Working in, with and for the 21st century communities: Concepts, prospects and challenges

Mark Lawrence, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Geography
Department of Geography & Political Science
Bemidji State University
Bemidji, MN 56601



At the start of the 21st century, the rise of new forms of "community" requires careful attention to the differences between working in, working with, and working for people in rapidly changing circumstances. Older notions which favored an idea of the community as a relatively stable, clearly identifiable phenomenon, at the very least in terms of location, are now increasingly challenged by at least {a} new modalities of migration, {b} changing patterns of communication, and {c} the need to discover opportunities in the midst of environmental crisis. A careful distinction needs to be made between praxis and poiesis in order to reframe consideration of these challenges.






What are we to make of the fact, startling to some, that the BBC's 2004 Pulse of Africa survey found that more than 90% of those polled in 10 countries were "proud to be Africans" (BBC)? After all, paternalistic imaginaries widely deployed by international political and civil societal agencies portray Africa as only a debilitated, miserable continent. This is not to deny that poverty, hunger, illness, or other forms of insecurity stalk Africa, but the survey restores at least a measure of real identity to Africans themselves- that is, not as invisible until targeted for assistance or condemnation by outsiders, but as persistently working out their own forms of everyday life without waiting on international intervention. These everyday undertakings may or may not be constructive of a sense of common experience, let alone sustainable forms of such commonality, but they are relevant nonetheless and ought to be considered the soil in which the seeds of other intentions are planted, usually without consideration for whether or not the effort is sensible from the perspectives of outsiders.

These brief musings about what it means to be "African", who gets to signify what that meaning is, and what the consequences are of favouring some significations over others all raise questions not only about individual but also "community" identity. Simply put, regardless of Western traditions of economic and political liberal individualism, anyone's daily life is inevitably experienced in conjunction with that of others. This obvious generalization is the foundational assumption for all sorts of "community"-based activity, by booster groups, church societies, social clubs, service agencies, and of course academic researchers.

But what exactly is meant by "community"? As I hope to demonstrate in this paper, older notions which favoured an idea of the community as a relatively stable, clearly identifiable phenomenon, at the very least in terms of location, are now increasingly challenged by at least {a} new modalities of migration, {b} changing patterns of communication, and {c} the need to discover opportunities in the midst of environmental crisis. While it may be the conceit of every generation to imagine that it stands at an historical crossroads, I risk taking seriously the suggestion made by Hannah Arendt already half a century ago of the need to pay attention to the unique difficulties of living in "an interval altogether determined by things which are no longer and by things which are not yet" (1961). That is, I suggest at the outset that a "21st-century" community has to be considered as only ever in formation, defined as much by the unintentional synergy of novel circumstances as by past achievements and deliberate plans for the future.


For a very long time indeed, there has been an intimate connection in Western thought between Geography and Ethics, though perhaps not one immediately obvious to those working in, with, or for communities. Heidegger, for instance, is only one of the more recent voices connecting ethical action to a sense of "dwelling". This is already a concept of great significance to geographers since, as social scientists, they have always recognized that we do not just occupy locations; rather, we make place out of space culturally and socially. In terms of breadth or orientation, a place is defined as much by what and who it is not about. This means that a place always has to be thought of as relative to other places. In terms of depth or scale, places are therefore as local as household and neighborhood interactions, but also as extra-local as involvement with the world-system. Taken together, this means that communities are places that are simultaneously here and there, as well as us and them. That is, they are spaces of contradiction as much as of compromise, all the more so because, in order to be recognizable as communities, arguably they need not simply to be made, but re-made over and over again historically.

