Nine: A changing landscape: theoretical approaches to ‘community’

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Having explored the factors that provide the economic base of contemporary society, and how these explain social exclusion and affect people’s ‘life realities’, this chapter explores the nature of community. It provides a brief overview of core theories in the study of community and argues that the traditional community based on proximity to work and family ties is disappearing as society becomes increasingly fragmented and people alienated. As the subsequent chapter demonstrates, this has potentially serious consequences for social work.

Most people, most of the time, think of community as being about people and places. Generally, it is the idea of place that defines community; indeed, official documents often embody this idea of community. Of course, people are essential to the idea of community, for we talk about a community of people living together, occupying the same space and also having something more in common. As a concept, community has become increasingly widespread in its use, and it is suggested here that all too often it is used without a full exploration of its meaning. As with many words, the assumption is that we all know its meaning and what it conveys. The sociological analyses, however, show that community is a changing and contested concept.

When examining community, Cree (2000) suggests that the term can be characterised in three ways: locality, social networks and relationships (which, in this case, transcend locality). The difficulty for sociologists when considering community is that it is virtually impossible to think about community without networks and relationships. What is of paramount importance is the type of emphasis given to these three components in the sociological accounts.

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