Friday, January 25, 2008

So what the hell is "social capital"?

Many commentators (including me elsewhere in this blog) have called attention to the many ideological and political dangers that this term brings along with it. Quite apart from these uses of the term and the discourses they arise in, it is worth pointing out a number of obvious things about the term itself:
1. It quite literally doesn't exist. Capital as it is usually understood could hardly be a more concrete term meaning money and wealth and the means to acquire more of it as well as other goods and services (especially in "a non-barter system" - Wiktionary). "Social capital" cannot be spent or banked in any normal sense (and if it is used - whatever this means - you can be left with as much or more of it than you had when you started)
2. The word "capital" has a number of key features that the word "social" just cannot be appended to. It is a quite extraordinary example of a category error on a par with "thoughtful cheese" or "colorless green ideas" (whether or not these "sleep furiously")
3. Any useful sense of the term could just as usefully be replaced by the term "solidarity" (except that this is far too political a term for those communitarians who tend to use the term social capital).
4. Whilst solidarity hints at an activity or disposition towards activity as well as situating itself within a discourse of struggle and difference, the term social capital is a reification - a thing word rather than a doing word. It is a concept (if one can even call it that) that encourages merely a passive and apolitical stance.

-----Original Message-----From: Paul Cotterill [] Sent: 03 February 2008 12:11To: Jon Griffith; ceri.hutton@gmail.comSubject: Re: Fwd: Discussion documentandyI sense in sixth sort of way that you (and don flynn) may be interested in this new article from Natali Letki (she being polish) challenging view that diversity in itself reduces trust in neighbourhoods (in the UK). Also, here's a Putman thing and an American view as ? counterpointsI've not read them yet but will this week sometime. Never mind the detail, I agree with Letki on the basis of the abstract......................

From Jon Griffith:
hello again
A quick skim of Letki and Stolle et al suggests that, not for the first time in this extraordinary 'debate', both are fatally undermined by treating social capital as if it actually exists.
It doesn't, it's a product (in the sense it's referred to here) of Robert Putnam's fevered sociological imagination, and therefore nothing has an effect on it, nor does it have an effect on anything - it's not there.
The only way to bring sanity back into the this type of discussion - about real people living in real places - is to abandon this concept and say what one actually means - black people, white people, behaviour, money, physical resources, how people spend their money, what they do to each other, legal and illegal drugs, illness and health, inequality of wealth, education etc etc, ie all the usual old fashioned contents of political debate.
The idea of social capital, and the discussion of this idea, turns all this into apolitical mush.
I don't understand why so many otherwise intelligent people seem believe in it, but you're right about the Sixth Sensiness of it - as if the discussion is being conducted by people who don't know that they're dead.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Both Cameron and New Labour exhibit the dangers of communitarian approaches to crime. In a speech in Salford Cameron declared "we are collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together" - bonding and bridging social capital rear their heads again! (I have described this elsewhere as - it will all be allright if we learn to eat samosas together). There is indeed an atomisation that is ocurring throughout Britain and it is precisely because of the market driven policies that he and his party have always supported. Increasingly we seem to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Status and self worth is increasingly defined by conspicuous consumption. It is the inequalities of status, power and income that have done so much to breakdown social solidarity ever since Thatcher declared that "there is no such thing as society". The fact that he makes so much of this atomisation without seeing that it is increasing inequality - a serious dose of affluenza - that fuels resentment and anger between different individuals and groups and results in the very demise of the sense of "community" that as a conservative he is so nostalgic for.

John Rentoul argues (Independent on Sunday 20/1/08) that New Labour and the Cameroonians are conducting a rhetorical dutch auction using precisely the nostaligia for an imagined past that we have noted earlier: "it is the human condition to believe that everything was better in the good old days , and to be swayed by plausible rhetoric promising a future that resembles a misremembered past." Of course this is not the human condition at all - but it is a very powerful and dangerous ideology. Just as Blair promised to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" (and then forgot about the second part of this aphorism as society became even more unequal under New Labour), so Cameron is promising far more than could conceivably be delivered by any government. If, as Cameron asserts, the breakdown of society is a consequence of the breakdown of community (which itself is a consequence of the breakdown of the family) it is dificult to see what any government could do about this. Cameron in the same Salford speech is reduced to an appeal to the public to "imagine what it would be like if we had the will and the determination to change. Imagine a society where families are living together rather than being paid by the state to live apart". This imagined community is not just a cheap rhetorical device, it is a powerful and reactionary appeal to a concept which both leads us away from an analysis of what is really going on and simultaneously promotes a full frontal attack on the welfare state which still provides support for the poorest and most deprived people in our unequal society. We are back to blaming the victim again.

Whilst conceding that Labour has done some good things (at the level of tax credits as an alternative to a more thoroughgoing redistributiveattack on poverty), nevertheless Labour's facile promotion of "community cohesion" has spawned what Rentoul calls the "ludicrous situation of setting targets" for (as the Government puts it) "the percentage of people who have meaningful interactions with people from different backgounds" - with 'meaningful interactions' defined by the DCLG as "engaging in conversation or some other form of social interaction" not at work, school or college "at least once a month". This is samosas on a truly industrial scale.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In an interesting article in the Guardian (Inequality is closing down our concern for others, Friday Jan 18th) Jenni Russell shows how it is that perceived and actual feelings of inequality and lower status in our increasingly stratified society are the real threats to social and community cohesion. "Everyone is aware that as the rewards for reaching the top have grown exponentially, so the penalties for failing have grown more savage. As one Labour-voting father said, inequality eats away at the spirit of community. He feels he can't risk his children falling to the bottom and he wants to use what he has to help them, rather than contributing more to the common pot".

An approach which starts with an analysis of actual capital (rather than a lack of "social capital") would surely be a more fruitful way of analysing the reasons for the breakdown of social solidarity that the communitarians and others spend so much effort decrying. Their attempts to blame the victims (cf the New East End - see previous posts) rather than looking at the real economic causes can all be tracked back to the increasing feeling that they themselves would lose by any concerted attempt by the state to redistribute wealth and get the rich to pay even an equable proportion of their wealth to the common good. Certainly the old Labour notions of redistribution through direct taxation have lost their salience with New Labour's disgraceful panderings to the wealthy. Blair's obsession with his super rich friends and Peter Mandelson's remarks about not giving a damn about people becoming filthy rich are only the most obvious examples of this trend.

What is clear is that the wealth of those at the top does matter to society as it becomes the benchmark by which even the well off middle classes assess their own status. Taxing the rich is important not just for the revenue it would raise for the exchequer.

At the other end of the spectrum Lynsey Hanley's poignant descriptions of how local authority tenants on many large Council estates (Estates - an Intimate History, Granta 2007) are made to feel like social pariahs should have more to tell us about the breakdown of "communities" and the growth in anti-social behaviour than so many of the recent attempts to blame the "undeserving poor" for their own situation. As Hanley says, we must get back to a situation where social housing is seen as an integral part of the national housing stock, and not something that is seen as shameful.

Kids going to school to be bullied for not having the right £100 trainers is not at all just a remark about fashion. Status markers are increasingly important as constitutive of self-respect in our increasingly unequal and marketised society. Local authorities decrying young people "hanging around and causing trouble" on estates where there is nothing for them to do and nowhere to go no longer seem to notice their own inconsistency - when as so often they have allowed youth and community services to atrophy.