Needless to say, this is an uncomfortable perspective for anyone engaged in community work inasmuch as it suggests that the aim of their attention turns out to be focused only ever on a moving target. It is therefore important for those trying to improve the quality of life in any particular community to register that, as Richard Kearney puts it, ethics is a "precondition of morality, not an effect" (1995). Kearney elaborates that the self finds itself not in formal rules (i.e., moral proscriptions) but in cultivation of a value of solidarity with others via practical action. However, he is quick to remind us that for the ancient Greeks, upon whose foundational thought so much of the Western ethical tradition is presumed to rest, "chaos became cosmos through the art of poiesis." This is a crucial point, suggesting as it does that practical action by itself is insufficient for the establishment of solidarity with others necessary for any sense of community. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined praxis as action which contains its end in itself, as for example the weaving of a carpet to keep the floor warm. By contrast, poiesis is defined as activity aimed at an end not contained within itself; in this case, the choice of colors and patterns in the carpet's design, which have nothing to do with whether or not the floor stays warm but appeal to different sensibilities in different people at different times. In other words, the poetic is always future-oriented, not merely rooted in the present moment, though as the example of the carpet is meant to suggest, the poetic is never necessarily divorced from a practical impulse.

Beyond an analysis of carpet weaving, these philosophical distinctions take on considerable significance when community workers confront the often daunting task of organizing in the face of such questions as "why are we doing this?" or even more fundamentally "why should care about doing anything about this?" Geographers have always considered the spatial element in any response to such questions of primary importance because at best, practical action is two-dimensional, merely a trajectory of change without the additional dimensions of orientation, scale, and history. That four-dimensional alternative to merely practical action defines "community" not only in terms of praxis, but in terms of poetics. Put another way, what is needed- perhaps now more than ever- is a poetics of space. In some respects, this reflects the efforts of Heidegger, Ricoeur and others to reestablish the connection of praxis, poiesis, and ethics formerly downplayed by Aristotle, who considered the solidarity-building function of ethical behaviour as rooted most importantly in praxis.

Probably because of the degree to which an Aristotelian view has dominated Western scientific, political, and economic thought, it is often difficult to persuade contemporary people of the need for a poetic approach to community work, let alone of its efficacy. This is perhaps especially because of the virulent history of a more instrumental emphasis often registered as "modern", ostensibly valorizing direct, empirical study of individual needs and capabilities by contrast to earlier modes of social organization subordinating the potential individualities of millions to the whims of the aristocratic few. But while the specific genealogy of the modern may be unclear (Latour 1993), trenchant critiques such as those of Foucault's (1979) have revealed that far from it being a hallmark of modernity that it encourages the development of an individuality actively involved with the social in terms of practical action, the "modern" Subject appears most distinctly (that is, in its most individuated form) at the margins of the social. Foucault explored these margins in the form of the prison, the asylum, and the clinic, while Bhabha (1990b) has focused on the experiences of the exile, the postcolonial "native", and the guestworker, experiences of particular relevance to address of some contemporary trends I want to emphasize later in this paper.

Importantly, therefore, a call for development of a poetics of space and its deployment in community work should not be taken as rejection of empirical study of people's needs and capabilities, but careful assessment of the degree to which our attention on individual cases atomises social phenomena which should be treated more carefully. In particular, Bhabha develops a keen understanding of the multiple and simultaneous "temporalities" of the Subject, turning to Fanon to emphasize that there is no stable "enunciation" of the subject, but only "the fluctuating movement that the people are just giving shape to" (Fanon 1969 in Bhabha 1990b:303, italics in the original). This notion points to the intersubjective constitution of the Subject, a constitution which cannot be captured by "continuist" concepts of modernity since it occurs in "the zone of occult instability where the people dwell" (ibid). We should recall Adorno advancing similar arguments against acceptance of philosophies which express a "hatred of the complicated" and are therefore prey to abuse by authoritarian interests in their promotion of a Subject capable of establishing itself before, over, and above its relation with the world (Adorno 1983; Dews 1986). Alfred North Whitehead warned about dichotomies such as choosing between economic or ecological sustainability that we should "Seek simplicity and distrust it" and Fanon went further, insisting "Culture abhors simplification" (Bhabha, op. cit.). In other words, we need to be attentive to the heterogeneity of impulses constitutive of the Subject, as well as of the multiple possible organizations of those impulses, no one element carrying greater constitutive weight than any other.

