Between 2013 and 2017, I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology, looking at the everyday meaning given to community in the London neighbourhood of Kilburn.
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. And it’s certainly true that fewer of us know our neighbours or take part in local groups than before.
Despite this, almost everyone I spoke to in London talked about ‘community’ as if it still mattered, and had strong ideas as to what it ought to mean. Some 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?
What I found wast that amidst the diversity of Kilburn, locals worked carefully to find a balance between openness and closure. In fact these were interdependent. Keeping certain aspects of community groups closed off, actually helped open up space to connect with other forms of difference. For example a group might see itself as primary for mothers, or for those with left-wing political leanings. These forms of self-definition inevitably ended up excluding some people. Even in cases where groups were in principle open to everyone, outsiders would often avoid these groups if it did not look like people like them were already involved. Yet at the same time, the idea that group members were bound together by something in common was a powerful one, and in fact allowed members to come to understand each other’s differences. By talking and thinking as if they were a part of a common project, group members could treat forms of difference within the group not as divisive, but as something which they could come to understand and bond over, over time. As a result, even as community groups often started out by bringing together very diverse individuals, genuine common values, understandings and ways of acting would emerge over time.
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