Communitarians have noticed that in some European states there is noticeably less social breakdown. Rather than concluding that this is because these are higher taxed and less unequal societies where differentials of abject poverty and super wealth are less marked, some of them (Goodhart et al) have claimed that it is because they have less immigration. There is now a constant and appalling denigration of "chavs" and those living in council accommodation. Attacks on welfare benefit recipients and refugees as scroungers and the attempts to portray an increasing underclass as the authors of their own downfall are all ways to stop us looking clearly at the real relations of power, wealth, status and inequality that are the real causes of social breakdown. Blaming the victims has now become a leading component of social policy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reply to Don Flynn

Hi Don

Thanks for this which was really helpful and most of which I very much agree with. Particularly your views on the role of politics in community action. I think though there is an issue about what sort of politics – the term has been eviscerated down to the notion that politics locally is done by political representatives – Councillors or even community/regeneration workers rather than being “the lynchpin of activity” in the way you describe. This of course is not helped by the tendency of some Councillors and the orthodox political parties that they represent seeing representational politics as somehow more authentic and real (and therefore their own powers as more legitimate) then the involvement that grows from the grassroots through local or interested people’s involvement in what are sometime called “community organizations” . Yes of course such communities do retain the potential to be self-critical and oppositional – at precisely which point they very often lose their funding or are sidelined by the local Town Hall or its inhabitants!

My point was not that we should never use the term “community” but that we should be far more suspicious and alive to our almost ubiquitous use of the term which actually devalues it as a currency. We should use it more judiciously and avoid facile or tautologous uses such as “the local community” when we mean local people or “the black community” when we are thereby lumping together such completely different groups as 3rd generation African Caribbeans, recent arrivals from the Congo or the Horn of Africa and the growing number of mixed race people in the capital. My objection is not to the term “Black” , especially where it is being used (as it was in the 60s and 70s) as a political term, but rather to the notion implied in the term “community” that there is some substrate that unifies and homogenizes black people apart from their collective struggles
From Don Flynn (Migrants Rights Network)

Thanks for this interesting paper Andy - I hope it's sparked off the discussion you want to see underway.

I entirely agree with your central argument - that the constellation of terms and concepts about 'community' and 'community cohesion' has given rise to a set of apolitical, bureaucratic practices which, at their worst, close down the space which might otherwise exist for actitivites which provide a critical apprasal of the real power structures which underpin concrete, actually existing communities. Where I think you might be creating a hostage to fortune is in centring so much of your criticisms on the word 'community' itself - almost to the point of suggesting that it be jetisoned in favour of another term, or group of terms, which better convey the fluctuating and contingent nature of actually existing communities. The problem is there isn't an obvious candidate for this role, wihch conveys what we know is relevant to this discussion, about those incidents where the features of geograpthical location or sectional interest do generate a sense of 'community' which is reasonably coherent and has the potentional to be self-critical and oppositional. The position of the mining communities in the mid-eighties is a case in point.

For me, the nub of the issue is what you describe as the need to see "the creation of community as an active and political process." The real setback of the last three decades has been the reduction of the capacites which had once existed for critical political appraisal of the processes of community formation. This loss is largely connected to the decline in working class organisation, which had once connected a sense of local otrganic solidarity with a wider consciousness of the place of class in the grand narrative of national, and sometimes international life. The practices generated around labour party and trade union branches, cultural associations (the WEA, etc), even chapels and church halls, had once provided local 'community' leaders with a mirror in which they were required to judge the reflection of the image they were cutting in the wider national, imagined, community of national and international life. The hollowing out of all of these organisations has led to this opportunity for critical reflection being lost, and for the grievances which initially motivated the formation of common identity to become a permanent howl of visceral protect against the lousy hand life had dealt them, with little or no capacity for moving beyond the sence of victimhood and injustice.

This decline in local politics has created the vacuum into which all the bureaucratic, professionalised forces of the social cohesion industry have rushed. Being bureaucratics, and not organically connected to the social forces that have produced dissonnance and tension, they thresh around looking for ways of acquiring traction in the array of problems they spread out before them, and that has tended to mean reifying categories which once where used in a fairly easy fashion into a hardened set of concepts which refer to hardened social facts. The problems for the poor old term 'community' is that it has suffered precisely this fate, and via the mechanistic thinking of functionalist sociology (of which communitarianism is just one species) has been reinvented as an iron law of social existence.

From our standpoint I think there is little we can do,for the time being, about the wretched state of organisation amngst the working class. I personally will proclaim my commitment to trade union activism and a democratic system based on mass membership political parties, but all of that is an investment for another day.

What can be usefully done in the here and now, I think, is to insist on the relevance of politics to the business of being activity in the domain of community action, regeneration, etc. The presumption that the task of building cohesive communities is essentially a technocratic one, involving the building of social capital and improving networks, has to be challenged and replaced by a stronger sense that activism, if it means anything, requires an assessment of the balances of power and interest which local societies into hierarchies of inclusion/exclusion, frank and open debate about the implications this has for policies and strategies, and the formation of commitment to one side or the other in battling forward with solutions. All of these things make politics the lynchpin of activity, rather than a rather embarasing fact of life that we try to push into the corner as much as possible.

So, the discussion I think we ought to be founding is one entitled 'the politics of community action', which requires the legions of officials and consultants to appraise the positions they occupy against the matrix of power relations, and to give a pulic account of themselves as people who are changing what; by which means; in collaboration with who; and to what ends?

Tha's my tuppennyworth. How are you planning to take this discussion forward? Looks like a Facebook community forum to me (sic).....

All the best,
From Rob Gregg Dean of Arts and Humanities, Richard Stockton College, New Jersey.
In reply to the community Confusions discussion paper:

Actually, a lot of the issues you raised are ones that have concerned me over the years — particularly in my earlier guise as an African-Americanist (both in my book on African American migration and my on-line book about migration more generally). Two things occur to me, off the top of my head — I believe there are a lot of other things in there (just thought of a third).1) There’s a degree to which I wonder whether the notion of community can ever be simply the positive attributes as opposed to the negative ones — i.e. Radical rather than reactionary. As a force for change for bringing people on the outs into power, or of increasing the power they might have, then it surely takes on a more progressive aspect. But, while it is doing this, it is nonetheless also (simultaenously) manifesting the reactionary part in its very definition. It is creating “fictions” about the community and inventing histories of its nature in order to mobilize people, and in so doing it is silencing (to borrow from Trouillot — Silencing the Past) narratives that hinder such mobilization — aspects of differentiation, class, gender, color, age, etc., that might fragment the “community” from within. As such, community can be turned into (or realize) its more reactionary form by its own success and the establishment of community institutions that entrench elements who then jealously guard their privileges (either from internal threats, or new external ones — i.e., newer immigrants); or it might realize this form through increased pressure from without and its lack of “success” to gain power (one of the things that I argued in my first book was that increased segregation of African American communities led to increased fragmentation and inability to unite in opposition to oppression — contra the Marxist assumption, I suppose). So in terms of a synchronic scheme the division in your definition works, but as soon as movement occurs both elements of community are always present — making it such a hot potato politically.2) Related to this, your passive/active dichotomy is something that I was wondering about. I think this dichotomy serves an important purpose to get us beyond old sociological (Toennies — gemeinschaft and gesselschaft and all that) notions of community that place it in a modernization framework of community (passive and traditional) and society (active and modern). Clearly community is always more active than this old theory suggested, but I wonder if it is ever really passive. In other words, there are things that people did in the past, but are they really expressions of “community” and “culture” until they are no more, or are, in a way, threatened with extinction, at which point they become actively created and invented. Is this what Anderson is talking about in Imagined Communities? Again, this means that community is never simply a reflection of a historical reality (though this will be the claim), but is instead a political intervention made for other purposes. It either becomes the reactionary claim keeping certain people in line (e.g., immigrants to the United States who frequently repressed advances for women in their communities because such things would threaten the ethnic group and would be mark it as potentially dysfunctional), or it becomes an argument for blaming the victim for claiming that the reason that others have failed to adapt/assimilate, etc. is because of the nature of their community (i.e., that it is dysfunctional and attempting now to help it would be “throwing money at the problem”).3) I loved your description of the community organizations of the 1980s and it reminded me of the impact of money that was put into American cities in the 1960s (the Great Society) and the impact it had on inner city African American communities. What such community organizations tended to do — better funded as they were with better resources than other local, community groupings — was move people out of their churches and other such places into the community/recreational centers. This was fine until all the money ran out (Vietnam war/OPEC) and the communities were left with neither the rec centers nor their own organizations, at which point others could then say that the problem with them was that they were weak communities (dysfunctional) and so should be written off — thus the Great Society ironically ended up weakening the position of many. Which reminds me — I hope you have been watching The Wire — definitely the best show ever produced on American tv.