All of this reframes consideration about why, how, when, and where to intervene in a community inasmuch as it now must be considered at least as a loosely defined collective of heterogeneously constituted Subjects. In line with this thinking, the geographer David Harvey (1989:216, cf. Moore 1986) understands that "The idea that there is some 'universal' language of space, a semiotics of space, independent of practical activities and historically situated actors, has to be rejected." Again, communities are not merely locations, but always forming and re-forming places, with Manuel Castells insightfully distinguishing between the "spaces of places" and the "spaces of flows" (1989). One powerful implication of accepting such a view is to destabilize the ordinary habit of distancing those "belonging" to a community from Subjects considered as "Other". By contrast, to consider all Subjects as "hybrid" is to recognize their complex identities as combinative of elements drawn from many (often-conflicting) sources (Scholte 1996). Amartya Sen has recently reiterated precisely this point (2006), concluding that while identity has less to do with rational choice than we might hope, "loyalties" (including those to a particular community) are neither imposed, dominant over other affiliations, nor solely determinant of who we are.

Indeed, this is perhaps more the case now than hitherto, with such a strong element of Diaspora defining emerging forms of community at the start of the 21st century. For example, in Los Angeles, one third of all Latinos now marry outside their ethnic group, a hybridization of identities that is often masked by U.S. Census projections that suggest that a 73% "white" majority of the American population in 1996 will shrink to only 53% by 2050 as the Latino population more than doubles in proportion (from 11% to 24%). As a racist President denounces the singing of the National Anthem in Spanish and rushes National Guardsmen to the Mexican border, right-wing panic ignores the intermarrying of Latinos and other populations, to say nothing of the fact that since 1990, more than half of all immigrants to U.S. and Canada have come not across the Rio Grande but from Pacific-Rim Asia.

Thus, "the process of cultural hybridity gives rise to...a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation" (Bhabha 1990a:211). To be sure, many contemporary Subjects persist in defining themselves in opposition to hegemonic discourses, but doing so actually inadvertently reinforces a binary logic of dominating/resisting. By contrast, the hybrid position occupies what Bhabha calls a "third space" beyond the reach of such logic, never purely hegemonic or purely oppositional, but one in which formerly distanced cultural forms draw nearer and effect transformations in one another, at the very least obliging reconceptualisation of the "exotic" as "domesticated Other" (Egerer 2001). Bhabha hopes for trespass outside bipolar schemes of representation of Self and Other into "a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one nor the Other, properly alienates our political expectations and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the 'moment' of politics" (1988:10-11).

The geographer Doreen Massey (1992; Allen and Massey 1995) has explored some of the technological possibilities of maneuvering ourselves into such a place of hybridity, while others (Aitken and Wingate 1993; Jones 1997; Sibley 1991 and 1995b; Valentine 1997) have looked at the hybrid geographic experiences of children. Indeed, there are now many examples of work in Geography which focus on hybridity and transitional or interstitial spaces. Massey (1994; see also Allen and Massey 1995) has written about the "double articulation" experienced by those crafting a sense of community in the face of uncertain social conditions in London. Sibley (1995a) examines the "geographies of exclusion" simultaneously resisted and exploited by minorities. Pile and Thrift (1995) more broadly seek to "map the subject" undergoing cultural transformations. Pile has also opened important lines of inquiry regarding psychoanalysis, space, and subjectivity (1996). In short, I mean to suggest that these places of hybridity are models for what we might call 21st century communities. As previously noted, prospects for working in, with, and for such communities involve more empirically paying careful attention to {a} new modalities of migration, {b} changing patterns of communication, and {c} the need to discover opportunities in the midst of environmental crisis.


New modalities of migration

So what is a 21st-century community? Across many disciplines and professions, an understandable focus has been placed on "megacities" as today the world's urban population grows by 60 million each year, three times the rural increase. About half (47%) of the world's population was already urbanized in 1999, with 61% expected to be within 25 years. In 1960, only two cities (New York and Tokyo) had populations of more than 10 million, both in the "developed" world of the global North. By 1999, the number of such megacities had grown to 17, with 13 found in the "developing" global South (76% of the total). Within 10 years, there will be another 9 megacities, with an even larger share in the global South (85%). By 2015, at least 10% of the global population will live in megacities, up from just 1.7% in 1960.

