Sunday, December 13, 2009

Community Philosophy?

The distinguished philosopher of language J.L.Austin remarked that “words are not …… facts or things: we need therefore to prise them off the world, to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realise their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can relook at the world without blinkers” (Papers 182). If ever there was a word that this statement is true of it is the word “community”. The concept of community is used almost ubiquitously in all areas of social policy as if by its very use alone, we are saying something true and good about the world. Using Austin’s theories of speech acts and perlocutionary utterances to analyse common uses of the term community shows up many fruitful ways of analysing the concept and confirms many of the concerns about both its ubiquity and its confusedness which I have expressed elsewhere in this blog.

In Austin’s view, language is not merely a passive way of describing or picturing a given reality, but rather a particular practice that invents and affects those realities. The words we use need to be seen as containing not just descriptive or propositional content (which can be either true or false) but also other elements designed to signify different types of activity and to affect and influence the listener. In his famous book How to do Things with Words, Austin outlined his theory of speech acts and the notion of performative language - in which to say something is to do something. He concludes that most utterances are actually performative rather than propositional in nature. When people say or write things like ‘I promise that x’ or ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ they are not attempting to describe the world let alone make true or false statements about it. They are in fact creating new social realities within a defined social context. In the first case by promising something and in the second case by carrying out the action of marrying two people. According to Austin, once “we realise that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act” (139)

So what are we doing when we use the term community so promiscuously? In 1955 Hillery identified at least 94 different definitions of the term community in the literature over the previous sixty years. He then attempted to distil these down and concluded that four common components occurred in 69 of these cases: people, common ties, social interaction and place and that the only component common to all 94 was people. Other more recent commentators and researchers (Hamman 2000; Poplin 1979) have also tried to desperately shoehorn all possible definitions of the term community back into these four core components.

Community Capers (an “online community” concerned with “community building”) thinks that this performance will allow us to “get a snapshot of community that might be used to begin recognising it” ( Having conjured up this trick (ask the question you want so as to get the answer that you want), Community Capers then spends significant time and effort trying to define the term “virtual community” – which one might have thought veered towards being oxymoronic given their previous prioritisation of people, common ties, social interaction and place. Many paragraphs are then spent discussing how you might tell when online activity could be seen to have become a "proper virtual community". Howard Rheingold, the man who coined the term "virtual community" (and later suggested that that might have been a mistake!) offered in his book, The Virtual Community, the following definition "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." From a philosophical point of view this definition is complete rubbish. The definition has at its heart a hidden circularity: What makes these discussions "long enough"? What is this "sufficient human feeling" and how much of it do you really need? The answer is that this is what "community" does! In seeking to define one highly nebulous concept (the community bit not the virtual bit) he just substitutes a whole line of even more indefinable and unquantifiable concepts and thinks he has done something useful.

Community Capers’ attempts to set out a similarly strange kind of reductive definition ("it's about people") is blown apart just by looking at the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s current definition of the term community: "In biological terms, a community is a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment". Well it is clear that however these organisms may be interacting and sharing their environment they are not necessarily people. The word has already escaped from the clutches of the defining characteristic (people) that was supposed to have given it its meaning. This is what the concept of community does - like other words of power it is constantly shapeshifting! Community Capers' whole approach is redolent of the old argument (connected with the problems of inductive logic and falsifiability) that “all swans are white” (well they were until a black species of swan was discovered in Australasia!)

The trouble with the word "community" is that it can be applied like whitewash across so many areas of human activity that it is constantly over-reaching any attempt to give it a finite and final definition. The only question then is: why do so many people waste so much time trying to find an essentialist or reductionist denotation of community – “a snapshot so that we can recognise it again”? The only sensible approach is to look at the way the term is actually used. We can do this by looking at the way in which the word is used in the “language games” where it frequently occurs, rather than seeking its meaning by trying to find the thing out there that it pretends to refer to. We are then more likely to consider asking interesting and useful questions of particular uses of the term such as:
‘is this way of using the word community helpful?’
‘does it actually explain or help us explore social reality in the way we hoped (or does it merely confuse us even more then we were before)?’
‘What ideological and perlocutionary effects does this use of the term have in this particular context?’
‘why do we want to use the term “community” here, rather than another less emotive and ideological concepts like “locality”, “social group”, etc.’

In short we will be in charge of our usage of the term rather than it fooling and befuddling us into thinking that we are saying something more than we actually are.

The problem is that the use of the term community shares many characteristics with those other difficult and powerful human ideas such as “God” and “Love”. There is something inherently indefinable about these terms – indeed it is this characteristic that gives them their power - and the term “community” is no different in this respect. This is because (to use Austin’s approach) these words are not primarily descriptive (even if their grammar makes it look as though they are) but actually performative. They are usually used consciously or unconsciously to do something perlocutionary, to achieve an effect, intended or not, that is achieved in the listener by the speaker’s utterance of the word – to sanctify, to reassure, to persuade, to inspire etc. In short the use of the term is used successfully (Austin calls this a “felicitous” use) not when it describes something but when it achieves an appropriate psychological or even ideological effect – some object is sanctified, someone is reassured or persuaded or inspired etc.

Lets go back to JL Austin here: “Why should it not be the whole function of a word to denote many things?" (Austin papers 38). Quite so – and this is definitely true of “community”. However I suspect that the 94 different definitions or uses of the term community are rather more than even JL Austin would have countenanced (leaving alone those newer definitions that have surfaced more recently or were left out of the original search). This is because we are barking up the wrong tree. What we need to do is to analyse how and why the word “community” is used (or abused) in certain real contexts to convey powerful feelings about the world (and to try to get others to share them). Instead we prefer to pretend that by including the term community in a sentence we are actually adding something propositional that can be true or false. We use the word community to sanctify our talk about various aspects of society. The grammar of the word makes it look as though it contributes a weighty, scientific, descriptive content to the sentences in which we use it. In fact there is usally nothing in reality that actually corresponds to this. For example consider the difference between the two sentences:

The community in St Albans is against the building of a new Tesco superstore
People in St Albans are against the building of a new Tesco superstore

Why is there always a tendency, especially in campaign or political literature to use the first formulation rather than the second one? The answer is that the “grammar” of the term community makes it sound as though we are saying something general, unanimous and absolute rather than piece meal and particular. Unlike the first sentence, the second feels more tentative and less absolute – the residents, the people, may not all agree and we could go and ask a number of them. The “grammar” of the sentence makes us want to ask the question: “Is it most residents or all of the residents?” How does one actually ask “the community”? (We can only ask people) The first sentence carries with it the presupposition that there is some superordinate thing called a community in St Albans that is greater than and somehow different from (or “above”) the people who actually live there.

Central to my argument then is that we are allowing ourselves to be bamboozled and browbeaten by our own confused use of the term community. We think that by using it we are actually describing something important in the real world. In fact what we are doing is using language to do something which we are usually unaware of – to convey powerful ideological views of the world which are more about how we want it to be rather than how it really is. We have confused words for the World. We have managed to fool ourselves with our own conjuring trick.