Community: Using the ‘c-word’ to justify my project

‘Community’ has featured in much social research and theory. Perhaps one of the better known book titles to feature the word ‘community’ is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Anderson’s work is about the nation, but the grounding of the imagined community of the nation in a mental image for there is no face to face recognition of each other is possibly relevant in a suburb. Anthony Cohen’s The Symbolic Construction of Community (1985), demonstrates how it is the indeterminacy of the meaning of symbols1 that makes possible consensus on which to base community. Yet what symbols can a suburb possibly hold in common, unless it is the identity of the suburb itself?

Yet it is not just the basis of community which relies on consensus which is only possible because of the indeterminacy of meaning of whatever the community is based on. ”Community’ can no longer be adequately described in terms of institutions and components, for now we recognize it as symbol to which its various adherents impute their own meanings.’ (Cohen 1985: 74). Community, according to Bauman, is used to mean many different things but these always considered good. Clearly it is possible that the meanings imputed to community by those in policy may be very different to those on the ground. Mark Latham has claimed ‘The powerful centre of our society, concentrated in the international heart of the major cities, talks a different language to suburban communities.’ (Latham 2002: 6). I would like to go a step further and suggest that perhaps the very acts which present suburbs as communities are disconnected from the social interaction that takes place within them.

Starting without a set definition of community seems the most profitable way to explore actually existing concepts and uses of community in order to be able to better evaluate policies that claim to either strengthen communities or to be effective through utilising what communities are deemed to already be in existence. Different theoretical perspectives can be drawn on to assist in exploring how people in a community utilise the concept of community. For example Ann Swidler’s work suggests how such concepts can be part of a toolbox2, and even though contradictory concepts may be operationalised, they can be drawn on to justify actions. Rebecca Allahyari’s work sets out the concept of moral selving, which describes how people struggle to live up to an ideal or a code even though it may not be seamless3. Bourdieu’s work demonstrates that social reality is not just given, but there is a struggle over how it unfolds.

This project is not unique in undertaking empirical research in order to explore the idea of community and take contradictions as a starting point (e.g. Richards 1990). However the site for this project, Port Melbourne, contrasts with the sites used in other research on community. There are many studies of disadvantaged neighbourhoods (Australian examples include Peel 2003; Palmer, Ziersch, et al. 2005; Warr, Feldman et al. 2009). There are also studies of new developments, both gated (an Australian example is Kenna 2007) and ungated (Australian examples include Arnold, Gibbs, et al. 2003; Byson, Winter, et al. 1999; Gwyther & Woolcock 2008). However, there is less research which provides a social portrait of a suburb with a mix between private, public and social housing. While there is some research into other areas that have undergone gentrification (Australian examples include Overell 2009, Shaw 2008), Port Melbourne is different in that a significant amount of previously industrial land was developed for housing in the 1990s, therefore there has been a rapid influx of newcomers on a large scale (this is easily observable, also see Batten 1994; Howard 2003).

While the population of a suburb may not all recognise each other by face, basing a project exploring community on a suburb is a sound starting point. Specific locations can increase the coming together or the sense of identity tied to a place, whether it is intended or not. David Harvey makes mention of Times Square in New York., which he describes as having been ‘Produced and dominated in the mode of political economy,’ but then was ‘appropriated by the populace in an entirely different fashion. …it had the potential to be the focus of a sense of community which recognized difference but which also celebrated unity.’ (Harvey 1993: 18). Of course the potential of such locations can lead to intentional placed-based community building by people who think it is a desirable thing, whether for economic or more altruistic reasons. Town Halls are an obvious example, with historically people and families being able to earn reputations as ‘community leaders’ through the donation of funds for erecting such structures. More contemporary examples could possibly include blogs and websites that people and companies make for geographic areas.

Community is a concept that is mobilised or simply evoked in language in a range of ways. The use of the word ‘community’ suggests that there is something held in common that justifies referring to the people (or things) as a collective. The commonality may bring about or include shared norms. Does calling a suburb like Port Melbourne a single community open opportunities and encourage inclusion? Or is it the obscuring of a less equal reality?


1‘Symbolism owes its versatility to the fact that it does not carry meaning inherently.’ (Cohen 1985: 91).

2Swidler considers this ‘culture’ and argues that culture is less about ends than about strategies.

3Allahyari’s work is weaker for her use of concepts similar to aspects of Foucault’s technologies of the self without showing how her work relates to or differs from Foucault’s, however the clarity of her model is of value here.


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