I have recently completed my PhD in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. This work looked at the ways in which residents of a diverse London neighborhood imagined ‘community’ to be.
In the 21st century, and especially in big cities like London, we often talk as if we have little connection to those who live around us. Yet almost everyone I spoke to in London had strong feelings of what ‘community’ ought to mean. Some people took part in organised community groups. But even those who didn’t often imagined the local area as a community, and saw themselves as connected to those they lived around. Locals would form ideas about one another in the ways in which they shared public space, or in the everyday experiences of seeing people from different cultures and backgrounds around them. These imaginative ideas of community had major impacts on how people lived their lives and connected to one another. For instance, residents who though that others in the area were dangerous were more likely to avoid interaction with others – meaning these impressions were never confirmed or denied. Meanwhile, locals who believed that people were generally friendly and welcoming were more likely to look past signs of conflict or disagreement and to make an effort to get to know those around them.
This meant that some people came to think of community as bigger, more inclusive, and more capable of uniting people across their differences, and while others saw community as more limited and under threat. I was particularly interested in how these different impressions were formed, and whether they could be transformed? How did ‘community’ allow people to connect or disconnect from one other? Do ideas of community help us live alongside those who are different from us, or do they heighten this sense of difference and make us more closed off?