Some would say that urbanization of this magnitude has destroyed any possible reference to previous forms of community, but a decade ago and close to my own region in the American Midwest, Stephen Bloom already noticed that:

"The rural Heartland is up for auction, and the bidders are thousands of new pioneers arriving each month. They are taking the places of the old who are dying and the young who are leaving. In not just a few windblown towns, the newly arrived are immigrants, driven from their homes in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe.The number of legal immigrants who arrived in America between 1990 and 1993- 10.6 million- is nearly double the number of those who arrived the preceding 13 years.Increasingly large numbers of immigrants are moving east and west, converging upon the Heartland in waves of secondary migration. While the overall growth of rural small towns nationally has taken a nose dive since 1980, the number of Asian immigrants who have moved to rural America has jumped 42 per cent to more than 600,000 and the number of Hispanics has increased 23 per cent to more than three million. In Minnesota, the Hispanic population jumped 68 per cent in the 1980s; in Kansas it grew 48 per cent; in Iowa, it rose 28 per cent." (1996:36)

Under such circumstances, the disturbance of previous representations of rural America allows for a reorientation toward any project of making history, since it now becomes possible to consider history as active instead of merely reflective (Foucault 1984). As suggested earlier, the value of such reorientation lies in recognition of the fact that "Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. But that does not mean that they are all living at the same time with others" (Bloch 1977:22).

This articulation of the multiple temporalities through which everyday life is lived highlights the fact that whether rural or urban, social space and time always already constitute "a realm of merely virtual or deferred tensions" (Lefebvre 1991:174). Lefebvre's tripartite scheme concerning the "production of space" helps in understanding these tensions by distinguishing between three coexisting moments of {a} habitual "spatial practice", {b} dominant "representations of space", and {c} subversive "spaces of representation". The first of these (spatial practice) is related directly to the spatial division of labour promoted by the dominant mode of production at any given historical juncture. Reinforcing and naturalizing these practices are (secondly) representations of space which emphasize for example the significance of openness or enclosure, vertical or horizontal arrangement of elements of the built environment, massive or minimal ornament, et cetera. The third moment of this scheme has to do with the proliferation of what Lefebvre referred to as spaces of representation, in which dominant spatial arrangements are challenged (as especially in artistic expression). While reference to dominant discourse continues, this does not amount to rehearsing surrender to its spatial practices, but the exploitation of them to open up novel identity forms. Lefebvre's spaces of representation subversively respond not only to identity categories preferred and promoted by dominant spatial practice, but generally speaking to the whole attempt to engage in categorisation procedures.

However, the common tendency to view the rural simply as the repository of the urban has to be resisted. The possibility has to be left open that even if the rural population is simplistically homogenized and identified as a dominated class, "The everyday discourses of [this class may be] formed largely outside the control of the ruling class, and embodies significant beliefs and values at odds with it" (Eagleton 1991:35). In this regard, Cooke (1985, 1990) has elaborated on Gramsci (1971) to consider the possibility that the practices of differing classes can become "regional markers" of different types. Why couldn't this notion be localized even further to suggest "community markers" of different types, and not only in terms of class but also of culture, gender, age, and so on?

This sense of the space of representation as a zone of traversal emphasizes a conception of places not as fixed entities, but rather as only ever partially coherent. Developing this idea of the "becoming" of places, Pred (1984 and 1985) was particularly concerned with the intersection of the "path" of the individual human agent and the "projects" represented by institutional production of both spatial and social divisions of labour. In this conception of place there is an assumption that the routine physical contact of the individual with familiar spaces on a daily basis (the "path") plays a central role for a place to maintain a viable sense of cohesion. But what is really being described by Pred is what could be called a sense of the interior of place; by contrast, the liminal character of a place- that is, the extent of a place and the conditions of its passing over into a shape which we would tend to identify as another place altogether- is not well defined.

