Communities of exclusion: Some thoughts on the concept of community


by Ares Kalandides

A bizarre piece of news caught my attention recently: A Kosovarian family was allegedly denied citizenship in Switzerland, not for failing to comply with the formal requirements, but for not adapting to the local norms. The transgressions (according to the article) were that the family wore tracksuits instead of jeans and that they did not greet people in passing. If this is true, it sheds a strange light on the very concept of community, which thus appears inward-looking, conservative and exclusive.

Indeed, I find it increasingly difficult to think of the concept in other terms and I believe we should be careful if we want to use it in any meaningful way. Community, the way I understand it, is first of all a group of people who share something – an idea, a common feature or a place[1].  Place in particular is generally entangled in a strong imagery of belonging (communities are groups of people linked to each other through their belonging to a place), though we can clearly think of non place-based communities (internationalism was founded on exactly this idea).   I see several problems related to the above.

Firstly, there is the question of who defines the community: is it defined from within, is there some kind of common identity that makes you belong to it or is it defined from the outside, by an observer who is not part of it? If the latter is the case, could it be that the outside observer sees a community where there isn’t any, i.e. that she imagines a common identity although the perceived members don’t define themselves through that? I very often ask myself whether the term LGBTQ community has any sense or whether for example the differences among LGBTQ people prevail upon any sense of commonness.

Second, there is clearly a question of norms, of the explicit or implicit rules of belonging. The above example perfectly illustrates the latter: whilst explicit requirements were fulfilled, implicit norms were transgressed, leading to rejection.

Third, there is an issue of boundaries, spatial or other, that define the inside and outside of a community. Are they real or imaginary? Ad hoc or stable? Formalized or informal? Whatever they are, community, especially when defined from within, is based on the idea of frontier, i.e. of exclusion.

Fourth, particularly problematic is the illusion of homogeneity, i.e. the idea, mostly created by outside observers, that communities are a harmonious group, whereas in reality, there are outsiders inside communities, entrenched conflicts and fault lines as well as the worst types of discrimination. The idealized, romanticized “village” or “neighbourhood” are perfect example of the above.

And finally, there is the question of progress: are groups of people static, are they open to newcomers, are they willing to change their rules and up to what point? Is the group defined by traditions and if yes are they prepared to give them up?

I am not providing answers here and I don’t really think we are capable of giving clear ones at such an abstract level. I’m only trying to show the complexity of the issue and the fact that we should be careful when using the term community, as it is not inherently positive. I think that the quoted example from Switzerland rather confirms my doubts.

(This article was originally posted in the blog Places.)

[1] As in many of the things I’ve written, Doreen Massay’s “A global sense of place” has been a source of constant inspiration: Massey, D.,1994, “A global Sense of Place”, Place and Gender, Polity Press, Cambridge, pp. 146-156.

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