One word that has come up a lot in the last few days are discussions about communities.

Whether is it ‘affected communities’, or ‘community leaders’ or ‘rebuilding communities’ and it has made me wonder about what the meaning of the word is.

build community


Also in terms of the work I do, I think about the word and the way it is used in the personalisation agenda about ‘building community capacity’. The government uses community in terms of the ‘big society’, volunteering, giving power to communities, but they don’t really explain exactly what this means excepting the idea that ‘community’ is somehow a Good Thing. Strong communities are good.

So what is a ‘community’?

This is the definition given on

1.a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.

2.a locality inhabited by such a group.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the )

The first two definitions base the term on a geographical location. Your community is the people who inhabit the world around you. The community might be all the people who live within this local area or it might be people of a specific cultural/historical heritage who live within this local area.

I wonder if the idea of splitting apart ‘community’ on the basis of cultural heritage is helpful sometimes.

What is clear is that the meaning of community is very different in Tottenham from  how it is in Chipping Norton.

The word is used in the context of building communities ‘online’. Obviously that comes under the third part of the definition. A community exists within a forum or even within readers of a blog. A community can be a Facebook group or a Twitter stream. We can belong to a range of communities. Some communities though, take more effort to join and be a part of than others.

Some communities we are born into by virtue of location and/or culture and history.

Some communities we move into through geographic location.

Some communities we actively choose to join.

The government talk about community as if it is the answer to every solution but I wonder how they feel the answers will come in areas where communities are not as cohesive as they know and are used to or not as homogenous in nature.

This is a part of the detachment I feel of the government from the people who are governed.  Cameron’s ‘community’ doesn’t feel and look like my ‘community’.

My community has different needs and concerns. My community doesn’t have the resources, either in time or money that his community does.

What gives some communities more ‘value’ than others? That’s the question that I ask myself frequently. When government leaders seek out ‘community leaders’ do they prescribe value to the communities on the basis of the loudest voices or the largest numbers?

Are those who are isolated or who don’t have families or voices detached from any kind of community? I suspect they are and sometimes people don’t want to be a part of a community.

Community is always seen in terms of being a good thing, but the people involved in the riots and mass destruction across London as well as other cities, they were part of a community too. Why is community always positive? Perhaps because the experiences of those who ‘rule’ is that they come from communities, yes, that word again, where there is hope and aspiration. Communities can drag people down as well as pull people up and when we talk about ‘community building, we can’t ignore the uglier aspects of some communities.

As Cameron talks of ‘pockets of sick society’, I think we know where he is pointing the finger.  He is pointing the finger at ‘other communities’. He is pointing the finger away from himself and people like him. This is not his problem because this is not his community. Are those ‘pockets’ communities within themselves? It seems to me that they are and there needs to be a recognition that community is far broader in scope than the ‘let’s all help each other’ model.

The sooner we broaden communities and build communities across economic and cultural lines the more we improve society. If we, like the Prime Minister states, see this as a problem with ‘pockets of a sick society’ we isolate and abandon those elements and detach them from our own more mainstream society.

That is dangerous.

The sickness of society is that there are ‘pockets’ within it.  This is not simply about poverty. This is about the difference between building exclusive and inclusive societies and yes, communities.

Communities have to reach out and build bridges across them. We have to build more inclusion. We have to take responsibility and those that wish to push us into communities have to understand better the way the networks are interdependent.

My community is hurting. The only way I can see to rebuild it is to involve myself in it.

If anything indicates that there is a role for more macro social work. A role for community work  but an inclusive type of community that doesn’t self-select and is able to reach out to those who might not naturally seek to be a part.

I have felt fear this week, in a way I haven’t felt fear before. I’ve also felt anger and sadness. Now, I’m trying to find hope and I have and I will.

But I still despair of the politicians who purport to ‘lead’ us and the desperate isolation and detachment I feel between my world and the world I see and the worlds in which they move.

Community has a better hope of existing when some of the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are challenged and broken down.

That’s the real challenge for communities in these days ahead of us and we can no longer leave it in the hands of detached politicians who live in their own privileged communities.

We need to build. As the world moves on to the next News story, those of us left need to hold our attention on those around us and see what we might not have seen if we didn’t choose to look.

So what does community mean for you? Is it a useful word or has its lost it’s use through overused dullness?

I’d be interested in the responses because it’s been vexing my mind for a while.

5 thoughts on “Communities

  1. I love your analysis, cb – really detailed and thoughtful.

    I am deeply suspicious of the word community, especially as used by politicians and journalists. It often seems to be an excuse for passing responsibility to something amorphous and ill-defined (as in “we need more community involvement”).

    At the same time, since I live in a very settled and generous community, in an English village, I appreciate the benefits that community can give. It seems relevant that the root of the word is “common” – the things that we share in common are the things that bind our village together, whether it be the parish council, or our wildlife sanctuary. However, as you point out, our community works benignly because what we share in common is a pleasant environment without a great deal of poverty or crime – there is just enough poverty for us to feel virtuous ameliorating it, and just enough crime to give us something to talk about. If our common bond was experience of deprivation and violence, it might still be a community, but probably not the supportive cheerful presence that I know here.

    Communities cannot be the answer to everything. Many older people who were brought up in rural villages before or just after the war will recall that they could not wait to escape these very communities. The reality of rural poverty, and the pressure to conform, has always driven young people out of communities they know well into cities. No doubt there have been people in Chipping Norton in the past who could not wait to escape. If you feel you have less in “common” with the rest of the group, communities and “the common good” can be stifling.

  2. Brilliant analysis, thanks as its something Ive been trying to get clear in my mind. Now we are entering Knee Jerk reaction time, its so important not to sink to “scum” thinking to use a current popular word.

  3. ‘The sickness of society is that there are ‘pockets’ within it.’

    Very powerful writing.

    I think I remember reading a famour literature survey that cited several hundred distinct definitions of the term ‘community’. The only common feature was some idea of geographical asscoaition, then someone went and invented the internet so the term ‘community’ became even vaguer.

    I am always sceptical of politicians who speak a great deal about ‘community’ because what it usually means is a vague appeal to some nostalgic term with positive associations, in other words, in political terms’insert idea here’. The term can also be used to exclude and castigate: think about the rank abuse of the term in Northern Ireland’s sectarian politics. It sounds to me as if Cameron’s current usage of the term is straying into the same territory.

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  5. You’re definitely correct about fractured communities. It is the way of politics that they don’t understand that what they have done is directly responsible for a broken society; along with many other influences.

    The difficulty is that whilst politicians and media people analyse the heck out of the situation, it is left to those with the will and the expertise to clean up the mess.

    After years of trying to make things better and swim against the tide of bad policy decisions, who is going to have anything left in the tank to keep on going?

    I just wanted to say thank you to anyone who is trying to make a positive difference. It is difficult to recover from a trauma like the meltdown of your community, but anyone who is galvanised into action has my thanks.

    Ghandi said: be the change that you want to see in the world

    It only takes one person with one idea to change the world.

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