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Commentary February 26th, 2021
Legitimacy • Cities • Justice
Toby Lowe Visiting Professor in Public Management

What is 'community' and why is it important?

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.@tobyjlowe shares his thoughts on what 'community' means & why its an important concept for those interested in #socialchange

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.@tobyjlowe defines a community as "a group of people who share an identity-forming narrative", but why is this a helpful concept for understanding & creating social change?

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"Community is an important concept for social change because it helps us to see that social change requires a change in some of the most important stories we tell ourselves" @tobyjlowe

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The following thoughts are a brief summary of my PhD. The PhD was written in the 1990s but its central theme — the use and misuse of the term “community” in politics — seems not to have gone away. So, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on what “community” means and why it’s an important concept for people interested in social change…

The word “community” has a strange power to it. It conveys a sense of togetherness and positivity. It speaks both of solidarity and homeliness. For example, attach the word “community” to “policing” and it turns the legitimate monopoly power of the state over the use of force into something warm and cuddly.

You will hear “community” from the mouths of politicians, officials and other people with microphones in their hands. They speak of “the community” and how important it is to listen to, consult with or hear the voice of this strange collective thing. You will never hear someone in this context say that “community” is a thing that can be ignored or should be feared. And you will, almost never, hear people say what they mean by “community”.

The word “community” has a strange power to it. It conveys a sense of togetherness and positivity. It speaks both of solidarity and homeliness.

So — what does community mean? And why is it important?

Here are the things that I think a definition of community must be able to explain in order to reflect the various communities in the world, and to be useful as a tool for social analysis.

  • A definition of community must be able to account for the different types of communities that exist in the world. For example, it must be able to account for both a community of place, and something more dispersed, like “the academic community” or “the Islamic community”.

  • It must be able to account for the positive feelings that people have about “community” (e.g. the sense of togetherness) but without saying that “community” is necessarily good (after all, one of the best examples of a community is the Mafia, and even with the kindest reading of their activities, you’d struggle to argue that, on balance, they are a force for good in the world).

  • It must be able to explain the sense of identity and belonging associated with “community”. It must explain the feeling of pride or hurt we feel when a community of which we are part is praised or attacked. And it must explain the in group/out group nature of this identity — why some people are part of a particular community, and others are not.

  • It must be able to explain why “community” has the normative (moral) power that it does –how communities shape our sense of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means. For example, our community shapes our understanding of what being a good neighbour, means — the shared understanding of how we should treat people around here.

  • It must be able to explain why “community” is different from other social groups — such as “society”, “family” or just a group of people.

  • It must be able to account for the fact that people can be part of different communities simultaneously.

Given that framing, I offer this as my definition of “community”:

A community is a group of people who share an identity-forming narrative.

This means, a group of people who share a story that is so important to them that it defines an aspect of who they are. Those people build the shared story archetypes (characters) of that community into their sense of themselves; they build the history of those communities into their own personal history; and they see the world through the lens of those shared stories.

So, one of the communities that I consider myself to be part of is the community based around the city of Newcastle. The manifestations of this are that I take pride in showing people around the city. I feel slighted when people say horrible things about it. I feel at home whenever I hear a Geordie (Newcastle) accent (despite not having one myself). And so on.

But what makes me part of this community is my choice to write Newcastle’s stories into my own story: the character traits for how Geordies are supposed to behave (be friendly, talk to strangers at bus stops, support Newcastle United etc etc) are character traits that I have adopted. I take part in shared events where this story is played out — such as attending football matches at St James Park and other cultural events in the city. I feel that arguments about the future of the city (should this building be built here? What green spaces does the city need? etc etc) are arguments about my own future. I see arguments about the UK’s future through the lens of the future of Newcastle.

It is this choice to participate in the making and remaking of these stories about the city that makes me part of the community of Newcastle. It’s not just about where you live, or where you work: it is possible to live and work in Newcastle without doing these things, without becoming part of this community. And there are many people who are from Newcastle originally, but who now live elsewhere, who would still consider themselves part of the Newcastle community because they still take an active part in conversations about what it means to be a part of this community.

Newcastle upon Tyne Newcastle upon Tyne

Let’s see how this definition works against the six key criteria for being an accurate and useful definition of “community”:

  • It can account for all the different kinds of community — what people call “communities of interest” and “communities of place”. The essence of community is a shared story — that story can be about a place, or it can be about a religion, or any other social practice. It challenges the notion of “communities of identity” by saying that all communities are communities of identity, so “community of identity” isn’t a helpful concept (it’s tautological).

  • It can account for the positive feelings people have about being part of a community. The sense of a shared identity, of being part of something larger than we are, is well known as a source of good feeling. But it is also morally-neutral. Being part of a community is just part of how we live our lives. Communities can be positive social forces, doing good in the world, and they can be negative, doing harm (and they can be both of those things at once). Community is not, in and of itself, morally praiseworthy. It just is.

