Communitarianism And Building Community Cohesion Criminology Essay

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This essay seeks to form an understanding of the political relationship between crime and community. The theories of communitarianism and community cohesion will be defined, alongside community based responses towards criminal activity in the UK. This essay will move on to assess how these concepts have been used within New Labour and Big Society political rhetoric, concluding that the notion of 'community' is pervasive within modern politics yet the ideological basis for such claims may be rooted elsewhere.

'Community' has seen increasing political and policy usage in the previous few decades, characterised by notions of active citizenship and voluntary participation towards creating or maintaining civil society and tackling crime at a local level, with the term increasingly being seen as a mode, effect and outcome of policy goals. Yet definitions of community remain vague, loosely used and difficult to categorise, as such it has been utilised as an elastic concept and presents a contentious area of policy-making (Spalek, 2008; Hughes & Rowe, 2007). Spalek (2008) argues the term 'community' is used by governments as a 'catch all' term as a way of simplifying the complex social groups and identities within UK society for the purpose of policy-making. Further to this, 'community' is a seemingly neutral term, promoting feelings of shared meanings and belonging, yet its usage within government rhetoric is abstract, repetitive and loaded with assumptions over what acceptable social identities are (ibid), moreover, community can now be seen to be an over-used term in political debate (Sage, 2012).

The basis for communitarian thought is that the existence of a strong community life is valuable to any society (Sage, 2012). Communitarianism is concerned with the social pre-conditions that will allow for individuality within a social setting, supposing that when community is encouraged and enhanced, rational individuals thrive (Etzioni, 1995). Communitarian thinking revolves around three concepts - community; common values and the common good. Common values are defined as being more than 'blood and soil' (family and area) encompassing an 'open' and 'inclusive' space characterised by high levels of collective social action and having the ultimate aims of enhancing both individual autonomy and social cohesion. Common values are seen as an objective set of assumptions which community members should strive to embody; belief in common values is characterised by actively supporting goals within the community and enjoying personal freedoms whilst remembering citizens have a responsibility towards the community. The 'common good' is a situation that is to be reached from realising common values, defined as what is socially desirable for the great majority of people within a community (Lutz, 2000; Etzioni, 1993).

Communitarian thinking seeks to find a 'middle ground' between individualism and collectivism, liberalism and social democracy or left and right political thinking by finding a 'middle path' between theories of individual liberty and social order (Etzioni, 1993; 1996; Glass & Rud, 2012) and pays particular attention to the twining of individual 'rights' with social 'responsibilities' (Etzioni, 1996). With reference to crime and offending behaviour, from this stance it is argued that strong community bonds and shared norms will provide a framework of 'gentle chastisement' towards forms of unacceptable behaviour, which will act as a deterrent. Strong communities, it is argued, require less state support in these issues and institutions such as the police and criminal justice system need only be turned to in times when informal community measures have failed to correct behaviour (Etzioni, 1993; 1996).

In recent times, both the Conservative Party and New Labour have increased emphasis on the argument that community and civil society need to be strengthened and 'reinvigorated'. Sage (2012: 366) argues "Such developments arguably represent a 'communitarian turn' in political and policy debates". Notions of community and active citizenship are frequently promoted as a response to crime and disorder, particularly where individuals are encouraged to identify local problems and provide ideas for solutions to them (Spalek, 2008).

Within UK politics, there has also been a shift towards emphasising 'community cohesion', particularly prior to the 2001 Northern 'Riots' (Ratcliffe, 2012; Robinson, 2008). The issue of community cohesion was raised to explain and articulate policy responses to the disorder in some northern towns and cities, focussing particularly on the perceived segregation of minority (especially Asian) communities within the UK who (it was argued) had come to uphold values against those generally shared in UK society (Robinson, 2008). Policy response to this 'issue' was to facilitate the development of shared norms, values and a sense of belonging between groups with differing backgrounds within communities, following communitarian logic (ibid.).

