Spare us from Community Engagement

By Dave Clements | 17 September 2012

What is the meaning of community today, and how it can be meaningfully engaged with? While there is no end of projects tasked with engaging communities, whether this is a meaningful activity or not is a moot point. Indeed, if we stopped trying to engage communities they might actually have a chance to breathe. To my mind, although there may be some well intentioned projects out there, all things considered, community engagement is likely to have a stifling impact on worthwhile community life.

To gain an idea of what I mean, try Googling ‘community engagement’. My top results include NICE guidance  about ‘involving communities in decisions on health improvement that affect them’. This, for the lay person, means fostering anxiety about the alleged health impacts of decisions people make about how they live their lives, to ensure they are the ‘right’ ones as far as officials believe to be healthy. Then there’s the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Community Engagement and Community Cohesion which recommends not just community engagement but ‘community engagement support’. This is to manage the supposed hostility that the white working class inevitably visits on vulnerable ‘new arrivals’. It’s hard to know what to object to more – the portrayal of the natives as Neanderthals, or of immigrant communities as inherently vulnerable and helpless.

There is even a Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex. Their ‘Citizenship Research’ focused on how ‘adult learning might play a part in developing the skills and attitudes people need to engage as citizens’. Here, community engagers want to ‘engage’ with ‘adult learners’ about how they can best be citizens. In other words adults are to be treated in much the same way as children who are taught ‘citizenship’ at school. Which rather reminds me of Matthew Taylor of the RSAs desire to create more ‘active’ citizens. This, he thinks, is the job of the state, via nudging and behaviour change programmes.

Whether we’re to be ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ citizens, you get the sense that what is really meant is ‘pliable’. Those in authority want to build communities of compliant citizens. The sort that don’t ask awkward questions, but do put the rubbish in the right bin, eat the right sorts of food, get enough exercise, turn out to vote regardless of what’s on offer, and hold the right sort of views about immigration. They want to create healthy communities of healthy citizens, cohesive communities of citizens that are always nice to each other, and sustainable communities of citizens living sustainably. But, as we all know, thankfully, real citizens and real communities just aren’t like this. We tend to have minds, and ideas, of our own.

So while the idea of community is widely discussed in policy terms, what of the subjective experience of community which is more nuanced and ambiguous? Is there space for an individual response to community? It seems to me that meaningful community based on free association is being crowded-out by a hyperactive and actually rather damaging state-led communities agenda. Consequently the individual experience of community is one that remains hidden, or else processed in ways that fit with that in official diktat. The instinct to intervene – both on the part of the state and the state-sponsored voluntary sector – is so great that it has co-opted the initially permissive rhetoric of the Big Society. Such is the contempt in which ordinary people are held, self-appointed community engagers insist that we need their ‘support’ to even take part. Whatever the problems that communities face, they are never truly regarded as capable of solving those problems themselves.

This was perhaps most evident in the riots of 2011. This unprecedented episode of violence directed mostly by young people against their own communities was first met with an impotent and panicked response by the authorities; and then – along with belated tough talk by politicians and over-the-top sentencing in the courts – by a reverting to the old familiar and wrongheaded social policy agenda that arguably played a part in creating the conditions for the riots in the first place. The problem, we were told in all seriousness, was ‘problem families’ – apparently there are exactly 120,000 of them – who were ultimately to blame for the riots, and who should expect a multi-agency visit from the authorities.

But not only were parents told that the state knows best how to bring up their children. Those residents, who decided, in the absence of an effective police presence, to police their own streets, were also in the firing line. In fact it seemed that everybody and everything except the rioters were blamed for the riots. So while we were told it was nice to see communities take to the streets with their brooms as part of the spontaneous riots clean-up, the allegedly EDL-supporting folk who took to the streets of Eltham on the night of the riots were often viewed as vigilantes. While I have no sympathies with the political aims of the EDL, whether cleaning up or protecting their neighbourhoods, in both cases they had every right to act. And whatever their politics, their actions represented a more genuine expression of their community than anything imposed by community engagers from without.

The response of the authorities and of illiberal commentators to the communities in Eltham who defended their neighbourhoods was essentially to say that they were wrong to have taken control of their streets – a reaction which illustrates both the fearfulness of, and contempt for, real living communities. This suggests how the meaning of community is today becoming distorted by patronising assumptions about how both pathetic and potentially thug-like we all are. It seems that today’s political elite has become so cut off from society that it can no longer recognise the positive actions of people who looked out for their neighbours. And by condemning the robust response of communities such as the one in Eltham, they send a message that threatens to further weaken adult authority more widely.

In my view, the communities’ agenda of this Government and its predecessor tends to undermine communities rather than help them. The very language of community building and of supporting its ‘vulnerable’ members denies any space for more considered reflections and civic engagement. This is because the obsession with community is a projection of the state’s own problems onto society. The political class long for community because as a distant, cut-off elite, they crave the sense of belonging they think it promises; making an unconscious analogy between their inability to connect with us, and the very real breakdown of some communities. They see the politics of community as a way of overcoming their own loneliness. After all, we can barely bring ourselves to vote for them, never mind join their parties or get worked up about their petty politics.

For all his ‘this government is out of touch’ rhetoric, Ed Miliband’s New Blue Labour is just as isolated as the Government, enjoying little connection with the working class communities which once supported it. The search for something to blame means that for today’s liberal left, the 1980s (and Margaret Thatcher in particular) seem to play much the same bogeyman role as the 1960s do for conservatives – each are rolled out by the respective sides with the same monotonous regularity as the reason for the breakdown of community. The truth is that left liberals are forever individualising what are in reality social problems. Blaming greedy bankers and sleazy politicians for society’s problems may sound radical. But in fact it makes no more sense than blaming youth infatuated by The Beatles, women with access to the Pill, or any other manifestation of 1960s culture.

Of course community, like the family, is not all good. But such has been the decline of established institutions – be they the Church or trades unions – that once helped us make sense of the world and of each other, today we lack a workable framework within which to position ourselves and give meaning to community life. In such a scenario our anxieties come to the fore, and indeed our perception as to the extent of community breakdown often exceeds the reality. We refuse to believe that crime is falling while being all too willing to believe that ‘behind closed doors’ one of the neighbours is abusing their children while another is plotting a suicide attack. What’s more, with our relationships no longer mediated by established institutions and widely recognised codes of conduct, community life seems increasingly to comprise of weak and fleeting encounters, and to be prone to the kinds of individuated anxieties that weaken social interaction even further.

To my mind we should defend communities from official intrusions – although that’s not to say ‘the community’ should be necessarily regarded as a fixed ideal. We should be wary of official engagement exercises because ultimately they can only inhibit and erode the legitimate authority of parents in families, and adults in communities – each of which is fundamental to the effective functioning of community. Undermining these relationships can only exacerbate the evacuation of authority from young people’s lives. In this sense, the riots and other social problems associated with communities today are in large part the consequence of too much engagement not too little. If community is to have any meaning then it must start with rejecting the patronising assumptions of the official communities agenda. In its place we should re-assert autonomy of thought and action.


This is an edited version of the speech by Dave Clements at ‘Post-Riots, One Year On: Is there space for an individual response to community?’ at Union Chapel, Islington. The debate was inspired by Dixon Clark Court Symphony, a dual-site exhibition and collaborative project by Artist in Residence, Sarah Strang.

Dave Clements is the producer of the session ‘Pop-up communities: here to stay?’ at Battle of Ideas 2012


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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