  • This definition of community explains the nature of shared identity in communities, and highlights the specific mechanism by which this occurs. It is the process of telling a story about yourself that draws on the shared cultural story archetypes which creates and maintains a shared identity. It is the process of a set of people sharing (and arguing) about a particular set of stories — their meaning, interpretation and value — that reinforces those social bonds and creates the shared cultural resources.

  • It explains why community has the normative (moral) force that it does, because it is our narratives that provide us with our explanations for what good/bad look like. A good neighbour is someone who fits the story we tell ourselves about how a good neighbour behaves, a good colleague is someone who fits with the archetype of how that character behaves etc. Our narratives provide our moral framing.

  • It explains why “community” is different from other types of social groups. A community is a group with a shared identity-forming narrative. This is different from the set of people who live in a place, or have a shared interest. A group of people waiting at a bus stop have a shared interest, but they are not a community. (Unless they’ve been waiting for a really long time…)

  • The definition understands that people can be part of many communities simultaneously, and also how they can become part of (and drift away from) particular communities. It also is able to account for the tension that people can feel when they are part of multiple communities — when different aspects of their identity-defining stories clash, for example.

A group of people who share a story that is so important to them that it defines an aspect of who they are. Those people build the shared story archetypes (characters) of that community into their sense of themselves; they build the history of those communities into their own personal history; and they see the world through the lens of those shared stories.

Why does this matter?

On one level, this is simply a plea for a more precise use of language. I am not saying that “community” is the only (or even most important) social grouping, but it is a particular type of social grouping that explains the strong sense of shared identity that people feel, and membership of particular groups give us a lens through which we see the world.

Sometimes, this will make “community” important to our political (policy/management) conversations. Many times community will not be relevant. In those cases people should stop using the word “community” just to generate a warm fuzzy feeling, or as a euphemism for talking about poor people. If you mean “people”, say “people”. If you mean “community”, say which community you mean, and say why those identity-forming narratives are important to what you’re trying to do.

Why ‘community’ is a helpful concept for understanding and creating social change

I think my key message is that community is an important concept for social change because it helps us to see that social change requires a change in some of the most important stories we tell ourselves. Social change requires that we rewrite our communal narratives. Social change is change in community.

SOCIAL CHANGE IS ALWAYS PARTICULAR — IT LOOKS AND FEELS DIFFERENT DEPENDING ON THE COMMUNITIES OF WHICH YOU ARE PART

Our communities shape our understanding of the world. If you’re looking to create change in the world, it is these meanings and understandings which have to change. This applies whether the change you seek is macro scale (like gender equality) or micro scale (like making this street a better place to live).

It is easy to understand why changing people’s sense of community is important on the micro scale (if you want to change how it is to live on this street, you need people’s sense of what it means to live on this street, and what is possible for the people who live here — like this story of change in Granby).

It is less immediately obvious why ‘community’ is important for macro change like gender equality. I think it is important because what gender equality looks like will be different for each community. Translating gender equality from the abstract language of human rights into the concrete practices of people requires each set of stories that define men and women’s roles in each community to change (and also the stories that construct our sense of what men and women are). It is change in these stories that makes macro change real.

NARRATIVE CHANGE IS (PART OF) SOCIAL CHANGE

This understanding helps us to understand that a key part of social change is narrative change. It helps us to ask the following types of question: what are the stories that define our understanding of how life should be lived in this context? Who and what shapes those stories? Where are they told, and who tells them? In technical language, social change must include the politics of narrative construction.

Obviously, these aren’t the only important questions. But if they’re not addressed, social change becomes significantly harder.

CHALLENGING OUR OWN NARRATIVES

If social change involves narrative change for each community, then it is up to members of those communities to challenge and refresh their own narrative construction processes. We know that imposing change on the stories of others is perilous (and usually counter-productive). That gives each community a responsibility to (critically) reflect on their own stories, and on the story-making process. What do our stories have to say about justice/care/kindness (whatever value is the subject of reflection)? Who is involved in this process? Who gets to explore and tell their stories? Whose voice counts?

Community is an important concept for social change because it helps us to see that social change requires a change in some of the most important stories we tell ourselves. Social change requires that we rewrite our communal narratives. Social change is change in community.

FREEDOM, DIVERSITY AND TOLERANCE

We can also view other questions through the lens of community. What’s our attitude to those who don’t share our stories? What can we learn from the narratives of others? What is required for people to have a voice in our shared story-making?

And finally, community helps us to understand what freedom means. It means being free to write your own story — and that is both an individual and collective process. It means being free to find the community that best suits you, and it means participating in the creation of narratives that enable others to be free.

In conclusion

I hope that’s been useful. Inevitably, some of the shortcuts I’ve taken in order to fit this into any kind of readable length mean I’ve also skipped over a range of important ideas and questions too quickly. But I hope some of the key ideas are expressed with enough clarity to be useful.

My grateful thanks to Pritpal Tamber for giving helpful feedback on drafts of this. Go check out his excellent work on Health and Community.

This piece is also published on Medium here.

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Toby Lowe Visiting Professor in Public Management
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