The Cantle Report (2001) set up prior to the Northern 'riots' reviewed UK society under the banner of developing community cohesion, and highlighted three 'key concerns' for UK society - ethnic segregation, limited cross-cultural interaction and an absence of shared identity and values between groups. Within this report, the theory of 'parallel lives' was outlined, supposing the depth of polarisation within towns and cities had grown, synonymous with physical boundaries that separate ethnic groups within UK society (for example: education, employment, language, networks and places of worship) that prevent lives overlapping or having any meaningful form of exchange (Cantle, 2001; Robinson, 2008). From here, it can be understood that the 'official' view is that segregated communities lead to social isolation, misunderstanding of difference, suspicion, and in turn leading to tensions, violence and disorder; the solution to this being to challenge perceptions of 'them and us' and create outlets for common goals and shared vision (Robinson, 2008).

As 'community' has become a prevalent term in UK policy, it is reasonable to accept that responses to crime and criminal activity have taken a turn towards increasing community action. Tilley (2009) reveals there are three prominent community crime prevention approaches: Neighbourhood Watch, Community Policing and Community Engagement programmes. In light of the subject of this essay, the issue of community engagement is most relevant. Tilley (2009: 95) argues "Community engagement has come to be emphasised in Britain as an important end in itself as well as a means to addressing a range of social cohesion, renewal and regeneration issues including those relating to crime and disorder." meaning that community engagement is seen to be a positive step towards identification and reduction of local crime levels and an outlet for increased social participation. Crime issues are tackled by communities coming together to identify and deal with local issues at a local level. Community is defined in geographical terms of groups who live or work in a specific area, and this approach supposes more involved communities are less likely to experience problems and more equipped to deal with ones that do arise than atomised ones (Tilley, 2009).

With this in mind, it is prudent to highlight that 'community' is a contestable term, in this sense it is both prescriptive and descriptive - usually understood referred to as neighbourhood; geographic boundaries mean little to some groups it may intend to encompass. Furthermore, community engagement measures may not be adequate for all areas; before community crime measures can be introduced, particularly in areas at high-risk of crime and offending, other preventative and restorative measures need to be emphasised and implemented in order for communities to feel able to come together (Tilley, 2009).

Within the context of the previous government, New Labour shifted emphasis away from both targets of economic efficiency and social justice (i.e. the traditional political arenas of free-market neoliberalism and socialism) within their 'Third Way' discourse; the ideas of community and social cohesion became prominent (Levitas, 2005; Driver & Martell, 2002). Inside the formation of the Third Way, Blair highlighted four core 'values' as being central to New Labour thinking; equal worth, opportunity for all; responsibility and community. Driver & Martell (2002; 2006) reveal the values of responsibility and community were often linked, forming the assumption that the decline of social cohesion had a negative effect on individual behaviour and groups lacking 'shared purpose' are unlikely to act in a responsible manner. Levitas (2005) highlights beliefs such as these reveal a 'communitarian theme' to New Labour, within which the work of Etzioni (1993; 1996) had been influential both academically and within popular rhetoric; this is particularly evident in New Labour's attempts to find an alternative 'third way' between left and right political narratives, the preoccupation with 're-moralisation' of UK society at a community level, the core belief that society had been weakened by growing individualism, greed and tendencies to 'shirk' social responsibilities and that these responsibilities should be re-enforced alongside promoting individual autonomy.

In the acceptance of communitarian ideas such as 'rights twinned with responsibilities', advocates of New Labour suggested the role of the state was to support the community in realising these principles, thus should take a tough stance on crime and anti-social behaviour (Driver & Martell, 2006). Policy surrounding criminal activity turned towards emphasising community cohesion in light of the 2001 'riots' (Ratcliffe, 2012) with the Cantle report (2001) emphasising the idea of certain groups leading 'parallel lives' to the wider UK society. Policy became focussed on 'reintegration' of these communities alongside being 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime', with anti-social behaviour orders touted as being tough policy aimed at creating more cohesive communities. Furthermore, crime prevention on community safety issues were tackled by shifting to an inter-agency 'partnership' approach and increasing community participation to enforce 'restorative justice' - i.e. restoring the damage done to the community through criminal or anti-social actions (Driver & Martell, 2002).