Rob Gregg (Dean of Arts and Humanities) Richard Stockton College, New Jersey

Monday, January 14, 2008

Even the Guardian agrees that community is a "mush" word

Peter Preston in todays Guardian 14/1/08 page 30:
"So, goodbye "community". You have been the political mush word of the last year, the word that turns political grit into benign vacuity. But too much community saps the spirit, and suddenly as 2008 gets a grip, other challengers finally burgeon".

Interestingly, the next article to the right "Scousers are the culture" on Liverpool's creativity also uses an interesting sense of the term community:
"A well-run capital of Culture could involve and reward the city's creative community in a project that would last way beyond the end of the year".

Though I am not sure what a creative community is I find myself less antagonistic to this use of the term community than many others. Firstly it implies a group of people actively developing ideas - and "instead of importing culture, creating it". Secondly it is not as simple as it usually is with the term community to find alternative ways of saying this without using the term. What do you think?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Today's Guardian on Lee Jasper. Brixton rapper Marvin the Martian says "He (Lee) is out of touch and he's missing the mark every time. He claims to speak for the 'black community' ... There is no 'black community'. There are poor areas in which black people predominantly live"

Discussion paper

This is a longer discussion paper. It is very much a work in progress and does not have any great theoretical rigour but I wanted to blog it so as to get your views and start an active discussion about "community"

Community – ambiguous, confusing and dangerous

The word “community” sits at the heart of all that we try to accomplish in the Third Sector (or as some prefer the Voluntary and Community Sector). Such is the power and centrality of this word that we characteristically presume that we know what we are talking about when we use it. In fact the word is used in so many senses, and so much associated baggage comes with the term (which we seldom analyse), that serious inconsistencies and incoherences are often imported into our thinking in a dangerous and reactionary way.

Of course these confused and lazy uses of the term should not lead us to argue that we could or should try to give the term up completely. Discourses around “community” have been used in some contexts to unite social or minority groups around an active, even resistant, challenge to existing power structures and inequalities. Too often, however, the term is used in a passive sense to distance, stereotype and mystify both the people it purports to include and to make challenges to racism, inequality and discrimination more rather then less difficult. In other words if we are not careful about how we use the term, or how we allow others to use it, then it will control us rather than us controlling it.


It might be sensible to start with some definitions:
Wiktionary defines the term as:
Group of people sharing a common understanding who reveal themselves by using the same language, manners, tradition and law
Commune or residential/religious collective
The condition of having certain attitudes and interests in common
(Ecology) A group of interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting with each other

Community Development Exchange defines community as:
The web of personal relationships, groups, networks, traditions and patterns of behaviour that exist amongst those who share physical neighbourhoods, socio-economic conditions or common understandings and interests

There are however two key features or connotations of the way the term is commonly used that are usually left out of these definitions
The first I label its “cosy” or “nostalgic” use. The term community is usually used as a term of commendation – it is assumed that the term denotes something that is inherently good. As Raymond Williams says Community has been “the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships; or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. It seems never to be used unfavourably and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term”[1] This use of the term implies a connection such as kinship, cultural heritage, shared values and goals. Community is thus felt to be more “organic” and “natural” and therefore stronger and deeper than a rational or contractual association of individuals such as the market or the state.
The second I label its “distancing use”. Paradoxically, alongside its “cosy” use it is often used to differentiate or define groups of people who are in a minority, and who are often disadvantaged or discriminated against in some way. Whilst this sense of “community” as describing minorities has been used to challenge some of the oppressions these social groups encounter, more often however it has served to confuse and conceal such oppressions. From the perspective of those with power the term “community” often connotes “the other” – “them” but not “us”[2].

I will provide evidence for and discuss both of these two key features later and will argue that these accretions of meaning actually import unspoken assumptions which are dangerous when applied to complex discourses around such vexed subjects as community cohesion, community care, community policing and multiculturalism. Government policies now encourage or enjoin service providers and local authorities to “involve the community in each stage of the process”. Without a clear notion of the term community this makes little practical sense and often gives rise to the worst forms of local clientism and “community leadership” which often empowers the wrong people in localities as well as further disempowering groups and individuals who are already excluded

ROTA (Race on the Agenda) recently declared that “a cohesive and integrated community is a feeling of connectedness and a celebration of individual differences. By continuing to define community in official geographic and governmental terms, we lose sight of the most important ingredients of community cohesion: respect for the individual, equality and dignity”. I think this is quite right as far as it goes and it does help us clear the ground somewhat by clarifying that any adequate sense of community has to be more than just about the people who happen to live in a particular locality or local authority. It shows that any sensible notion of how we should live together and develop social capital has to incorporate and deal openly with the multicultural nature of most localities in the UK rather than pretend that “Community Cohesion” is the answer to the problems caused by “multiculturalism”. With this quote ROTA clearly sets its approach firmly against most current notions of “Community Cohesion” that are either explicitly or implicitly assimilationist.

I also like it because it brings to the fore the notions of rights, equality and dignity. Increasingly these are things that we have to struggle for in the neighbourhoods and localities, the organisations and the institutions that we find our selves in. “Community” can then be seen for what it is – an active process rather than a passive state. Community is something that we have to make happen rather than something that just happens to us.

Whilst ROTA’s definition rightly challenges the dangers of geographical or governmental definitions of the term, I think there needs to be a further critique of a number of other serious ambiguities and dangers that are encompassed in the term. The term “community” is so ambiguous, so misused and so riddled with implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that I believe that it very often does more harm than good and mystifies more than it clarifies. Worse than this confusion, however, is that the term is frequently used (sometimes deliberately and always covertly) so as to avoid discussions of and challenges to the discrimination, inequality and racism that still riddle our institutions, neighbourhoods and “communities”.

Community Development and Community Cohesion

Valiant attempts have been made by some parts of the community development movement to define their profession as inherently active, progressive and challenging. The Community Development Exchange for example defines community development in the following somewhat circular way:
“Community development is about building active and sustainable communities based on social justice and mutual respect. It is also about changing power structures to remove the barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives”. Whilst this is an active definition that describes the process and practice of many community development workers, it takes us no closer to a clear notion of what these communities are that the “development” is supposed to happen to. It is my contention that one of the barriers that prevents people from participating actively and that mystifies the relationships that they need to challenge to do this, is enshrined in the way in which we so commonly use (or misuse) the term “community”.

Elizabeth Frazer in her powerful feminist critique of both liberal and communitarian models of community, reaches a similar conclusion:
“conceptual and theoretical problems with ‘community’ are very far-reaching. They undermine the validity of models. They resonate in discourses, and have particular (not progressive) rhetorical effects. They impact in policy and practice in perverse ways”[3]

It is not for nothing that the neologism “Community Cohesion” is now a favourite of New Labour local and national politicians who do not seem to want us to look at and challenge the real relations of poverty, racism, class and inequality that infect so many of our institutions, our neighbourhoods and our “communities”. It has been rightly said that the earlier neologisms “social inclusion/exclusion” operated as a convenient way for Labour politicians and other opinion formers to avoid having to talk openly about poverty and inequality. This of course allowed them a smoke screen behind which they were able to start to give up previously totemic Labour notions of economic redistribution. The term “Community Cohesion” is, in my view, an equally cynical and obscurantist way of deflecting us from seeing the world as it really is with the result that we feel that we can do little or nothing about it.

