the metaphor of going into a community

Researchers, students, government officials, organizers, activists–lots of people talk about “going into communities.” Although I resist the rhetorical move of “problematizing” everything, I think this metaphor deserves scrutiny. It assumes that communities are physically located and bounded, which is probably the exception, especially in the 21st century

It also assumes that we are not already “in.” If, for example, a group of Tufts students and faculty decide to go into Somerville to do some research or service, it’s worth noting that they were already in that city when they set out. A community should not be defined in a way that gerrymanders ourselves out of it. If we mean to name a demographic or social group, then we should say that. A demographic category is not a community.

If a community is a web of relationships, then to enter it you must form relationships with at least some of the people who belong to it–face-to-face or remotely. You cannot then simply leave it by moving your body away. You can break off the relationships, but that is also a way of relating to other people, with consequences.

If we decide to move to a different location to do work, that doesn’t mean that we go from a state of not being in a community to being in one. It means that we have a chance to form relationships with new people, and most of them probably move around a lot, too.

The whole spatial metaphor of traveling in and out of communities may be left over from classical field ethnography–traveling to Samoa to collect data–but it easily misleads.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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