Analysis of these events with regards to communitarianism has highlighted several problems with UK criminal policy within the time of New Labour. The Third Way' was fashioned along authoritarian lines; advocating personal responsibility as being rooted to the market and formal employment (Sage, 2012) rather than responsibility to one's community. Within policy geared directly towards community cohesion, the assumption of groups living 'parallel lives' is a contested area; strategies may be viewed as idealistic in their appeal to increased cohesive identity within the UK yet are difficult to attain, particularly in the case of marginalised groups; with critics highlighting this assumption may have racialised the debate (Thomas & Sanderson, 2012), having the effect of problematizing and criminalising certain groups, leading to further suspicion against marginalised communities, particularly Muslims, rather than achieving the aims of 're-integration' (Robinson, 2008). Robinson (2008) believes the groups to which these targets are set were ill-defined, based on flawed or un-substantive evidence and, in fact, non-existent, with community cohesion being an empty concept New Labour applied meaning to in the wake of the 2001 'riots' as a means to explain the unrest.

The notion of New Labour displaying 'communitarian themes' in their policy approach may also be contested; with Hale (2006) believing New Labour was influenced by communitarianism alongside other theories, with comparisons between the two being generalised or constructed to fit within New Labour rhetoric. For Hale (2006), New Labour is not synonymous with communitarianism despite containing many references towards the theory; linking rights and duties, responsibility and opportunity; promoting strong active communities, homogenous values and seeking a 'middle way' between socialism and individualism. These references may be seen as 'buzz words', taken from communitarianism though but often used in ways contrary to the suggestion of Etzioni (1993; 1996). In relation to criminal policy, the biggest discrepancy between communitarian thinking and New Labour lies in the latter's propensity towards authoritarianism and appearing 'tough' on the issues of crime and anti-social behaviour; Blair's reliance on the need for strong communities with shared values is reflective of communitarianism, yet his reliance on the idea that enforcement is a necessary tool to promoting better communities free from anti-social behaviour is not (Hale, 2006) - Etzioni (1996) favours 'gentle chastisement' as a way of informally condoning and therefore correcting behaviour and therefore needing formal sanctions less often, whereas Blair favours formal sanctions over the informal promoted by communitarianism.

This essay will now turn to the present Coalition government in relation to community theories and crime. The Big Society is a concept coined by the Conservative Party that has continued throughout the Coalition, concerned with the principles of active participation, 'empowering' local communities, devolution of power to local areas and increasing voluntary, charitable and philanthropic activity (Cabinet Office 2010; Cameron, 2009; Coote, 2010). Central to Big Society thought is the assumption that the state has grown too large and has undermined community and individual responsibility:

"…as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours.

Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society - and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing."

(Cameron, 2009; [internet])

Neighbourhoods, therefore, are central to Big Society plans and have actively been encouraged to 'come together' to work towards goals identified within the local area, such as increasing the control they have over running existing local services (libraries, schools, parks etc.) (Cameron, 2010).

Many of the Coalition's proposed agendas for crime is In line with Big Society commitments to localism, including the publication of local crime statistics and the introduction of regular 'beat meetings' between neighbourhood groups and local police officers (Benyon, 2011) further to this, the Coalition have continued the commitment of the previous New Labour government towards reducing levels of 'anti-social' behaviour at a local level by introducing 'community triggers' allowing neighbours and community groups to initiate action against those deemed to be acting in an anti-social manner (Rodger, 2012). Rodger (2012: 415) sees these measures as "an attempt to recreate that lost sense of community control"; representing an increased usage of the criminal justice system within legislation that have previously been outside the definition of illegality, thus criminalising actions that have previously been seen as otherwise and acting as a regulatory body over individuals at a community level rather than emphasising community bonds to reduce levels of criminality.