This is because the sense in which the word “community” is being used here is utterly idealised. The confusion of senses of the term “community” so as to stress locality, interest, identity, inclusion, commonality then combine in terms like “community cohesion” to draw our attention away from and stop us articulating and engaging in processes of struggle, of opposition to racism and inequality. The “cosy” connotations of the term serve to instil in us a passivity that sees “problems in the community” only as issues for the local Council bureaucrats, politicians or “community leaders”.

For many people in Britain today the “community” in which they live does not include and empower them but rather is actually the site of their own oppression and exclusion. Just as feminists have correctly located kinship and social structures as the site of women’s oppression[4], communities whether of locality, identity or interest are often the sites of oppression where inequalities and discrimination can be most damagingly expressed. Communities are just as likely to be “communalist” (defining by exclusion, objectifying differences) as they are “communal” (defining by inclusion and encouraging association)[5].

Although most communities do not have formal criteria for membership, nevertheless membership of a particular community can be difficult to obtain, dependent as it usually is on acceptance by the existing members. It has been seen as an important characteristic of communities that their members tend to draw very clear distinctions between outsiders and insiders.[6] It is this feature that allows individuals to be actually or symbolically expelled from the community. It is often very difficult to be “the only gay in the village” and this common experience of alienation from their “original communities” that is faced by gay and lesbian people often results in movement to larger cities where there is a substantial and organised gay and lesbian population. Jeffrey Weeks gives an account of how such a “sexual community” arises: “in the face of political and social disadvantage, and crises like the HIV epidemic, gay people have felt that community should exist – a diasporic consciousness results and constructs it”[7] This is clearly an active use of “community” around which a social group is able to organise and which can be used to empower and emancipate. Most uses of the term are not active in this sense. This is easy to see in those uses of the term that are associated with locality or geography (where those people the term purports to describe may have nothing more in common then that they are inhabitants of a particular geographical area – a housing estate or a local authority for example). In this sense, I would argue, the term is actually dangerous because it seeks to pretend that there is some underlying or latent source of shared social capital in localities (in fact this is often identifiable only by its absence).

There is a common notion that many neglected urban localities are actually potential communities if only they can be “regenerated” with the correct policies from the local authority “in partnership with the community” and other local agencies. It is sometimes held that the process needs catalysing elements which are characterised by communitarians as ‘community entrepreneurs’ or ‘community activists’ – individuals who play the role of builders in the process of the construction (or reconstruction) of community. An underlying stock of potential trust and goodwill (“bonding social capital”) lies there ready to be unearthed if only we discover how. Somewhere behind the despair there lurks a potential community which we have somehow lost but which we can rediscover through the intervention of community development workers or regeneration programmes. The problem with these catalytic elements, these ‘activists’ is that they seldom live in the locality and often represent agencies whose interests may run quite counter to the individual or collective interests of those who do actually live there. Equally the regeneration programmes are often run by agents who are not located in the community and frequently, (sometimes for good as well as bad reasons) resist the involvement of local people or local interest groups in the real decision-making stage.

Rather than seeing the creation of community as an active and political process, this beguiling (but often dangerous and mechanistic) notion of community takes us further away from a real analysis of the forces and conditions that need to be challenged if any positive sort of social change is to emerge. The mystification and circularity of this approach frequently diverts our attention away from and avoids any need for a more fundamental challenge to the wider set of social relations which bear down on those people who live in the locality. It substitutes a fascination with subjectivity for any notion of activity or agency[8]. In addition crucial issues of inequality, wealth distribution and discrimination can thus be deftly avoided or ignored. These are usually far too threatening to “the powers that be” who consequently prefer the facile approach enshrined in much of the Government’s Community Cohesion strategy with its “indicators of meaningful interaction” and attempts to “develop a sense of belonging”. But belonging to what? This approach has been rightly characterised as “trying to get us all to eat samosas together”. As Elizabeth Frazer says in critique of the communitarians, the ‘spirit of community’ or ‘fostering a sense of community’ is insufficient fuel to stimulate the action and organisation that is actually needed to accomplish their aspirations to social power: “Organisers’ and theorists’ focus on the absence and longed for presence of a ‘spirit of community’ precisely diverts attention from the material conditions that might generate this agency”[9]

Alienation in community

Alienation from community rather than cohesion inside it is not just a characteristic of many communities of geography but also of many of those defined by ethnicity. If we think only for a moment of the difficulty some Asian women can face challenging “their own community” about issues such as forced marriage, domestic violence or honour killings. If we then remember the relativistic bleatings of some social and “community” workers (who have given multiculturalism a bad name) that these are things that we and they can’t and shouldn’t do anything about because it is “their culture, their community”, we can then see how easily discourses about community can tend to privilege the status quo and lead away from real empowerment and emancipation. Such empowerment will only be actualised as part of a discourse about human rights rather than about “culture” and “community”. As Helena Kennedy says “the holocaust shows us that states and governments are not the only abusers of rights; our neighbours too can abuse us. So can our partners, our spouses, our parents.” In other words the site of much of this abuse is “the community” or even closer to the bone, the family. Despite these crucial challenges to the communitarian approach – that community can “encompass vicious xenophobia and hostility, cultures of criminality, indifference to the suffering of outsiders, the prevention of exit by disadvantaged insiders and so on” [10]– the term still keeps coming back to haunt us with “its warm and positive connotations”[11]

It is no surprise that under New Labour to the same extent that neologisms like social inclusion and community cohesion have crept up on us, at the same time there has been a full frontal assault on “rights” (whether these are welfare or other legal rights or the more encompassing “human rights”)[12]. It is also no surprise that in the vanguard of this attack are the so called “communitarians” with their war cry of “no rights without responsibilities”. Rather than an idealised notion of “community” describing our social relations, in fact as Helena Kennedy says; “human rights is the language for shared living, the grammar of our interconnectedness. We have collective responsibility to ensure that all people can flourish in our society free from discrimination, hostility and harassment”[13]

The Government’s Community Cohesion website defines community cohesion as “the attempt to build communities with four key characteristics:
A common vision and sense of belonging
The valuing of diversity
Similar life opportunities for all
Strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the workplace, in the school and within neighbourhoods.”

As Jenny Bourne puts it in her excellent comment paper “The Baby and the Bath Water: community cohesion and the funding crisis”, Hazel Blears and the other government proponents of Community Cohesion “start from the premise that lack of cohesion, not racial justice, is the social problem that needs tackling. If they started from the other premise, then the concept of self-segregation becomes self-organisation – a riposte to injustice, not its cause, and community cohesion would emerge as a by product of a joint fight for social justice”. This important notion sees real Community Cohesion as springing from something that we do together (communing or associating together) to challenge the status quo rather than something that “happens” to us by virtue of our being defined as part of a “community” on the basis of a few salient but often arbitrary features that we exhibit in common.

Communities as subcultures

At the same time as it is used in its cosy sense, the term “community” is often used with a strong undercurrent of “otherness” – as part of a subtle discourse that distances or exoticises certain social groups. At the same time as the term is one of commendation it can also be a term of disguised condescension. One can see this best if one analyses the occasions on which the term is used and the specific social groups that it is used about. The use of the term is often riddled with hidden cultural assumptions – community is something that they have rather than us – something inherently to do with minorities and their “subcultures”. There is a kind of “orientalism” contained in the way in which the word community is often used. The gaze is that of a white anthropologist describing the strange customs and cultures of “their communities”[14]. This use of the term community often amounts to a subtle attempt to define certain social groups so that they can be “kept in their place”[15] Community as a term can thus combine in a fairly toxic way with discourses around identity politics. Although such discourses may have been developed so as to empower certain social groups they can also be coopted to disempower or marginalise them.

