Common Ground?

Huts, Bay of Plenty

Who or what is ‘the community’? It’s another one of those terms that seems to be a catch-all for ‘everybody else’. I’ll also confess to frequent use of community without defining the meaning within a given context…

A web search for community throws up a plethora of meanings all drawn from the original Latin for common: communis. Community may define a geographical area and/or the people who live in the same area. Along with community comes the ‘sense’ of community i.e., the condition of sharing or having particular attitudes and interests in common. There are ‘communities of interest’ and ‘communities of goods’, whereas in ecology, community is synonymous with interdependence.

Within my own research on community groups within the environmental sector, it’s clear that even a relatively well defined subset i.e., environmental restoration covers a broad spectrum of interests. Groups range from those solely restoring habitat for a particular species to others whose projects are conduits for up-skilling volunteers for entry into paid employment.

Though I’m guilty of using community in very general way, I’m not the only one. Browsing the Ministry for the Environment’s Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond report, membership of the community fluctuates. Sometimes it excludes swimmers, kayakers and Maori:
p9 …business, scientists, recreationists, and the community
p21 …collaboration with the local iwi/Māori and the community
p25 …local government, iwi/Māori, resource users, and community members
p26 …council, community, iwi, stakeholders

And on p28 it seems to include whoever is in New Zealand at the time of the decision-making process: ‘Freshwater objectives’ are the intended environmental outcomes for a water body that will provide for the values the community considers important

While community (when referring to people) is synonymous with togetherness there are issues around defining the term as people sharing the same values, aspirations, attitudes or interests, simply because they may not. The implication in this report is that the community is relatively cohesive though when it comes to …planning as a community… (p10), there is at least some acknowledgement that there will be a …diverse range of community values and interests… (p26).

The theme of the Freshwater reforms report is collaborative planning and yes, I agree that …Planning as a community will be challenging and complex… (p27). But for planning to be truly collaborative (now there’s another broadly and badly used term…), it is necessary to know who and what the community really is. Though clear definitions are lacking for many terms, on p27 the Ministry is at least clear on what they want from the community a …a significant commitment…!

4 responses to “Common Ground?

  1. Hey Monica
    As you are probably aware, this is an age old issue in the social sciences! Two perspectives I found useful are the idea that community should never be used in the singular (although admiittedly I still regularly do it because that’s our language) We are always dealing with communities, particularly in the are of resource management.
    Another approach and perhaps the one I find most useful and most applicable is the idea that we shouldn’t think of “community” as a noun or a thing that actually exists. Instead it is actually much more of a verb. The idea that we build communities through our actions and interactions. This is what makes them so fluid and changeable based on the situations and meanings ascribed to them by their members and those outside them. I see this constantly in my work as a community volunteer and as a research /science communication professional.
    This is of course quite problematic if what the Govt wants is a significant commitment – particularly if the commitment on the side of ‘the community’ is not met with a similar commitment on the side of the agency in terms of support, the capacity to work with this fluidity, power sharing and general preparedness to work through the difficulties of such a relationship.

    Just my 2c worth.

    Chrys H


  2. Oh and one more thing. This same issue of fuzzy meaning and the idea of nouns actually being better thought of as having a unique meaning that emerges from action includes the idea of “partnership” and probably also volunteering.


    • HI Chrys
      Funnily enough I don’t have a formal back ground in social science – it’s something I fell into while my feet were in the natural sciences. That blend has a lot to do with how university departments are structured. Re-entering academia and going through the slow process of writing articles for peer-reviewed journals has highlighted the need for better definition – there is simply no place for ambiguity (and my supervisors are pretty rigorous on that count). Report writing now seems an entirely different genre where language can often be used a lot more loosely. The challenge I have is with words – with a background in fine arts a concept like community lends itself better to a visual representation. The image that springs to mind is overlapping spheres in 3-dimensional space that expand, contract and shift according to a given scenario. Each sphere represents a group of people for example with common interests, values or objectives. Membership shifts in tandem with changes in social, political and cultural contexts. Now put a bit of music to that and…. I digress.
      I will be writing about agencies and project partners supporting community environmental groups in my article which is destined for the NZ Journal of Ecology. In the mean time I can substantially to the list of “badly used words”…. with participation, collaboration and public engagement currently in the lead. With previous work at the NZ Landcare Trust on a variety of sustainable land management and biodiversity enhancement-related projects, it’s clear that understandings and applications between the NGO sector and agency/university/science provider often differ widely.


  3. Hey Monica
    Yes! My first degree was in botany so I”m very aware of the desire for better definition. On one level this seems important and a good thing to do, while on another I really think we get in our own way by doing it, which I suspect means that we need to do both. That is go with the flow when you need to and also try to define things when you need to, but with an understanding of the limits inherent in both these approaches.
    I LOVE the graphic/ artistic picture idea. You might be interested sometime to talk with Maggie Atkinson – an artist I worked with on an art-science project that we did at Landcare Research.
    She is a painter, ecologist, landscape architect and very cool woman who is has done quite a lot of work with the Motueka Catchment Management programme – something that you might be interested in Check out the videos which Maggie largely put together (there is a link a wee way down the page).
    Looking forward to reading your next post.


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