Concepts of Community: Exploring ‘Community’ in Theory, Policy and Practice Imaginaries

Summary

Who: Beth Weaver and Gillian MacIntyre, University of Strathclyde; Margaret Malloch, University of Stirling

Description of Activity: The conceptualisation and definition of community has been at the centre of ongoing discussion (Cohen, 1989; Day, 2006). The persistent question ‘what is community?’, or ‘how might a community differ from the community?’ have prompted many different answers. The concept of community has been of particular importance to the anthropological and sociological field. However, many other disciplines, including philosophy, criminology, social policy, social work and political theory have sought to answer this question. Calhoun argues that community is not so much a place or a discrete population, but a distinct manner of relating –

Community life can be understood as the life people lead in dense, multiplex, relatively autonomous networks of relationships. Community life, thus, is not a place, or simply a small-scale population aggregate, but a mode of relating, variable in extent (Calhoun, 1998:391).

It is the nature of the relationships between people and the social networks of which they are a part that is often seen as one of the more significant aspects of ‘community’. Building on this understanding of community, Delanty (2003: 187) suggests that community communicates ways of belonging – or lack thereof:

‘the persistence of community consists in its ability to communicate ways of belonging…community as belonging is constructed in communicative processes rather than in institutional structures [or] spaces…[it is] a form of experience about belonging as opposed to emphasis on an underlying sense of morality, a group or place’.

Perhaps because of the elasticity of the concept of ‘community’, it is also true that ‘community’ has ‘become one of the most abused terms in the rhetoric of politics and policy-making, employed promiscuously to harness the positive feelings and support that accompany motives of altruism and solidarity’ (Day, 2006: 14). Ideas around and ideologies (or idealisations) of ‘community’ are variously invoked by politicians and policy makers as the solution to many social ills. This is to be contrasted with conceptions of the public who are assumed to be a) intolerant of people differently situated from what is assumed as the norm and b) who require protection from others by the state. Beyond disagreements about the meaning of community, there are also issues of entitlements, rights and responsibilities. Rose (1996) observes that governments increasingly use ‘community’ to devolve responsibilities away from the state; techniques of participation, empowerment and democratic involvement in decision-making shifts responsibility towards the individual and community. Given the emphasis on ‘community’ in policy rhetoric and initiatives, understanding how communities experience community, or otherwise, and how they see their role and responsibility in it, takes on particular significance and has implications for a range of contemporary social policies. Who and what, for example, is the community that Government seeks to empower and in which individuals are expected to engage and participate? To what extent do Government’s assumptions about community accord with the views and experiences of community members?

This particular study has two main aims:

1) to enquire into the discussion of the nature and possibility of community from the perspective of ‘communities’ exploring the extent to which individuals feel part of ‘communities’ and how they make sense of this; and

2) to reveal policy interpretations, operationalisations, expectations and assumptions of concepts of community.

The study will be conducted in five main stages;

Stage 1 involves desk based research that will consist of a review of international literature to explore how the idea of “community” is conceptualised and discussed across different settings. A review of 11 key political party manifestos will also be conducted to analyse the invocation of community across these, focusing specifically on health and social care, law, order and public safety, and people and society. (June-August).

Stage 2 will involve a social media survey to generate views on community from a lay person perspective (i.e. from the perspective of individuals in a personal capacity rather than in their capacity in a particular job or role) (September). Twitter will be used to generate discussion around the following questions:

– What does the concept of community mean to you?

– What are the positive aspects or benefits?

– What are its negative features?

Stage 3 will involve a series of between five and ten key informant interviews with people who define themselves as community leaders and/or activists to explore in more depth some of the issues raised in the review of literature and policy analysis and in the preceding steps outlined above (October-November).

Stage 5 will involve hosting an event that will bring together key stakeholders to disseminate findings from earlier stages of the research and to continue the discussion around the concept of community (December).

To launch this study, we hosted a roundtable event on 28th June 2018.

The event, funded through the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research was titled Conceptualising Community: Reframing Research.

The aim of this event was twofold. The first was to explore, as the title suggests, concepts of community. Given the emphasis on ‘community’ in policy rhetoric and initiatives, we think that understanding how community as a concept is variously invoked, understood and framed is timely. Who and what, for example, is the community that Government seeks to empower and in which individuals are expected to engage and participate? To what extent do Government’s assumptions about community accord with the views and experiences of community members?

The other aim of the event was to consider how this discussion might interface, intersect and inform two of SCCJR’s nascent research themes: that of ‘Rights, Resistance and Marginalisation’ and ‘The Praxis of Listening to the Seldom Heard’.

We were delighted to have the event led by two interesting guest speakers:

Dr Oliver Escobar from the University of Edinburgh who presented on his research into community engagement and empowerment, democratic participation, and the role of citizens within that;

Dr Karen Evans from the University of Liverpool, who discussed her research into the relationship between crime and ‘community’ to reveal why and how crime and community has been linked and the implications of their relationship within criminology and crime prevention policy.

You can listen to podcasts of their input here.

https://soundcloud.com/user-774435227/power-inequalities-and-community-empowerment-reinventing-democracy-through-public-participation

https://soundcloud.com/user-774435227/karen-evans-the-use-and-abuse-of-community-in-an-age-of-neo-liberalism