Originally published at: https://decentered.co.uk/community-cohesion-and-meanigful-interaction/
This week in our community media discussion, we are continuing our conversation about community cohesion, and the role that community media can play in promoting harmonious and shared social experience. We will be talking about how community radio can promote greater social understanding between majority and minority communities, and people who face discrimination and are marginalised. Should community media practitioners and advocates promote multicultural media, or should we promote intercultural media, and what is the implication of each?
One of the founding principles of community media is to enhance and support a greater sense of belonging, combined with a sense of mutual understanding, with the aim of fostering more cohesive communities. As community media makers and advocates, we use media as a mechanism for greater insight and awareness of the lives, identities and values of our fellow residents and citizens, and particularly people from minority, recently arrived or overlooked groups. By telling stories and hosting dialogues and discussions, by and between people who aren’t typically represented in our mainstream media, community media acts as a tool that supports mutual trust and respect by breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions.
We’ve been following the work of Ted Cantle in our recent weekly discussions, working through his policy ideas and knowledge of community cohesion and interculturalism, which was a dominant approach to social policy in the United Kingdom in the New Labour government era. For example, and describing the policy focus of Leicester back in 2007, Thilo Boeck et al., state that:
“Community cohesion is a concept that has assumed increasing importance at a national and local level as politicians endeavour to ensure that different communities co-exist as harmoniously as possible and at some level increase their understanding of each other, to avoid living parallel lives without meaningful contact” (Boeck et al., 2007, p. 4).
At that point this was written, community cohesion was relevant at both a national and a local level, and it was well understood that community cohesion policy was expected to be able to demonstrate its purpose and the difference it made. There was a focus on what community cohesion meant for people living in increasingly diverse towns and places. For example, what does it mean to exhibit a sense of pride and belonging to that area? What does it mean to feel that we have a clear understanding of one another? What does it mean to live integrated rather than parallel lives? Community cohesion, in this approach, was expected to be a well conveyed set of common values that would emerge locally, based on initiatives that brought people from diverse communities together.
These interactive and participatory practices were expected, moreover, to enable communities to come together and address matters of common concern through dialogue and discussion. The focus was on people who experienced significant forms of exclusion or disadvantage, and who were often subject to overt or more invidious forms of discrimination. Community cohesion programmes, as Ted Cantle reminds us, were an attempt to “build understanding between different groups and to build mutual trust and respect by breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions about the ‘other’” (Cantle, 2012, p. 91). This often included the promotion of high-profile publicity campaigns that sought to demonstrate how local residents, despite their differences, could tap into a common sense of belonging. A sense of belonging that recognised the contribution that the diverse people living in that place made to the “economic and cultural life of the area” (Cantle, 2012, p. 91).
The expectation was, as Ted Cantle describes, it would be possible to promote local identities in order to “boost democratic engagement and the involvement of citizens in local civic affairs” (Cantle, 2012, p. 110). Community cohesion, therefore, was established as “positive vision of a diverse society.” This vision was supported by a wide range of social programmes, largely run through national and local institutions and schemes, which were then “often implemented in many contextualised ways at city or local area level” (Cantle, 2012, p. 92). Community radio, as licenced by Ofcom in the United Kingdom, has its roots in the community cohesion policy moment. Indeed, community cohesion and intercultural understanding remains a significant underpinning for all community radio licensing. This is because broadcasting, even until now, crosses social boundaries like no other form of mass media. So, as radio remains relatively cheap to provide, it is also significantly more accessible than many of the newer forms of social media that have emerged since the community cohesion ideas coalesced into public policy and legislation.
The last decade, however, has been tough on community groups and public authorities, with one recent estimate suggesting that austerity has cost public services in the United Kingdom close to £540bn, compared to the intended spending plans prior to the 2008 financial crisis. This means there has been much less investment in social infrastructure, the public realm, welfare services, and also community cohesion initiatives. There is a common and growing sense that Britain is Broken, and that any sense of a common-good has been replaced by a perception that little is working. Economic opportunities are harder to find, and the high prices of fuel and increased inflation, coupled with supply chain issues associated with Brexit, are resulting in supermarket shelves standing empty. This also means that community cohesion is being tested to destruction. Britain is not just facing a growth problem, we are also facing a community lack-of-meaning and fragmentation problem at the same time.
It’s worth noting that a common criticism of the community cohesion approach, which has some validity, is that there is potential for confusion between economic matters, such as class and poverty, and socio-cultural matters, such as identity and heritage. In this view, it is assumed that tensions and conflicts between communities are almost entirely attributable to poverty and deprivation. Consequently, it is assumed that “simply by alleviating poverty,” it is possible to somehow arrange for the many practical problems that people face to be “magically wiped away.” The belief, in some circles, is that all forms of racism, for example, will simply melt away if we tackle the economic causes of difference alone (Cantle, 2012, p. 97). However, Ted is critical of this view, and goes on to describe the work of Laurence and Heath, who point out that there is a paradox apparent in many areas, in that they are clearly economically disadvantaged, but also retain high cohesion scores.
