As you've just seen, ‘community’, an ever present word, evokes some contrasting meanings. It has been described as a ‘keyword’, that is, a word which has its own particular history but which also plays a significant role in putting across different meanings. Identifying a keyword is to go further than just giving a dictionary definition because:
Keywords have been more than ways of seeing: they have been influential as ways of living, acting upon others.
(Yeo and Yeo, 1988, p. 229)
If a word can be described as powerful, it seems ‘community’ must be just that. It is a word which has long been associated with the provision of care and support, but which, since the NHS and Community Care Act of 1990, is now explicitly linked to central government policy.
Let's take a closer look at those meanings of ‘community’ which were generated in Activity 1. Among the positives and negatives there's obviously a wide range of contradictory associations, not all as ‘warm’ and ‘persuasive’ as Williams (1983) suggests. Perhaps how you feel about ‘community’, the meanings you give to this word, are influenced by:
who you are – for example whether you are a mother with young children or an older man living on your own
your own sense of identity – how you describe yourself and the people who are most important to you
a sense of belonging and not belonging – where you feel you belong, for example to a particular region in the UK or another country; and where you are made to feel you do not belong, for example by unfriendly or hostile neighbours.
These rather personally based meanings link to a long-standing interest in what ‘community’ actually is. University academics, practitioners, politicians and policy makers have struggled to pin down the word and debates continue. In a famous article, the sociologist George Hillery (1955) identified 94 different definitions of community and found that all they had in common with each other was that they dealt with people! This led another sociologist, Margaret Stacey, to conclude that ‘community’ was such a well-worn word that it was of scarcely any use at all at explaining how people relate to one another (Stacey, 1969). Despite this, ‘community’ has survived and come to be associated with even more meanings than either Hillery or Stacey might have imagined.
‘Community’ has many complexities in its meanings, as the journalist and writer, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, suggests. She points out that ‘We, in the visible communities, have been denied equality and significance in the spaces where it is all happening’ (2000, p. 29). By this, she means people are ‘racialised’, that is they lose their individuality by being designated as having automatic membership in certain communities, the ‘Asian’, the ‘African-Caribbean’, simply because of their skin colour. At the same time, institutional racism can lead to their exclusion from powerful positions in other communities – those of work, education, health, and local and national politics, which determine opportunities and the allocation of resources within society generally. But, as she points out, communities which are based in shared cultural and personal experiences also offer refuge and solace in a hostile society:
Talking to men and women of colour, I felt that their need for family and community networks in a society still so racially exclusive was much stronger and that the reality often matched their high expectations. It was in the Asian, Turkish and other ‘eastern’ groups that I found the most flourishing children.
(Alibhai-Brown, 2000, p. 253)
The powerful meanings which ‘community’ evokes have led to its direct involvement in shaping government policies. Indeed ‘communitarianism’, the idea that communities are ‘social webs of people who know one another as persons and have a moral voice’ (Etzioni, 1996, p. ix), with its emphasis on shared responsibilities is thought to have had a profound influence on the emergent policies of the Labour Government elected in 1997. Across the political spectrum there was renewed interest in reviving what seemed to have become a meaningless term and in challenging the idea that communities couldn't ‘care’.
Activity 2: Implicit ideas of community
Click to view Reading 1, ‘’, where writer and actor Meera Syal describes an episode from the childhood of Meena Kumar. The story, Anita and Me, is set in a small industrial village, ‘Tollington’ near Wolverhampton, where Meena is the only Asian child locally as well as being the only daughter of a school teacher and an accountant at a local factory. Meera Syal was born and brought up in Essington near Wolverhampton so it's more than likely that this is an autobiographical novel. You won't find the word ‘community’ mentioned in this extract, but that's not to say it doesn't play a big part in what Meera Syal is writing about. As you read it through, note down all the ways you think she uses the idea of community.
Meena Kumar has some perceptive comments to make not just about her English neighbours but also about her own Asian relatives. The physical environment in which she grew up, the backyards, outside toilets, the local fields and her neighbour's kitchen and living room are clearly drawn in just a few words. Those few houses and streets which made up the community she grew up in had a lasting effect on her it seems.
What kinds of community does her writing evoke? She mentions:
The village community of terraced houses; her family's Punjabi community with its particular beliefs, food, clothing and attitudes to older people; the outside community to which Meena says she aspired; a community among women, English or Asian, which she identifies as being characterised by ‘resistance’ and ‘resignation’; the cultural community to which her neighbour, Mrs Worrall, belongs with her flowery dresses and aprons, her jam tarts and lemon puff biscuits.
These many different evocations of community might helpfully be organised into three main meanings or definitions:
community as the basis for personal relationships and support (Meena's parents and Mr and Mrs Worrall, though not, it seems, the Worrall's own family)
community defined by geographical boundaries – a local, national or international entity (‘Tollington’, the Wolverhampton area, England, Europe, the Commonwealth)
community based on identity – some of these may be quite locally based while others may cross international boundaries and others again may draw on generational, class, cultural and spiritual differences (Meena's Punjabi family and the occasions they get together; Mr Worrall's identity as a disabled ex-serviceman; Meena's mother's professional links to the school where she teaches; Meena's desire to acquire what she sees as an English, or more specifically Tollington, identity).
Perhaps what all these have in common is a sense of belonging, though as we've seen from the extract, differences of identity and power can exist within and between communities. Meena's parents manage to move between different identities in Tollington and it's clear that there are other differences within the community as a whole: there's the particular situation of the women and then there are pensioners like Mr and Mrs Worrall, whose lives are restricted by poverty and impairment.
While it's useful to see community used as a way of identifying similarities it's important to realise that people also occupy more than one community at the same time. Meena's father is a member of his work community as well as a celebrated singer in his Punjabi community. Meena's mother is a teacher, a mother and a Tollingtonian. She also has membership in a number of different communities. And of course the main story in Anita and Me is Meena Kumar's attempt to be accepted on her own terms into the ‘community’ of the person she sees as the most streetwise and exciting girl in Tollington, Anita Rutter.
Communities are where care is given and received, so thinking about what community means to different members, how members of a community differ from one another and what all those differences mean may be important when care is being planned or organised. It's clearly important not to make too many assumptions about the make up of the communities in which people live. And, with all these differences in mind, welfare policies will need to allow for inequalities of access and of personal resources if people are to be included and inequalities in support and care are to be compensated for.
While community has been awarded a key role in contributing to care and support, it's as well to remember that, in practice, those policies may come to have a very different feel. So, for example, the phrase ‘care in the community’ has a very particular meaning and resonance for mental health services. Conflicting evidence and experience over appropriate treatment has frequently been distorted by unhelpful press coverage, with the result that policy makers declared ‘care in the community’ policies as being no longer suitable for people with severe mental illness. It's worth acknowledging again the many and varied meanings attached to ‘community’.