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Reflections from Fieldwork: It’s About ‘Community’

by Hector Fernando Burga

I think to myself… as countless hours of interviews and site observations render the un-recognizable profile of an otherwise familiar term. I know what defines community, I can look it up in the dictionary, I can find it in the urban studies literature… I think with resignation and a hint of self-reflection.

Yet in the process of carrying out ethnographic fieldwork in the City, I encounter unexpected meanings of an otherwise familiar category; the disruptions and re-assemblages of an otherwise stable term.

Reader, you may find this observation obvious. After all, those of us who are privileged enough to engage the field, do it in order to test assumptions. One of the values of fieldwork is the re-evaluation of well defined categorizations. This is the fun part. The city is a laboratory. One finds and analyzes the evidence against expectations. But in the process of engaging the schizophrenia of the City; its sites, oral histories, detritus and visionary master-plans, “community” marks pitfalls and confusing traces. The city is not a laboratory; rather it’s a crime scene.

When entering the field, “community” can be imagined in the abstract. It is a packaged key word, an exercise of historical genealogy, a theory. The trace of this abstraction is found in different bodies of literature about the City. It may offer the researcher false clues by presenting a road map for her/his inquiry, a magnifying lens to register the unknown. One arrives assuming who is the culprit.

But the process of collecting evidence tells me there is a more subtle process taking place. Beyond its normative definition as a set of relationships between two or more individuals bound by shared values, this term is used in different realms and practices which shape the imagination of the City.

“Community” has an operative value. From economic development to urban design, from social grassroots activism to political causes, the term enables not only practitioners to carry out their work but also residents, planners and academics to imagine and re-imagine cities. This use establishes intersections, contradictions and most importantly useful interrogations.

One may encounter a social justice activist claiming the city as a site of collective rights for a community of workers. Simultaneously, in the same location a profit-driven developer may proclaim the value of mixed-use residences in building community. Urban designers and architects may argue for public space as fundamental community need. Historic preservationists may argue for the designation of a structure in the name of community identity. An economic development specialist may argue for jobs to save the community. A Local resident may complain about lack of services in her/his community.

These intersections are just the beginning. The term becomes even more complicated in cities where flows of capital, immigration, and ideas mark intense social transformation. In a global city, a resident may be part of several communities at once; acting locally and trans-nationally. How do planners and other professionals shaping the City address the re-assemblage of this term in a context like the Global City?

In the planner’s toolkit of the American metropolis, “community” conjures up Main Street, mom and pop shops, direct democracy, five minute walks and collective gardens. An imagination of locality trumps the perceived dangers of an imagination of conflict and dislocation. Difference is managed in degrees of assimilation to an ideal place. The physical manifestation of this logic is the ethnic enclave.

At this point, the negative effects of the use of this term may become evident. Yes, the practice of the use of “community” unites but it also excludes and divides. The term has the potential of dividing residents into insiders and outsiders. It may establish degrees of association and legitimacy to claims. It generates a hierarchy of belonging which registers social life through strata of class, race and ethnicity and lifestyle.

How then, can I analyze this term through my collected evidences; a set of discordant and conflicting voices, actors on a crime scene with enigmatic scripts and yet-to-be-determined roles?

How do I define community?

Credits: Image from Hector Fernando Burga.