The difference, as Ted notes, is that people who live in some of the most deprived areas of the country have high cohesion scores despite their relative economic prospects. This is because living in an area with a broad range of diversity can positively enhance people’s belief in a broader sense of wellbeing. Communities defined by their diversity are sometimes more likely to value strongly about their multiple associations, as opposed to those who live in monocultural communities, and who are faced with little diversity, who feel negatively about their place and their associations. When linked with economic deprivation, it seems that positive attitudes to diversity can mitigate against the negative impact of economic marginalisation (Cantle, 2012, p. 98). As Ted notes:
“Positive attitudes to difference and ‘otherness’ appear to be related to exposure to people from different backgrounds and the opportunity to engage and interact and to disconfirm negative stereotypical views based upon myths rather than realities. This, then, becomes a function of a lack of opportunity and broader life chances, rather than poverty itself” (Cantle, 2012, p. 98).
A cohesive community, then, is said to be one in which:
- “There is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities;
- The diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and positively valued;
- Those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities;
- Strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods” (Cantle, 2012, p. 93).
At various stages in the policy development process, this definition of community cohesion has been supplemented with ideas about contribution, and the way that a shared sense of contribution by different people and groups adds to expectations about the future capacity of the local place to thrive. This is aligned with a focus on the individual’s perceptions of their local rights and responsibilities, and the expectation that people from “different backgrounds should experience similar life opportunities and access to services and treatment.” Similarly, underpinning this sense of contribution and belonging is the need for trusted local institutions, and the expectation that those who manage and run those institutions will be able to arbitrate and allocate resources openly and fairly in the interests of the broad range of people. As Ted describes, there is a need to promote “positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, schools and other institutions” (Cantle, 2012, p. 93) because this itself results in a strong sense of social purpose and cohesion.
What, then, is the role of community media in facilitating this sense of belonging? One could approach this in a technocratic manner, whereby the managers of public services provide information that demonstrates that people have specific levels of access to resources and public administration processes. These systems and process focussed approaches would certainly allow large amounts of data to be shared. However, it would probably be meaningless to most of the population. It would fail to engage people in a meaningful manner, and would almost certainly ignore the local context in which people live and encounter their world. As we are seeing, with our increasingly centralised and homogenised forms of media and news, it is increasingly difficult to work out what affects or is relevant to us locally. As The Guardian argues,
“Local news organisations encourage people to use businesses, go to theatres or join campaigning groups. They inform people about rights and services. They promote accountability and democratic oversight – even more important when power is devolved. But they also sustain communities in less tangible ways. They make people feel part of society.”
The globalisation of communications, moreover, is shaping the way that we understand and comprehend the world. It is increasingly difficult to separate ourselves from the ideologies and values of global commercial capitalism, as our sense of identification is increasingly bound with a homogenised sense of international identity, which means our sense of national identity is also dissipating. As Ted explains:
“Geo-political considerations can have a far greater salience, and contrast with the limited national concept of multiculturalism which has revolved around the accommodation between majority and minority populations rather than reflecting the current reality of super-diversity and global communications” (Cantle, 2012, p. 99).
Accordingly, the term multiculturalism is itself becoming less useful for explaining or framing the problems of community cohesion. Multicultural ideas no longer offer a constructive way forward, according to Ted Cantle because they place too much emphasis on difference and not enough emphasis on shared identities and purposes. As Ted notes, the “guidance issued on community cohesion emphasised the importance of ‘common values’ and cross-community and cross-disciplinary working, as well as the need to continue to tackle inequalities and disadvantage” (Cantle, 2012, p. 94). This means that the ‘differences’ that people perceive between themselves and others must be addressed, in addition to their “socio-economic position” (Cantle, 2012, p. 101).
The best way to do this is to encourage interaction between people from different communities. By providing opportunities for people to interact with one another. Radio is a remarkably resilient tool for this, so those of us who work with radio as a primary community-communications media, should be able to overcome many of the barriers that a fragmenting sense of community identity challenges us with. As Ted notes, “when people have the chance to get to know each other, they focus on what they have in common, rather than their differences. This helps to break down prejudice and stereotypes, fostering instead mutual respect and understanding” (Cantle, 2012, p. 103).
There is an urgent need, however, for us to invest in community media institutions that promote and facilitate intercultural understanding. These meaning-institutions need to be purposed with bringing communities together through forms of integrated and shared expression because they can articulate and clarify what is common between us. Yes, there will be language, faith and cultural differences, but the need to promote a cohesive and purposeful society is progressively more important, particularly when dealing with challenges like climate crisis and the introduction of machine learning. Ad Ted explains:
“Since its inception, community cohesion has been founded on the idea of promoting interactions alongside and contemporaneously with the tackling of inequalities and the promotion of the value of diversity and a common sense of belonging. While community cohesion has been used to improve interpersonal relations by promoting cross-cultural interaction, it has been used much more widely to address community-level divisions and tensions” (Cantle, 2012, p. 105).
Community cohesion, then, is about people being able to relate to one another, and to form and build relationships based on mutual understanding, trust and a sense of shared purpose. We need community media to help people to “relate to one another in their everyday lives, in the street, in the newsagent, at the school gate and, particularly in ethnically mixed and diverse areas, where citizens from different backgrounds can feel they have something in common because they live in the same neighbourhood” (Cantle, 2012, p. 109).
Boeck, T., Glover, M., Johnson, M., & Harrison, L. (2007). Leicester Community Cohesion Evaluation and Assessment Framework. L. C. Council & D. M. University. http://www.dmu.ac.uk/documents/health-and-life-sciences-documents/centre-for-social-action/reports-and-articles/leicester-community-cohesion-evaluation.pdf
Cantle, T. (2012). Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity. Palgrave MacMillan.