Thursday, 5 August 2010

Community - a discussion of meaning

Community is one of those slippery words - we use it to describe something that when pressed we find difficult to either define or explain. Politicians - from whatever ideological position - litter their public utterances with 'community this' and 'community that'. But we don't ever stop to think just what we mean by community - which rather makes it difficult to know what 'community leadership', 'community development' and - the latest wheeze - 'community organiser' actually mean.

And, as you know, I like (some of the time at least) my words to be nice*. Those slippery words like community are deceptive, even deceitful since what the proverbial man on the bus (or for that matter single mum in the playground) thinks we mean by these words is too often not the case at all. The ordinary folk think community refers to the neighbours, to the place where they live, to a network of connections, friends and acquaintance that makes the world work.

Once we understood very clearly what community meant. When the monks and lay brothers were living in Kirkstall Abbey they considered themselves a community - their lives were shared and through that community, God's glory was praised. The people up the road were not part of that community - indeed they were not part of any community in the sense understood by those abiding by The Rule.

To be a community you need a shared purpose not just a shared space or a shared identity. Thus today's 'Kirkstall Community' is just an arbitrary collection of people living in proximity to eachother - they may have some shared interests (although we can never assume all people will share a given view), they may have a relationship with the place and they may describe all of this as 'community'. But we cannot know this to be absolutely the case since being of a community requires that shared purpose - needs us to make a positive act to join in. Just living in Kirkstall does not automatically make you part of some 'Kirkstall Community'.

Which brings me to the idea of 'community organisers'. Are these to be ambitious outsiders leaping around poor communities running campaigns, getting things up and running (while preparing themselves for a life in politics)? Or are we looking for local people - rooted in the place and committed to making it better? Perhaps what we will get is people who make communities where there are none - bringing together local people in shared action? Or perhaps we'll get a new set of busybodies lecturing poor folk about the lifestyle?

But whatever we do end up with, it will further stretch the practicality of 'community' as a valued term - pulling it further away from its origins as a voluntary, shared purpose and experience.

*As you know 'nice' originally meant precise or accurate

1 comment:

Mike Chitty said...

For me 'community' is what emerges when people start to associate in pursuit of their self interest. It starts to appear as people learn that progress is rarely made in isolation but through collaborative and mutual endeavour. This makes community an emergent property - it can't be tackled head on - but we can provide the conditions in which it can emerge. But paradoxically those conditions start with individuals being clear on their own self interest and developing effective strategies and plans for its pursuit.

Increasingly communities can be independent of spatial proximity. Community is not always about place.