Where everybody knows your name

Social policies, since Mrs Thatcher’s time, have done their damnedest to treat the old social groupings that used to exercise sociologists (class, race, gender…) as dispensable. Social structure is nothing. “There is no such thing as society.” Yada, yada.

Instead, we have these wierd amorphous groupings, called “communities.” I have very little idea what a community is. In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, an indigenous people’s village, where everybody hunts and gathers together, is probably a “community,” at least until it’s in the path of loggers or ranchers. A village in the English shires may still be something of a “community”, except for second-home-owners and the lack of a postoffice, a shop or a secondary school. When we get to where most of us live, the borders of our “community” are unguessable.

And this is before we start bringing in the many other “communities”, identified by any number of factors. The blogging community, FFS. The closest I can come to identifying a community is a group with shared interests and/or shared locality. There is also a warm fuzzy overtone. Your community accepts you and defends you and cares for you. No, really. That’s why “care in the community” has been so successful…. And “community wardens.” What a fantastic idea. It’s like the old days when the local bobby gave errant kids a clip round the ear. Firm but fair. You never had to lock your front door. (Yes. This is sarcasm. I reckon I have to go down the Homer Simpson route and spell it out more often. It wasn’t clear enough in the previous post)

(And, ironically, I live in one of the few places in the UK where people actually talk about “the Community” and “the Area” with almost audible capitals. And I often leave my front door open.)

I could attempt a reasonable definition of community, but why not just stop using a word when it has no meaning, rather than try to fit social policies round it?

My argument is that, as soon as you start focussing social policies on community groups (been there, got no t-shirts) rather than elected representatives, you give opportunities for unrepresentative self-promoters to control their localities. The increasing social role of extremist mullahs is one example of how an attribution of community leadership becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, it was quite refreshing to accidentally come across some research by Demos, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that manages to say this stuff more politely than I usually can.

November 2006 Do policies to promote community participation in governance build social capital? (Governance – another of my favourite words.. WTF is it? Social Capital? Ditto, but bear with me.)
The main points are

  • The key factor influencing levels of participation in governance was the existing pattern of ‘linking’ social capital: those already well-connected tend to get better connected.
  • Community participation tends to be dominated by a small group of insiders who are disproportionately involved in a large number of governance activities.
  • ..social capital … tends to be concentrated in the hands of this small group. There is no guarantee that the wider community feels the benefit of this social capital…
  • A number of forces create ‘barriers to entry’ for those not involved in governance, and increase the likelihood that those already involved will become more so.

etc. Look at the research if you are interested. There’s a lot more on that site that hammers this point home.