Take for instance the expression “host community” and look at the assumptions that underline the use of both the terms that make it up. How does one get to be a member of this “community”? In fact there is no “communing” or associating here at all and it might better be described as a vacuous “commonality” rather than a “community”. An analysis of the term “host community” could lead us to ask about the nature of those who seek to enter such a “host community”. The answer to this neatly displays the two senses of the term that I describe above – the cosy and the distancing. At first sight (cosy[16]) presumably those who enter the host community are “guests” (cf a similar use of the term guest to describe gastarbeiter or “guest workers” in Germany). A secondary (distancing[17]) meaning of host would however lead to the darker sense that tends to accompany use of the term in discourses about race relations where the “others” are seen as “parasites” or “aliens”.

In the US this dual aspect of the term has also been noticed. In the Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Culture[18], the editors note that: “While community has … entered the sacrosanct mythology of mom and apple pie for many Americans, these usages also betray certain negative aspects that demand attention. First, community may be used in an exclusionary fashion. Preserving “community”, for example sounds better that resisting integration or newcomers. Appeal to “community standards” also has a long career in censorship of American art and literature….. Second, community can also be an imposition on others. To speak of the ‘black’ or ‘Asian American’ community (avoiding race) or ‘gay and lesbian’ community implies a unity of action and experience, much less volition that does not reflect the lives or politics of individuals and groups that constitute these segments of American society”

An active notion of community is seldom articulated in contrast to the reactionary and passive notions of community to which people are often assigned without choice and which can then serve to stereotype and stigmatise them[19]. How rare it is that community is used in the sense of “community of resistance.” The use of the term community is at its most dangerous when it is used (explicitly or implicitly) to suggest something that they (not us) are located in and defined by, rather than choosing to locate themselves in.[20]

Of course a sense of community can be lived and experienced in emancipatory ways. For example the struggle of gay people during the last 30 years, the struggles of black and asian people against racism and police brutality have used a positive, inclusive and active sense of the term community to describe and indeed to live their struggle. The notion of “the community” here has been used as a defensive and organising term around which campaigning groups could unite against attack. Even here though it is interesting that many of these campaigning organisations do not describe themselves as primarily “community” organisations. Some like Southall Black Sisters are explicitly critical of reactionary notions of community that seek to override the human rights and freedoms of those who are coopted into them.

Ideal Communities

By contrast to these active (or at least defensive) uses of the term, “community” is usually a hegemonic, essentialising and totalising term that leads us away from a real analysis of the actual conditions in which people live. The word community is usually used as though the natural or default state of communities is to be placid, peaceful and passive (ie “cohesive”). Behind this “cosy” and “nostalgic” notion of “community” lurks an idealised notion of community which can sometimes almost be glimpsed in its original purity. It resembles a pre-Industrial English country village with everyone knowing their place and any potential conflicts of class or privilege kept buttoned up and stiff upper lipped. Around the village green and cricket pitch are a number of thatched cottages and a quiet pub. The vicar and his congregation all attend the ancient Church (communion) and second home buyers from London have not yet moved in and priced the farm workers out of their cottages[21]. Of course I parody, but there are times when the communities that politicians harp on about (or harp back to) bear more resemblance to Ambridge than they do to reality.[22] This “Hovis village” notion of an ideal community emphasises spurious cohesion rather than discontinuities of power, discrimination, racism and inequality. All is well in this best of all possible worlds.[23]

Of course this reactionary and pre-industrial idealisation has at times been mirrored by equivalent idealisations or nostalgias from the old left where the paradigmatic communities are the dwindling number of “occupational communities” – mining, fishing, steel etc. This latter form of “community” has been so disrupted during the 1980s that it can no longer really bear the weight of idealisation that is still occasionally put upon it.

There is one important study of the East End that does bear closer analysis in this context, and which shows the dangers of an idealised and nostalgic notion of community. Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young published “The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict” in 2006. It is based on many years of interviews with East Enders[24] and is a follow up to Willmott and Young’s seminal book “Family and Kinship in East London” (1957). The New East End is highly controversial in arriving at a view (from the Left) that the welfare state has itself given rise to an increase in racism and a breakdown of community in the East End. The authors argue that racial tension has been caused by large numbers of Bangladeshi families being awarded preferential treatment and priority for council housing due to a misguided rights-based welfare state which dispenses its largesse on the basis of need rather than past contributions. By contrast, since the 1950s, white working class extended families (the “original community”) have been broken up as their younger members have been relocated elsewhere for housing. In this scenario, those who have suffered most have been women, who have lost their social status “as the arbiters of family and neighbourhood life”. The book acknowledges the decline of the docklands local economy in the 60s and 70s as a causal factor, but it is notable that the blame for the breakdown of this community is levelled squarely at a “well intentioned welfare state” and, by implication, those who have benefitted from it – the incoming Bangladeshi “community”.

The original white working class community is held to have been broken up by government policy on housing and welfare rights, and supportive networks of kinship and neighbourliness, mutual-help and solidarity to have disappeared.[25] As Madeleine Bunting said in a review of the book,[26] “The minutiae of who you turn to in a crisis has been disregarded in government policy, but it is precisely those relationships of support that prevent an estate being overrun by thugs, or a young mum taking an overdose. So the tricky question for the policy wonks is: how do you devise welfare policies that reinvigorate the relationship networks and stimulate the ethic of mutuality that is so vivid a memory among the elderly white East Enders, whereby no one ever locked their front door and everyone watched out for the kids who played on the street?” But is it really just relationships of support and kinship networks that on their own can stop an estate being overrun by thugs or a young mum taking an overdose? This idealised version of a white working class community is certainly more “Queen Vic” than Ambridge[27] but it doesn’t leave much space for the existence of an extensive gang culture (remember the Kray twins?), the poverty and degradation that have been vividly described by contemporary writers, nor the fact that there was even in the 1950s a growing community of Somalis and Yemenis who were joining the longer established Jewish community (for some of whom Yiddish was still their first language). The welfare system is not only deemed by the authors to fuel white racism, but such racism is also seen to be a rational and understandable reaction to it. The book goes on to argue that these antagonisms are exacerbated by state welfare professionals who are “stoking the flames of communal tension by favouring newcomers against ‘local’ people”[28]

