What should people want in a community?

I want to be able to look at notions of what is ‘good’ that exist within an actually existing community, in contrast to those goals taken on by various projects and policies. Surely this is something that has been done many times before.

My supervisor is a fan of Harvey’s work on political economy, and certainly the significance of the capitalist order for shaping both notions of what is ‘good’ and the built environment is explicit in his work (Harvey 1982). Brendan Gleeson’s Australian Heartlands: making space for hope in the suburbs makes entertaining use of some of the advertising efforts of various new developments and gated communities. Are people being manipulated by advertising into making housing choices that, on some level, conflict with their notions of ‘what is good’? This is certainly put plainly by Dovey

Public interests become redefined for the new entrepreneurial city as ‘place myths’ are constructed through advertising. New desires are produced to construct political legitimacy … Public interests do not exist in some pre-formed state, but are largely created (or limited) by the imagination of urban visions that shape such interests by simulating alternate futures and desires for them; by catching (or limiting) the public imagination.” (Dovey 2005: 4)

Yet any manipulation of the ‘public interest’ needs to align closely enough with existing conceptions to be accepted as truth. The introduction of Bourdieu’s Distinction claims, ‘scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education…To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers.’ (Bourdieu 1984:1). Is this a case of different messages being sold to different realms? Perhaps Margaret Simon’s chapter in People like us (ed. J Schultz) highlights this well.

Comparing and contrasting notions of ‘good’ and place in the economic order is still rather abstract and I could hardly hope to replicate the research that went into Bourdieu’s Distinction. James C. Scott’s much cited work on the ‘weapons of the weak’ is intentionally focused on ‘the issues of dignity and autonomy, which have typically been seen as secondary to material exploitation.’ (Scott 1990: xi). Perhaps there is something in this for my project. After all, I am interested in autonomy in so much as I am asking why ‘self-determination’ is so rarely evoked in debates around urban policy, at least in communities not defined by an ethic identity. Yet working from a starting point of ‘dignity and autonomy’ I am still ascribing goals instead of getting to explore them.

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