Communities are elephants
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
When I finished at university, I was asked if I wanted to stay on and work towards an academic career. I knew this would be the wrong thing for me personally, but at the time, I
didn’t really understand why. Thirty years later, having worked with academics from various disciplines, I have seen how the need to become sufficiently expert in one discipline to succeed professionally makes it very hard to do true cross-disciplinary research.
This is very evident when looking at the different forms of thought leadership in social transformation - particularly those with a focus on community:
Some take an economic perspective on the challenges, such as the Community Wealth Building approach of Democracy Collaborative and CLES.
There is an school of thought in health and social care provision that is associated with community.
Others come at it from a technological angle, in terms of Smart Cities or Connected Cities.
As a further contrast, academics who teach Community Studies typically take an anthropological or ethnographic approach.
All approaches are vital, but individually they are like the Indian parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant - each runs their hands over a different part of it, so none of them get the full picture.
The result is that each approach has its own issues:
Progressive economics initiatives show some impressive results but take much time and effort to implement, face embedded institutional challenges and may deliver wellness benefits piecemeal, falling short of becoming instruments of social transformation.
Community-based health and social care initiatives such as social prescribing may lead to invisible exclusion of those with serious life challenges and skew priorities for mental health provision.
Technology transformation improves quality of life while reducing infrastructure costs, but improvements may not be delivered equally to all and the upfront investment required may be unaffordable in many places.
Academic focus on the marginalized highlights important social justice issues but can send damaging signals to other disadvantaged members of society and lead to a right wing backlash.
The theory of Supercommunities draws together ideas and best practices from all these sources, along with other ideas (collaboration, wellness, community capitals / assets, finance for social trading, and more) needed to create an integrating framework. If we want to understand the community elephant, we need to join hands around it.