The whole approach of both these studies is predicated on the authors “discovery” of a widespread nostalgia by those interviewed during the 1950’s. They mourn their memories of the earlier homogenous white working class communities during and after the experience of the blitz and before the slum clearance schemes that broke up their communities and moved many of them out to Essex. The criticism that this is a highly sentimentalised version of the case was levelled at Family and Kinship fairly soon after its publication[29]. The more recent New East End study not only fails to grapple with this critique but ends up doubling the nostalgia by asserting that the white working class community now feel that they have lost even the sense of community that they were claiming at the time of the first survey. As John Marriott puts it:[30] “Bethnal Green, we discover, is not the place of 50 years ago. In those days its residents displayed a ‘warmth and conviviality’ which helped to compensate for the material privations many suffered. That golden age is now over, and a sense of bitterness and betrayal prevails among the indigenous white population, most of it directed toward the Bangladeshis who in the past 30 years have settled in significant numbers….. In extending the rights of citizenship to migrants, priority is now decided on the basis of need rather than as it was in the past on the basis of claims to membership of the community”. Marriott goes onto argue that (with the exception of the Bangladeshi incomers) the New East End’s authors fail to note any other significant demographic changes in Bethnal Green such as the emergence of the fashionable artistic community and the fact that many Bangladesh families have themselves (in time-honoured fashion!) moved east across the Lea and out of the area and have been replaced by other migrants, most notably Somalis and East Europeans, “none of whom appear in the pages of the book”.[31]
Contrary to this doom and gloom, another study of two estates in East London found a picture of a “vibrant and complex community life”. The study focused on the views and experiences of local people, their perceptions of neighbourhood, social networks and involvement with the community. The research, by Vicky Cattell and Mel Evans[32], illustrates both variation and consensus within and between two neighbourhoods in regeneration areas and explores the underlying influences. Crucially, whilst the study did find evidence of some tensions between longer term residents and newer immigrant arrivals it also found substantial evidence of networking and neighbourliness across different ethnic groups. It did not seek to idealise the community (past or present) and found that:
· The local neighbourhood remains central to the lives of East Londoners. The friendliness and good humour of local people, their patterns of reciprocal aid and supportive networks strengthen residents' sense of attachment.
· Formal organisations involve older age groups more than younger. Past experiences of clubs, trade unions, or campaigns are influential motivators for older residents on both estates. Younger residents are less likely to share these experiences.
· The disaffection of young people and their perceptions of powerlessness are causes for concern.
· Local resources and facilities are key influences on the neighbourhood's store of 'social capital'. They can help in developing supportive networks and relationships of trust, and encouraging participation.
· Social activities and "having a laugh" are important to East Londoners. Residents want community facilities to consolidate this aspect of their identity.
· Residents' perceptions of their neighbourhood and degrees of attachment to it vary. One understanding of the 'good neighbourhood' is based on the interaction of similar people: another embraces co-operation between different groups.
· Past, recent and future regeneration initiatives have influenced perceptions of the neighbourhood and the forms that community life takes. As well as strengthening communities within neighbourhoods, regeneration activities have also caused some divisions.
· The researchers conclude that cohesive and vibrant neighbourhoods require: opportunities and facilities for both localised socialising and wider social cohesion; organisations which encourage effective participation through training and prioritise the involvement of newcomers; the involvement of young people in regeneration; and a holistic and flexible approach to regeneration.
In another study Katharine Mumford and Professor Anne Power[33] report the experiences of 100 families living in Hackney and Newham. They argue that despite the potentially fraught arena of inter-racial communication, the idea of neighbourliness is extremely important to 90 per cent of local families. Almost all the mothers interviewed had friends from other ethnic backgrounds. They concluded that despite all the real problems and tensions, it does not appear to be true that attachment to community disintegrates in a global age, in a global city, with fast changing populations, strong cultural and ethnic differences and many alienating pressures.
By contrast, the pessimistic and nostalgic direction of the New East End’s argument fits in a most uncomfortable way with another major left-wing critique of Multiculturalism. This is the communitarian argument that too many immigrants with markedly different cultures threaten any community’s ability to generate bridging social capital.


Community and Government

By analysing some of the problems with the use of the term “community” we can see how there is something inherently self-defeating and paradoxical about the way in which Community Cohesion is currently defined and practised. By defining and reifying the notion of communities (defined by their “cultures”) as what makes people different, the Government is actually reinforcing the concept of separate linguistic or cultural minority communities which at the same moment they say they want to integrate (or assimilate) minorities out of. If community cohesion is understood as the attempt to create “bridging social capital”[34] then it hamstrings itself by its own definition of communities. Defining communities in this reactionary way as passive, homogenous groups who tend to ghettoise themselves around purities of language and culture is part of the problem rather than a definition that helps us find a solution. It is “communities” understood in this way that local and national politicians then seek to manipulate through the use of community leaders (who can sometimes represent the most backward, conservative and chauvinistic elements of that group). This notion becomes even more nonsensical when we consider the Government’s recent campaign against single ethnicity funding. As Jenny Bourne has pointed out, the Government is reversing cause and effect by “blaming those whom society has excluded for their own self-segregation.”

Certainly both local and national government from the 1980s on have sometimes made serious mistakes in thinking that they can coopt or placate particular ethnic minority groups by the provision of funding for cultural or community purposes and have thus created a class of “community leaders” who often claim to speak on behalf of their entire communities. This sort of divide and rule has always been a feature of the colonial mindset in British government attitudes to minorities. However, as Bourne says, the danger now is that many of the smaller, more challenging, grassroots groups will lose out on funding. “And we will, if we are not careful, be back to the anodyne ‘racial harmony’-style tea parties of the 1950s which offend noone and achieve nothing.” More Samosas anyone?

Community Care

Whilst associated with many positive developments around independent living, notoriously the term “community care” lulled both politicians and people in the 1980s into the notion that there actually was a “community” outside long stay institutions where “care” would better take place. (In practice of course this often meant little or no care or that caring arrangements would devolve back to family members with little support). Active terms like “independent living” capture the positive aspects of the approach but the use of the term “community care” can be seen as both a cause and at the same time a way of hiding some of the negative consequences of the policy - especially since it is increasingly underfunded to the extent that it is almost bound to fail.

Frazer points out that the term “community” becomes even more mystificatory when it is (so often) coupled with that of “family”: “the meanings of family and community are mutually constitutive[35]…. The terms’ constant reference to each other obscures how social institutions and social processes are actually related. In public policy this really matters ….. for instance the social policy ‘community care’ is actually family care.” There is also, as she points out, a suspicion that the way in which one term seems actually to act as a code for another amounts to a disguised discourse about gender, about the respective roles and resources of men and women which are then covertly differentiated and essentialised.

New Localism

The ambitious attempts by some Labour local authorities in the 1980s to “decentralise” largely fell down because of their inability to analyse and critique the idealised notion of community or neighbourhood that they were actually employing. There was a prevailing notion just that by “bringing people together” through the good offices of community development workers and “community centres”, shared commitment and social capital could be (re)generated. Whilst such vitally needed resources may be a necessary condition for improving people’s lives in a locality, they are very seldom a sufficient condition.

In Camden where I was working as a community worker (1983-1987) there was substantial funding in the early 1980s to establish community centres within easy walking distance of every resident of the borough. Whilst this development did coincide with the first thoroughgoing and laudable attempts to introduce equal opportunities and anti-racist policies in funding and service provision (both from local boroughs and the GLC), nevertheless there were only infrequent attempts to mount sustained challenges to the relations of power and discrimination in these localities. Some Community Centres actively resisted the establishment of local campaigns to challenge racial harassment on local estates, others were suspicious and obstructive to projects operating locally for disaffected young people, gays and lesbians, travellers and users of mental health services. Whilst there were a number of positive gains as well as serious concerns about this approach, such provision was largely demolished due to constraints on local authority funding and attacks on these local authorities by the authoritarian Thatcher government. The attempt to use what we would now call “community anchors” to develop a new sense of community spirit (let alone one that would stand up to and confront Thatcherism) had largely failed. Indeed since the 1980s a significant number of these community and youth centres have been closed down or sold off.

The experience in Islington (where I subsequently worked in the Council for Voluntary Service 1989-96) was marked by the establishment from 1985 of 24 decentralised Neighbourhood Offices each with their own Neighbourhood Forums. The experience of these forums were mixed, whilst some did develop in vibrant and inclusive ways, many of them became little more than fiefdoms for unrepresentative and sometimes xenophobic local community (residents or tenants association) leaders. The attempt to empower members of the “local community” resulted in some cases with a further entrenchment of prejudice and exclusion at the local level. In some cases such fora systematically excluded minority ethnic and other disadvantaged social groups. Having established neighbourhood forums that purported to encourage neighbourhood participation, councillors and local authority staff then tended to recoil when “troublesome groups” gained representation within the local political system. Of course the key decisions about resources had always been taken elsewhere, but there was in some cases a noticeable movement to circumscribe and limit the responsibilities of neighbourhood forums and to relocate powers and decision-making away from them if they started raising issues that were uncomfortable for those in the Town Hall.

At the same time funding patterns also encouraged the establishment of a number of community centres and organisations for minority groups. Many of these (including the emerging refugee community organisation sector) did provide excellent services and reach groups who felt they had little purchase on mainstream provision. Nevertheless this pattern of funding also had a tendency to encourage competition between and even within different ethnic groups. Whilst the emergence of community leaders and a growing number of Black and asian councillors changed the face of some localities, in some cases there was a tendency by the local authority to “buy off” different groups rather than encourage their involvement at all levels. The prevailing ethos at the time was a kind of lazy multiculturalism. Significant sums were spent on community festivals and local cultural events and while much of this was extremely positive it became clear that there was little appetite to challenge entrenched racial harassment (especially of local Bengali families), gangs and vandalism let alone the endemic poverty and other inequalities that scarred the area.