This is because, community is now "rhizomatic" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), tangential rather than hierarchical, hyperbolic rather than targeted with respect to specification of planning goals and objectives. Investments of "social capital" (Lin 2001) now must match those of political and economic capital both in form (or near-formlessness) and function (or multitasking applicability). The members of such a radically transformed sense of "community" are no longer those in communion with a particular place, but nomads of a new age whose migration patterns radically challenge the "sovereignty" of a more static political and economic geography of the past (Sassen 1996). No less value-oriented than their predecessors, the members of emerging 21st-century communities are less likely to be citizens than expatriates, more likely to be civilizing rather than merely civilized, neither immigrants assimilating newfound culture or refugees caught between here and there, but catalysts of transformations of places than cannot be anticipated.

According to a variety of sources, at century's end at least 67 million people were migrant in one form or another. About 15 million per year during the 1990s were "refugees", though this number fluctuates widely (from about 2 million in 1960 to 17 million in 1991, and to 27 million in 1995, with much higher figures in the 1940s). Historically, most refugees have shown a circulatory migration pattern, returning home after the cessation of conflict or change in the circumstances that prompted their flight. The contributions of those who stay in receiving countries have been alternately celebrated or reviled (or worse, ignored, refugees typecast as social dead weight). A special, but by no means unique, example of this kind is the movement of more than 4 million ethnic Russians out of Transcaucasia and Turkestan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Importantly, several million people are considered "refugee" within territories historically coincident with their cultural identities. For example, the 3.3 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, on the West Bank, and in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are considered refugees from a State that does not officially exist.

But little attention has been given to the connections established between receiving countries and those to which some refugees return, creating hybrid or "interstitial" forms of communities that are equivalent to neither of the others involved (Husband 1994; Riggins 1992). Hargreaves and Mahdjoub (1997), for example, note that by the mid-1990s, the proportion of the Arabic-speaking population of France that had invested in satellite television services was at least five times greater than that of the general population. Gillespie (1995) notes a similar phenomenon in England, where West Indian immigrants invested earlier and more heavily in VCR technology to watch taped programming sent from Caribbean homelands, while Kolar-Panov (1997) notes the distinctly ritual use of videorecordings by immigrants returning to countries in which they are employed after briefly making visits home.

Another 4 million people were supposedly "internally displaced" by 1998, but this is probably the most troublesome figure among all categories of migrants, and some observers raise the estimated total to 50 million. Likewise, internal displacement has to be considered alongside labour migration within borders, which is widely variable in terms of the persistence of ties between original and workplace communities. In the extreme, people are completely uprooted from their homes in search of a better economic opportunity elsewhere, a situation that includes for example 120 million Chinese every day. Little attention has been focused on the novel forms of community established by these migrants, emphasis instead placed on the collapse of communities of origin and the stresses placed communities of destination. Presumably this is because such movement is historically familiar, especially in such cases as the opening of the American frontier. But the scale of these internal migrations is arguably far more dramatic than that seen hitherto, not only in total numbers of people moving but also in the pace and character of change. One of the more notable characteristics of rapid urbanization is its' feminization, particularly in Asia where between 1990 and 1997, women entered non-agricultural labour forces (industrial and post-industrial) at a rate only 3% faster than women in Africa, but 24% faster than women in the entire "developed" world (US, Europe, Japan, etc.).

A third category included about at least 42 million "temporary migrants". Closely related is a fourth category of migrant, including by century's end 6 million recognizable "immigrants", but as the current vitriolic debate in the United States demonstrates, there is considerable debate about both the numbers and terms of classification involved in both of these categories. According to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration based in Manila, for instance, at least as many as 4.2 million (and perhaps as many as 7 million) Filipinos work outside The Philippines, but only about half are legally documented temporary migrants. Altogether, these workers remit three times as much revenue as the Philippines receives as foreign aid annually. Seagrave (1995) noted that already a decade ago, the 55 million "overseas Chinese" were generating an economic output roughly equal to that of the 1.2 billion people in China itself. The $8 billion remitted from the United States to communities south of the border makes migrant labour second only to oil in importance to Mexico's economy.