Coote (2010) relates Big Society thinking directly to 'American Communitarian thinking' in his assessment of current Coalition plans, particularly the way by which the issue of returning community and civic order is emphasised and active participation is welcomed, yet Coote (2010) is sceptical over the Big Society's relationship in a way similar to that of Hale (2006) in relation to New Labour; believing communitarian undertones to Big Society rhetoric acts as a means to achieving other ideological ends - cutting public services in order to address the deficit. From this stance, cuts to formerly state-controlled public services are made feasible by shifting the responsibility for them to communities, individuals, local enterprises and charities. From this it may also be implied that the Big Society has followed the lead of New Labour in advocating 'buzz words' from communitarian thinking in order to attempt to deviate from 'traditional' political thought and attempt to make changes to the UK along the lines of increasing community and individual participation. The difference herein lies in that the Big Society is concerned with devolving the influence of the state, whereas New Labour were concerned with changing the relationship between individuals and the state.

Spending cuts to public services undermine any communitarian basis to Big Society thinking, particularly when it is revealed that whilst voluntary and community organisations have been given a central place in Big Society plans, they suffer a thirteen per cent reduction in budget as a consequence of austerity measures (Wilding, 2011), a figure purported to be in the area of "£4.5 billion (Sage, 2012). Wilding (2011) highlights the groups most severely hit by these measures are service delivering voluntary, community and local government groups. A question arises here as to whether cuts to spending create a framework for a Big Society that is increasingly reliant on community and voluntary organisations - those that the Government has cut funding to - particularly in a time of economic downturn when other areas of society, such as the welfare state and employment opportunities have suffered - "There will be many more people out of work, facing a punitive benefits system and drastically pared-down public services, and more polarisation between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Unpaid labour and the charitable and voluntary sectors are due to fill the gaps left by public services, providing support to increasing numbers of poor, jobless, insecure and unsupported individuals and families" (Coote, 2010; 2).

Regarding the issue of increasing community participation, Schmuecker (2011) highlights community capacity is not evenly distributed, therefore some areas are unready to take increased power and responsibility. Marginal voices may be ignored or go unheard in plans to increase participation within communities, as neighbourhoods of geographically defined communities may marginalise or 'drown out' minority voices, on this issue, the Big Society proposes no safeguards to prevent tyranny, racism or exclusion.

Some may argue that increasing community participation and cohesion is a valid aim for government; however Dorling (2011) assesses the double standards shown in government rhetoric towards these issues, highlighting the main group who seem to be concerned over community cohesion are the wealthiest in society. Dorling (ibid) reveals that many government officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron, own more than one home, and questions the capacity for double (plus) homeowners to properly know and understand their neighbours. In this case, Dorling (ibid) shows that levels of community cohesion and participation may be seen to be low in affluent areas, yet these are the places unmentioned in plans to restore segregated communities.

Ultimately, themes of communitarianism linked to idealised views of increasing community participation as a tactic for solving social ills is pervasive in many areas of policy-making, including that of crime prevention and particularly concerning themes of responsibility twinned with rights, whether these are examples of a shift towards communitarian thinking is debatable, particularly in the case of the Big Society; within which appeals to increased participation and empowerment within communities may be seen as a front for Coalition aims of deficit reduction (Sage, 2012). As with the assessment of New Labour, Big Society rhetoric does share common principles with communitarianism, however these are brief and the driving ideology lies elsewhere; presently, in the economic crisis and the Coalition's commitment to deficit reduction through austerity measures and cuts to the public sector. In fact deficit reduction threatens to reduce the scope of both the public sector and services, thus undermining Coalition commitments to a stronger, active civil society (ibid).

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