Multiculturalism and community

Currently there is a full frontal attack on ‘multiculturalism’. Ironically the government seems increasingly determined to adopt the more integrationist or even assimilationist approach that has failed so disastrously in France and elsewhere across Europe. Community cohesion is now being seen as a panacea for the ‘problems’ caused by multiculturalism. In the words of the Chief Rabbi these are deemed to be that “it encourages people not to integrate and creates social exclusion” As the Institute for Race Relations has pointed out, attacks on multiculturalism usually reflect a disguised assimilationism: “what they actually mean is that they are not happy with the weight being given to other cultures and customs. They essentially want British culture to be more traditional and/or Christianity to prevail over other faiths”[36]. This critique of multiculturalism and the development of ideas around social cohesion grew up as response to 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005 because of the perceived militancy and “self-segregation” of sections of the Muslim community and the reaction to increasing numbers of asylum seekers. Not only does this approach serve to blame the victim, but it also as IRR points out, moves the debate away from racism and inequality and situates it back in culture – in the notion that we somehow need to create a kind of cultural glue (bridging capital) that can hold society together and that ensures positive integration.[37] Samosas again!

In fact both the government approaches of multiculturalism and now community cohesion are actually so infected by the same problematical definition of “community” that they create more problems than they explain. As Sivanandan argues, multiculturalism originally grew out of community-based fights for equality and justice – struggles emanating from below. Local and national government policies sought to introduce a very different notion of multiculturalism or communalism from above by reifying communities and rewarding (or in some cases punishing) community leaders through funding and other political mechanisms. This level of “culture” as expressed in and by “communities” heads off and diffuses challenges to power and inequality at the local and national level in the same way as does the community cohesion approach. Only when we develop a more challenging understanding of community as an active process rather than as a passive state can we start to overcome this contradiction.

Of course we should immediately dispense with any form of multiculturalism that claims that the cultural traditions of minority ethnic groups should be immune to criticism on grounds of human rights. Human rights should always trump culture – this is an easy thing to say when it comes to issues like Female Genital Mutilation, forced marriage or honour killings. In practice however there are still many progressive community activists who are equivocal about some of these issues. For example City Parochial Foundation has recently been criticised for its imaginative and welcome decision to allocate substantial funding for work around faith-based child abuse, especially within parts of the African diaspora in London.

The Grammar of community

The “grammar” of the term community – the way it is used - reveals much about how humans are and how we see ourselves in our part of the developed world in the early 21st century. The danger with terms like “community” is that they often help us pretend that we can do more than this. We are often lured by such terms to think that we can describe an ahistorical, unchanging and somehow essential human condition rather than ways of living that are conditioned and mutable. Like Wittgenstein I would suggest that there can never be a final and complete empirical definition of a concept like “community” and that all we can therefore do is to explore how the concept is used in a number of different contexts. Its meaning is in the way it is used. We can also attempt to carry out some basic “housekeeping” when it comes to our use of the term. Where we are using it in a way that is systematically unclear or so that it carries unwanted or damaging connotations and ideological implications, then we should limit our use of the category or try to find other ways of expressing ourselves without using the term in an unanalysed and idealised way.

As Frazer points out, “certain sorts of groups – shopping crowds, theatre audiences (members of which have something in common which distinguishes them from other groups) – are not included in the category whereas villagers, tribespeople, religious and linguistic groups are”[38] As she remarks, it is not immediately clear why this should be the case. The leading communitarian Amitai Etzioni tries to answer this sort of conundrum with an appeal to “commitment” – in community “we care about each other’s well being” in such a way that “the community can lay moral claims on its members”.[39] He does not explain why this does not apply as much (if not more) to gangs as it does to communities. Yet again we see the term automatically (but covertly) assumed to be describing good rather than bad forms of association. Commitment is not enough of a defining characteristic to allow us to make a distinction between community (good) and criminal/gang subcultures (bad). Indeed the confusion of senses of the term that involve spatial location, real or imagined “commitment”, ethnicity, interest, identity (whether externally or self defined) make the term systematically confusing and complex rather than explanatory and simple.

It is interesting for example that there are some social groups that the term cannot be applied to in the same way: we do not usually say “the women community”, “the male community”, “the young community”, “the middle-aged community” or the “community of older people”[40]. This is because these are all terms that describe states that the majority of people will inhabit and which we all therefore have an interest in (as opposed to those other uses of the term which almost always explicitly or implicitly imply that they are minority interests or conditions, often outside the mainstream). In most senses of the term, age and gender are presumed to inhabit, even constitute all communities whereas other distinctions such as race, sexual orientation, profession, location etc. stand in a different relation to the term.

Another feature of the way in which the word is used, is that for almost every social group that community is applied to there is usually a perfectly feasible way of using a name or phrase to denote the group that does not use the term “community”. Why call business people “the business community”? Why call a neighbourhood or locality “the local community”? Frazer again points out that “for many theorists….., community is the site of the realisation of communion, and communion – connectedness, the meeting with another soul to soul – is the ideal for social relations that can be more nearly realised in community than anywhere else.” This idealisation, this empty aspiration to community is an aspiration to a kind of connectedness that “transcends the mundane and concrete tangle of social relations”.[41] But, rather than seeking this transcendence to an idealised realm of community, it is at the level of reality (where the muddle of relations and differences of power and status, discrimination and inequality operate) that we need to become active if we are to develop processes and politics that really construct active and progressive ways of living together.

The nostalgia for past communities does tell us much about our own attitudes to the past and the future. “The past is more comfortable, or there is a strong tendency to create it as more cosy than it was. At the risk of being equally one-sided, it was a harsh and parochial world that we are well rid of, except of course, we are not sure that anything better has replaced it.”[42]

Whereas the experience in imagined or pre-industrialised “communities” may appear (to our nostalgic eyes) as cohesive and stable, certainly in many C21st inner urban areas this is far from the case. In terms of spatial location, community in the context of the contemporary urban environment is at the idealised end of the spectrum set out below:

GOOD ↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔↔ BAD

Community ↔ Neighbourhood ↔ Locality ↔ Territory

Here community can be seen as an ideal form of neighbourhood which itself carries strong connotations that the space or area is at least capable of “neighbourliness”. Locality is a neutral term and territory has a distinctly negative connotation of defensiveness. Territory is what armies and gangs (or indeed animals) inhabit and defend. As Frazer puts it “we are better off theoretically speaking, with locality than with community – for there is in this concept no suggestion that a single or any particular set of values, norms, preferred social identities, patterns of relations or tastes is privileged. Within the framework of social justice , the needs of existing users (residents, workers, visitors) in a place would all have to be considered.”

As we have seen, the problem for communitarians is that their central notion of commitment, shared values etc. as definitive of community fails to identify only forms of association that are good or “communal”. Commitment can lead to destructive, exclusionary or communalist forms of association as well as those they approve of (to which they want to append the term “community”). For gang members of course, their territory or “manor” fulfils all of the roles of community that the communitarians see as defining what is good about community – commitment, mutuality, solidarity, self-empowerment, strengthening of feelings of self-identity and status etc.

Recent knife and gun murders in London have drawn our attention to so called “post-code” gangs where “it doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you are; to join you just have to live in the right area. It’s all about territory”[43] The prevailing response to this defensive form of association is usually a despairing cry of “why has this started happening?”[44]. If we are so far away from a clear understanding our own “communities” it is surely no surprise that we don’t understand why our young people sometimes live out the desperate parody of community that is gang culture.

Community is a word which we commonly resort to when we can’t bear the real relations of alienation, inequality, fractiousness and complexity that confront us everyday in the urban environment. It is a largely ideal and imagined space that can be magically transformed by the “grammar” of the term into a realm of cosy and harmonious communion. The problem with imagined communities, however, is that we do not always watch who does the imagining.


