4: Theoretical concepts

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This chapter gives a brief introduction to some of the theoretical perspectives and concepts that inform community development. We look at ways of understanding the context within which community development works and its potential for social change.

Chapter 2 described the core values and principles of community development; these tell us what it is trying to achieve, but not how it might do so. Theories help us to understand why and how facts and events come to be as they are and provide an analytical framework to guide our judgements and actions.

Theories from a variety of different disciplines can help community development to understand the world in which it operates and to consider which strategies to pursue. These disciplines include economics, sociology, human geography, political science, psychology and management theory, for example. There are theories that help to explain how communities function (or not), how power works, how policies are made, how democracy works, how people can be mobilised and what motivates them, how collective action can be organised and how systems operate and adjust to change.

A short guide cannot do justice to all the theories that might prove useful to the student or practitioner of community development but in this chapter we set out some of the ideas that we have found most helpful. For deeper insights, we recommend that readers follow our signposts to further reading.

We start by exploring the idea of community and associated theories of social capital. We then discuss some psychosocial concepts that shape the processes involved in community development as well as recent thinking about identity, individual motivation and collective efficacy.

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