Here in Bethnal Green, generations of researchers and innovators have been reflecting on the idea of community since Michael Young moved here to undertake the research that would become the foundations of Family and Kinship in East London. Today, understanding the shape, state and role of our communities remains as pertinent as ever to our individual and collective wellbeing. But in fast-changing world, global and digital, what makes a community? What helps them to thrive and flourish? We live in a multi-layered world where it is possible to belong to many communities – of place, of interest or of shared identity. Communities can be made up of those we know best – our friends and family – or of strangers we may never have met in person. Are the group of gamers who forged relationships over time and distance but only met for the first time when one of them was diagnosed with a terminal illness not in their own way a strong community?
Yet at the same time, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. Many people feel isolated, unable in some way to participate or connect with the people who surround them, or cut-off from family and friends. We also live in a time of rising social tensions – an increase in gang violence, families and friends feuding over Brexit, and rising nationalism across the globe. When do communities with shared values, interests or heritage become exclusive or divisive? When does a place become a ghetto and not a community? What breaks community?
How people today understand and experience community is a question we are deeply interested in. And so we’ve been running an informal survey asking two simple questions: What does community mean to you? And what does loneliness mean to you? The answers so far have been illuminating – reflecting the richness of human experience and how our feelings about both are in frequent flux. They also reflect just how much a sense of community – however it may be defined – can help and shape people’s lives.
Today is World Mental Health Day. And so it seems appropriate to share just one story that shows what community can mean when times are tough.
“For me, community is about belonging. Sometimes I feel I belong to many communities, and at other times, fewer. There are communities that I’m nostalgic about – the places where I grew up, studied, and lived for the first years of my adult life. I may know almost no-one there any more, but I care about those towns and cities, more than I do about others.
I also have a sense of community where I work – the support and camaraderie of my colleagues and the sense of one purpose. But I no longer feel a strong sense of community where I live – I’m an outsider and have little in common with those around me. That’s when I feel most lonely – when there is no-one for a quick cup of tea and chat, or who recognises me in the local shops.
In recent years, though, I’ve become part of another community. A mental health community – virtual and almost anonymous. But a place where I can go for support or advice when I’m struggling to cope. And to my surprise, I have also discovered a physical, real-world version of that. When I sat in the reception area of a Samaritan’s branch in one of the UK’s biggest cities, a woman came to speak to me. As I clutched my plastic mug (and pondered what tragedies had been averted through this simple switch from china) I realised that here was someone embodying a sense of community. She didn’t know me, but she cared. She was giving her time and energy to help those around her when they needed it most. To let them know that they do belong and that they are not alone.”
This was written by a friend who I asked “what does community mean to you?” Clearly, once you have been steeped in the ethnographic heritage of The Young Foundation, a tradition of rich observation and reflection, it is impossible to escape. No matter where you are, or what the circumstance, watching, listening and contemplating are habits hard to break – you will notice those plastic cups – and the unconscious search for meaning and opportunities is deeply ingrained.
But you don’t need to be a researcher and community isn’t all about local heroes volunteering their time (as much as we love them). So we’d love to hear what you think too. You can find our survey here and you are free to write as much or as little as you wish. And if you want to know more about our research in communities, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com.