Mae Shaw is Senior Lecturer in the Education, Community and Society Department in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education. Her research interests include: community work history, theory, policy, practice; politics of policy; politics of care; and social movements/action.
The term “community” “has been contested, fought over and appropriated for different uses and interests to justify different politics, policies and practices” (Mayo, 1994, as cited on 24).
The dialectic is essentially the one between beneficent welfare paternalism and working class struggle. The professionalization of community development has only added to the tension. There are two specific and diametrically opposed traditions that inform our conceptions of community: (1) the liberal tradition foregrounding the individual and reason before else, and (2) the communitarian worldview upholding connectedness with others and locality as key to individual liberty. These differences cause distinct tensions in community development practice.
Mayo (1998) prefers to distinguish between professional community development’s “technicist” and “transformational” approaches, underscoring that “community development is both a professional practice and a political practice” (26). This is because at the center of community development is how agency and structure relate — “action is always mediated through the relations of power” (27). The notion of “community” is tied up in the confusion between what it is and what we want it to be. Geographic locations, material conditions, position in Bourdieu’s social field, etc. — all structure community relationships.
Not taking into account power relations almost guarantees a nostalgic and potentially dangerous version of community. For some, it means the intentional exclusion of others. These ambiguities suggest that community isn’t always perfectly apt at creating comity among social agents, but adept at manifesting or reifying social segregation and conflict.
Harvey’s (1989) critique of “neighborhood as community” (as cited on 30) says that this structuring of community obscures and reinforces social relations arising from Marxian spatial segregation. This “masking ideology” (ibid) directs attention and effort away from what is really the fundamental issue, that capitalist relations are the source of community division. Marris (1987) adds, redevelopment reproduces gender and racial inequalities.
Thus, community development practitioners are placed in an at once contradictory and strategic position between the overarching power structures and grassroots democratic ambitions. Shaw proposes we think about “community as an intermediate level of social reality in which people collectively experience both the possibilities of human agency and the constraints of structure” (32). However, to do this, we likely have to create a distance between “community as policy,” the governmental agenda of community management, and “community as politics,” the creation or appropriation of public space for democratic discourse.
Shaw finally argues that in order to get at communities as they ought to be, we need to create creative spaces for people to assert their place. This “means engaging with the politics of community in ways which offer the possibility of talking back to power rather than simply delivering depoliticized and demeaning versions of empowerment” (34).