members in social sciences and humanities in three universities in Beijing were recruited. Data were collected through individual interviews, field observations, and publicly available documents including participants’ academic CVs, and official documents gathered from their institutions’ websites.

Findings of this study demonstrate transnational academics’ work and learning experiences as newcomers and old-timers in different academic CoPs locally in China and transnationally, particularly with their former PhD supervisors and colleagues, as well as the formation of transnational CoPs, and the formation of collective membership, identity, and belonging.

Consistent with Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner(2015), transnational CoPs are characterized by three indispensable dimensions, including the domain, or shared competence; the community, or relationships of interaction and learning together; and the practice or development of a shared repertoire of resources. In this process, the prevalence of virtual communication technologies has enabled transnational academics to build and maintain transnational connectivity, thus challenging the importance of physical proximity to claiming membership to CoP (Wenger, 1998).

This study directs our attention to how individuals’ significant migration experiences and connections shape their inclinations toward and ability to engage in trans-migration, transnational engagement, and living in diaspora. From the transnational CoP approach, the focus of analysis shifts from local social relations to social relations formed and maintained through self-identification and negotiation in various transnational communities.

The study has important implications for international talent deployment. It demonstrates that talent deployment policies can shift its focus from the physical flow of people to the dynamic flow and creation of knowledge through people’s professional practice. It also sheds light on transnational academics’ multiple cultural identities as not only an ethnic Chinese but also a transnational academic. It is important that host countries’ settlement and adaptation policies allow room for transnational academics to entertain multiple cultural identities and belongings. Finally, this study calls into question the power relations in transnational CoP. It calls for further examination of transnational CoP as not only a space of building democratic collaborative relationships, but also a space for negotiating knowledge democracy.

Author Biographies

Shibao Guo is Professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, Canada. He specializes in citizenship and immigration, Chinese immigrants in Canada, ethnic and race relations, and comparative and international education. His research has been funded by a number of organizations, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; International Organization for Migration; and Education International. He has over 150 publications including books, journal articles, and book chapters. His latest books include: Immigration, racial and ethnic studies in 150 years of Canada: Retrospects and prospects (Brill|Sense, 2018), Spotlight on China: Chinese education in the globalized world (Sense Publishers, 2016), Spotlight on China: Changes in education under China’s market economy (Sense Publishers, 2016), Work, learning and transnational migration: Opportunities, challenges, and debates (Routledge, 2016), Revisiting multiculturalism in Canada: Theories, policies and debates (Sense Publishers, 2015). He is former president of Canadian Ethnic Studies Association and Comparative and International Education Society of Canada. Currently he serves as co-editor of Canadian Ethnic Studies. He also edits two book series for Brill|Sense Publishers: Spotlight on China ( and Transnational Migration and Education (

Ling Lei is a PhD student in Adult Learning at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. She has her previous research background in intercultural studies. Currently, she researches in areas of internationalization of higher education, transnational intellectual mobility, and transformative learning in the context of transnational migration. Her recent publication includes a co-authored journal article, “Transitions and Transformations: Extracts from a Duoethnographic Exploration of Gender Identities in Canada and China.”



Faist, T. (2000). The volume and dynamics of international migration and transnational social spaces. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Levitt, P., & Glick Schiller, N. (2008). Conceptualizing simultaneity: A transnational social field perspective on society. In S. Khagram & P. Levitt (Eds.), The transnational studies reader: Intersections and innovations (pp. 284-294). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lave, J. (2008). Epilogue: Situated learning and changing practice. In A. Amin & J. Roberts (Eds.), Community, economic creativity, and organization (pp. 283-296). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Tsuda, T. (2012). Whatever happened to simultaneity? Transnational migration theory and dual engagement in sending and receiving countries. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38, 631-649. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2012.659126

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015, April 15). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved from

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