15 Oct 2019

History and the challenge of community today

Based on the research I did for Me, Me, Me?: the Search for Community in Post-war England my historical starting point would be:

  1. There has never been a ‘golden age’ of community and
  2. Britain has been a strongly individualist society for generations thanks to the twin effects of popular Protestantism and early industrialisation.

There is nothing new about people not knowing their neighbours – especially in big cities like London.

Not wanting to get too close to neighbours is even less novel. A survey of Willesden in 1947 found three-quarters of residents saying they never visited a neighbour and nearly half insisting they never even helped one. The mantra ‘we keep ourselves to ourselves’ was scattered all over the survey field-notes I re-analysed from post-war Bethnal Green and Bermondsey. 

No putative ‘community’ has ever been truly inclusive – there were always families or individuals who either felt, or were made to feel, that they did not ‘belong’. Dominant myths about ‘lost community’ too easily mask these historic processes of exclusion.

In many ways, it would be better if we adopted less loaded terms like local ‘social network’ to describe ‘community’ as it was (and is) experienced. It better reflects how localities often possess many overlapping ‘lived communities’, rooted either in the life course (e.g. mother/parent and toddler groups; pensioners’ groups etc.) or in shared cultural interests from amateur dramatics and religion to darts and bingo.

But we do need to acknowledge that people use the language of ‘community’ to describe such networks – it is part of the vernacular, rather than a category imposed from without by social-science or politics. The great value of ‘community’ is that it represents a powerful critique of the atomising social and economic forces at work in contemporary society. Its great danger is that it can work as a coded language of social exclusion against those deemed not to ‘belong’. 

If we want to combat social isolation and loneliness by fostering strongly inter-connected, cohesive neighbourhoods then we need to work with the grain of popular culture and its valorisation of ‘community’. At the same time, however, we need to remain mindful that those who speak on behalf of a ‘community’ are speaking for a specific social group, rather than for everyone who lives in a particular locality. The vernacular language of ‘community’ is never straightforwardly a language of place. If we forget this we will be complicit in the unwitting (or potentially even the intentional) exclusion of those residents not connected to local social networks.

Professor Jon Lawrence, University of Exeter