30 Jun 2022

Research Digest: ‘Knowledge is NOT power’

Richard Harries, Associate Director, Institute for Community Studies, summarises the latest research on community power.

Over coffee last month with Professor Rebecca Madgin, Director of the AHRC’s Place-Based Research Programme, I was introduced to the concept of ‘felt experience’. I had been talking about the mysterious way that successful community businesses taking over pubs, shops, libraries and leisure centres seem able to tap into a secret resource not available to the previous private sector or public sector owners. Coined as a deliberate contrast to the more familiar concept of ‘lived experience’, Rebecca talked about the power of emotions felt by individual and collective users of space.

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‘Curated serendipity’ 

Immediately, ideas flooded forth for new research that combines the hard metrics of community-based social enterprise with the soft but equally powerful force of felt experience. This is what often happens when different worldviews intersect. Maybe nothing will come from it or maybe a whole new field of community research will blossom, only time will tell. And that same spirit of ‘curated serendipity’ is a driving motivation behind the Institute for Community Studies’ Repository. With nearly 400 community research reports, datasets, practice notes and case studies, we want to stimulate new perspectives on community life, to see the forest not just the trees. 

A great example of this approach is the panel discussion about community assets I mentioned in my last blog. A new research digest, People shaping places, places shaping people, by Samanthi Theminimulle, Neil Lee, Polly Swann, Tom Archer, Joyce Chan and Waseem Meghjee, weaves the latest research about asset ownership from the repository with insights from the government’s Levelling Up Strategy Director and others who attended the online event. That evidence synthesis was, in turn, used as the basis for a submission to the Welsh Senedd’s recent Inquiry in Community Assets. It will also be re-presented at the upcoming Voluntary Action History Society 7th International Conference at the University of Liverpool (tickets still available!). This conscious re-combination and re-use of prior research is the very opposite of leaving old reports to gather dust on the shelves. 

Truly public houses 

So what else is new on the repository? “We need a Right to Buy, not to try”, published by the Plunkett Foundation, asks why just 15 per cent of the 147 community-owned pubs across the UK are based in urban areas. Alongside the conclusion that there should be new Community Right to Buy implied in the report’s title, the authors make 12 other practical recommendations to help urban communities take over their local pub. 

Returning to the factors that lie behind the success (or not) of community-based social enterprise, a fascinating new report by Sarah Thelwall, Mahdy Alraie and Mylene Pacot digs deep into the financial performance of 141 community businesses that had been supported by Power to Change to determine whether the grantmaker’s intervention had improved levels of financial sustainability and resilience. (Incidentally, if you’d like more insights into the financial performance of community businesses, do check out our new interactive Community Business Sector Overview dashboard which is jam packed with tagged and geo-coded information about the financial performance of over 800 community businesses stretching back over six years.) 

Finally, thanks to those of you who have been in touch with ideas about how to extend the reach and expand the scope of the repository. We’re planning a facelift later this year with the aim of stimulating even more ‘curated serendipity’. As always, please drop me a line at richard.harries@icstudies.org.uk if you want to learn more about the repository or if you have a publication you’d like to submit.