Monday, 20 April 2009

Consensus, community, and cultural capital I’ve been gathering some thoughts for a session on empowerment and participation with some MA students at Staffordshire Uni this week, which has sent me back to Jacqui Karn’s excellent book Narratives of neglect. Fearful that I wouldn't do it justice, I failed to blog it at the time; but here are some belated thoughts based around some of my notes, covering two main themes: consensus and community; and cultural capital. The book is an exploration of the processes of participation and governance in the regeneration of a Manchester estate. No-one I’ve mentioned it to in the participation field seems to have read it, which is a shame, because it's packed with insights. I come at Karn’s analysis from the viewpoint that, from the time of the initial neighbourhood governance proposals, the government’s empowerment agenda was predicated on unrealistic assumptions that community could be construed to mean consensus. Problems arise where consensus is not apparent; or, being assumed, appears to be threatened. The idea of ‘moral community’ which characterised the Blair years requires practitioners to pursue consensus at all costs. In this context, as Karn puts it, ‘community is in essence constituted as unproblematic,’ and participatory practices constitute ‘the community’ as those who participate constructively, cooperatively and reasonably within the process. Those who do not adhere to the assumptions of what is best for the community are labelled as ungovernable and subject to demonising mechanisms that exclude them. Groups come to be categorised in terms of governability, which in turn legitimises coercion. ‘This dual, contractual emphasis on encouraging compliance with a latent community and the control of an ungovernable minority legitimises the use of state agencies’ coercive powers against the “irresponsible.”’ Consensus becomes a question of ensuring (or even guaranteeing) similarity rather than recognising and working with difference. In my view this is an important point for understanding how the engagement agenda might fuse with the cohesion agenda. The second key theme refreshes some of my own recent thinking about the lack of attention paid to cultural capital. Karn stressed the way power was reflected in the language and knowledge that participants brought to the process she described. She found that ‘The dominance of professional language and knowledge undermined residents’ position both in the partnerships and amongst fellow residents as they so clearly lacked the capital at stake in the process to be able to exert an authoritative voice.’ Karn argues that the professionals in the context she studied tended to conceive of the community as in close contact and united. She adds that they tend ‘to present their knowledge of local problems and solutions as incontestable.’ ‘The power dynamics created by this difference in the knowledge claims of participants are particularly important in establishing that the capital at stake in this field is not social capital but cultural.’ Karn, J. (2007). Narratives of neglect: community, regeneration and the governance of security. Cullompton, Willan.

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