I have argued that there are two forms of social analysis that are particularly prioritised or presumed by talk of community. The first is the traditional conservative picture of an organic and cohesive but authoritarian social order. The second is an old Labour and traditional socialist view of organic, unalienated and homogenous working class life. I have tried to show that both these approaches are not based on real relations of power and inequality and the real emancipation and empowerment that can arising from challenging these structures. Instead they both rely on an imagined or idealised nostalgia for some essential state of “community spirit” that somehow needs to be rediscovered or regenerated. This form of analysis tends to hide the real relations and conditions that are at work in the world rather helping us undertsnad them

There are two other possible forms of analysis on the left and the right. The first is that of the Thatcherite new right which believes that “there is no such thing as society” and whose elements of analysis are individuals, families and the state mediated only through market relationships. This social market approach gives little value to the ways in which people form associations and challenge the local and national state as a way of empowering and defining themselves through their activity other than those that are assumed to be derived from their existence as economic units. Here there is not only no society but very little community either.

There is another possibility – a more radical view which focuses on social movements and local and global challenges to existing structures of inequality, racism and other forms of discrimination. This notion of community needs to be understood more as a process of empowerment than as a passive state. It mirrors the activity of people and the social movements and associations that they generate to make sense of, improve and sustain their localities, and their economic, social and environmental circumstances. It tries to understand people as agents rather than merely as subjects.
To the extent that the term community can be used in furtherance of this last model then we may want to continue to use it. However we should remain vigilant of its power to express reactionary, nostalgic, quiescent and exclusionary forms of life and ways of living together. We must guard against its constant power to divert us from dealing with the real relations of power and inequality that so disfigure our world.
[1] From Raymond Williams’ “Keywords: a vocabulary of Culture and Society 1976”. I think a possible candidate for an opposing term to “community” could be Durkheim’s use of the ancient Greek phrase “anomie” - a state of alienation or social instability caused by an erosion of standards or values.
[2] Interestingly, Raymond Williams notes that the word can also mean “the commons or common people, as distinguished from those of rank”(Keywords)
[3] The Problems of Communitarian Politics, Oxford 1999
[4] Elizabeth Frazer
[5] There is an important parallel here with Puttnam’s distinction between bonding and bridging social capital which I will argue later is itself so imbued with a nostalgic and idealised sense of community that it is frequently useless and/or dangerous. Nevertheless in terms of this perspective “communalist” social groups are clearly inward looking with high degrees of “bonding” capital and “communal” groups have a high degree of “bridging” and “linking” social capital.
[6] Crow and Allan, Community Life, A.P.Cohen , The Symbolic Construction of Community
[7] Jeffrey Weeks ‘The idea of a sexual community’ 1995 (quoted in Elizabeth Frazer, ibid)

[9] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid, p. 84
[10] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid p.82
[11] Raymond Williams, ibid.
[12] Indeed significant parts of New Labour are now leading the attack on the Human Rights Act that it itself introduced in one of its few radical moments
[13] December 15th 2007
[14] Alan Hudson makes this point eloquently in his discussion of the New East Enders study which I refer to in detail later in this paper: His word for this exoticisation of the working class community in East London is “culturalisation”: “When I read the descriptions of white working class life….. I hear the awed whispers of a naturalist describing the patterns of life and the habitat of a favourite animal species: ‘See how the mum entrusts the care of her young to the next female in line as she prepares for the trip to the laundrette’….…. – the inimitable voice of David Attenborough….. The circumstances, outlook and habits of a historically specific and ephemeral working class become not only cultural norms but also cultural and ahistorical absolutes”
[15] An interesting sense of “place” which can imply both geographic space (ghetto) or position in a hierarchy of status or power.
[16] Wiktionary defines this sense of the term as: A person who allows a guest, particularly into the host's home
[17] Wiktionary defines this sense of host as: A cell or organism in which a virus replicates.
[18] Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Culture, Ed. McDonogh, Gregg & Wong, Routledge 2001
[19] Alan Hudson in his critique of the New East End says that the objects of its study (the white working class community) “are passive beneath the concerned, investigative gaze of the observer. But the observed are soon to vanish from history and we are asked to be sorrowful for them as victims and then become nostalgic for that which is lost”
[20] Even that old stalwart of Empiricist philosophy John Locke saw the world clearer than this in 1690: “The only way by which anyone divests himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community” (2nd Treatise of civil government). Community is thus seen as relying on an associative process rather than a preordained state.
[21] This vision of the perfect community (England) could not have been expressed better than in John Major’s nostalgia for a world of “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said 'old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist'.” (John Major’s speech on St George’s Day 1993)
[22] Elizabeth Frazer is surely right when she concludes that “the aspiration to community is an aspiration to a kind of connectedness that transcends the mundane and concrete tangle of social relations” indeed she draws comparison to use of the religious term “communion”
[23] “The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate”
(from the hymn “All things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil Alexander, 1848)
[24] Indeed some of the interviews were completed well over 10-15 years before the publication of the book – a point which Alan Hudson makes as explicit criticism.
[25] In contrast to this view there are a number of studies showing how much positive social capital there still is in areas of high diversity in London
[26] Guardian, February 13th 2006
[27] Actually rather than resembling the BBC series “East Enders” or the Radio 4 series “The Archers” what this perspective really does remind me of is Alf Garnett’s character in “Till Death Us Do Part” for those of us old enough to remember it – somethings never change!
[28] Quoted in New Myths of the East End, by Chris Jones Socialist Review April 2006
[29] Jennifer Platt’s devastating critique (1971) is the most cogent of these. She concluded that Willmott and Young sentimentalised poor working class life. For the two middle class researchers “the quaintness and exotic unfamiliarity of the subjects of their research throws a glamour over behaviour patterns which might otherwise be regarded as constituting a social problem”
[30] Rising East Online May 2006
[31] This is hardly surprising if – as Alan Hudson notes – so many of the interviews were conducted 10-15 years ago
[32] A summary of the research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 1999
[33] East Enders: family and community in east London, 2003
[34] This notion stems from Robert Putnam’s theory of social capital. He makes a spurious and essentialist distinction between “bonding capital” (when people interact within their own ethnic group or “community”) and “bridging capital” (when people interact with groups outside their own community)
[35] Frazer p 173-4. She points out that for communitarians, “families are, ideally at least communities, and conversely the idea of community is analysed as ‘family writ large’”
[36] Not even that well disguised if the recent disgraceful remarks of the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali in the Sunday Telegraph (6/1/08) are anything to go by. The Bishop asserts that Muslims have created no go areas for non-muslims. A previous article by the Bishop (also in the Telegraph 15/8/06) claimed that “multiculturalism is to blame for perverting young Muslims”
[37] Jenny Bourne in her defence of multiculturalism (IRR Feb 2007) sees community cohesion as: “the idea that the nation somehow had a deficit of glue, which would have to be artificially manufactured and injected into British institutions.”
[38] Elizabeth Frazer, ibid
[39] Amitai Etzioni, “The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda” 1993
[40] Though I have heard the term “pensioner community” occasionally – whatever this means
[41] Elizabeth Frazer “The problems of Communitarian Politics” p.71
[42] Alan Hudson, Whitechapel Road Revisited, Rising East May 2006
[43] Observer newspaper 30/12/07 “Stabbed to death at 16 – a victim of the teen gangs’ postcode lottery” by Caroline Davies and Jamie Doward.
[44] Even a brief reading of Oliver Twist or a glance at Hogarth’s cartoons of Beer Street and Gin Lane should convince us that there is little that is inherently new about forms of social behaviour that the tabloids often see as proof positive of the breakdown of community since the 1960’s. Gang culture and binge drinking have been a part of our culture for much longer than this.