What good do current concepts of ‘community’ do us?

BEFS Policy & Advocacy Officer, Ailsa Macfarlane asks, is it time to rethink our definition of community and consider how it is applied?

Is the concept of community, like the concept of the ‘housewife’ – somewhat dated, incongruous and failing to communicate the diversity of experience and circumstance? A label applied rather than a label chosen.

The following tweet helped to tease out some of the concerns I find with the current use of ‘community’ as a descriptor:

“How to make communities walkable – and better places to live […]”

It isn’t communities that become more walkable. It is places, areas – a mappable surface of land. Communities are truly formed – by and of – people; the place could be seen as subservient to those located there.

Community is too often used as a short-hand description for an area, with the people implied – but not necessarily central to the issue being discussed. In relation to the text of the tweet above – people will have to do the walking; this may involve difference choices and opportunities – it may involve understanding of behavior, it may require behavior-change; and those things involve individuals.

From a heritage perspective are we torn between place-based issues and communities which may be formed, defined and exist, out-with a locale? Simultaneously attempting to answer the issues of place and the rights and concerns of those involved.

We hear about Community values, community importance, community significance – but what do we really mean by community? I’m suspicious that what was once organic and holistic, (perhaps previously also based on assumption) is now fractured and manufactured. Something which is not necessarily innate.

Whilst it could be argued the formation of communities was always circumstantial – our circumstances seem now to have many more variables: from less homogenous groupings of relations, to further travel for service provision and/or employment, to more single-person dwellings.

If we asked people who their community are –would those around their locale play a central role in the hierarchy? Family, friends, colleagues, (if there are) children- their friends and associated families, the consistent interactions with others where we shop and relax. These aspects of life may be geographically close to ‘home’ or some distance away. This can apply to rural and urban locations – if the local school is now closed, the local council offices moved away, the bus service limited – then the patterns of consistent interactions are reduced and the foundations that formed communities previously – are also eroded.The digital tools of the modern world can further reduce the necessity for human interaction in everyday life, additionally limiting the ability for communities to form organically.

Within a heritage environment it can feel that communities are currently co-created. Created by people and by conflict. There are the obvious examples – the shared (whether through choice or circumstance) groups – of interest, locality or experience.

But that sense of ‘community’ seems to be co-created by circumstance. Often coalesced by reaction/resistance to external (or even internal) factors. Is community now purely defined by ‘the other’? Is formation occurring in order to gain an identity and get a voice?

Who is represented will always be subjective and whilst I’m not sure there will ever be a clear answer to this – if we start with the principle that individuals having a voice and being able to articulate that voice in all circumstances (be they positive, benign, or challenging) is key to enabling informed outcomes – can we now start talk about social voices, rather than a community?

Social voices brought together by – circumstance, locality, experiences, interests. It’s a reflection and expression of society – micro or macro. Community too often implies cohesion and agreement – which when manufactured will be fragile and ultimately contentious.

A society – that’s already fractious and contentious, but also driven by a need to continue.

It almost exists without definition.

Expecting and reflecting the different social voices found within a place will not be easy, but it might be a more honest way forward. When we reduce any group to a simple descriptor we reduce the expression of a variety of experiences. The term ‘housewife’ did little to express the variety of lives lived within the descriptor – perhaps the same is now true for ‘community’.