Globally, legal remittances topped $232 billion at the end of 2005, with perhaps half again as much remitted informally since formal transfers are still subject to fees as high as 15%, a significant burden for poor workers. The "less developed" or "developing" countries of the global South receive 72% of all remittances ($167 billion), more than twice the level of all types of foreign aid given last year. But against the persistence of a geopolitical imaginary that condemns the poorer countries as mere beggars, it is important to note that as much as 45% of all remittances fall under the category of "South-South" flows. According to the International Labour Organisation, "From 1970 to 1990 the number of countries employing foreign labour has more than doubled from 42 to 90", with increases expected to continue (ILO).

Importantly, while about 191 million people worldwide live in countries other than those in which they were born (up from 155 million in 1990 and 120 million in 1980), about 43% (more than 82 million) are moving between countries within the South rather than only from there to the "more developed" countries of the global North. The massive movement of labour and wealth around the world is accompanied by tectonic shifts in culture as well. For example, despite an 87% support rating of the "war on terror" by European Muslims, many EU countries have now restricted civil liberties for Muslim citizens (education in France, marriage in Denmark, etc.). Meanwhile, more than half of all children under 14 in the 4 biggest cities of the Netherlands, for instance, are now Muslim and foreign-born. At the moment, about 17 million Muslims live in the EU (4% of total population). Another 5 million live in southeastern Europe where the EU is expanding, and unlike the rest, these populations are historically European. Turkish membership would bring another 67 million into the EU, raising the Muslim share of total population to 17%.

Clearly, more insular types of community nostalgic for a bygone era- while persistent in many areas and in often malignant forms- are now clearly challenged by the emergence of newer, more cosmopolitan and transnational visions. A merely practical sense of avoiding change because "that's the way it's always been done" is insufficient in the face of the need for a poetics of space that can enable more than simply assimilation of "foreigners". As Deleuze and Guattari put it, "power centres are defined much more by what escapes them or by their impotence than by their zone of power" (1987:217), such that we might gain more by overcoming habits of resistance to the increasingly unavoidable presences among "us".

This is critically important to appreciate because, despite politically vicious imaginaries that would suggest otherwise, most migrants are not hopelessly poor, uneducated, and without skills worthwhile to the societies into which they have moved. An estimated 23,000 health professionals leave Africa every year (fully 1/3rd of the total produced annually), affecting 20 countries, especially when a university professor earning $1000 a month in 1980 now earns $50 on average. There are more Ethiopian doctors in the U.S. than in Ethiopia, and only 25% of Malawi's nursing graduates are practicing. The total savings to the EU and US amounts to about $512 billion, while remittances amount to only about $12 billion (of which only a third reaches sub-Saharan countries). The number of Africans working abroad will reach 10% of the continental population total by 2025. Africa's monetary loss due to hiring 100,000 expatriates to make up for the brain drain stands at over $4 billion a year. Some of Africa's more developed countries (e.g., Nigeria) have spent more on universities than on elementary schools, with the result that, as Tanzania's Mwalimu Nyerere once put it, they wind up "with their feet in the Stone Age and their heads in the Information Age". It is certainly worth noting that, among other examples of cultural hybridity, Africans are the most educated foreign-born population living in the United States today. Shifting regional focus, the BBC recently reported that fully 60% of educated Guyanans, Haitians, and Jamaicans work abroad. Resistance to "foreign" presence overlooks the net gain experienced by communities receiving new immigrants. Certainly, it is the case that in the United States at least, immigrants receive fewer public services than they pay for due to the scale imbalance in tax allotments given that most new arrivals live in poorer communities.

Changing patterns of communication

Beyond rapid urbanization are other, arguably more important transformations. Although 80% of the world has never heard a phone ring, 77% of the world is now within range of mobile networks, and an extra phone for every 10 people increases GDP growth in the global South by 0.6% (twice as great as in the global North). Importantly, technological convergence now means that today's telephones have multitasking capabilities, including accessing online services. Nonetheless, the United Nations is spending billions on a "Digital Solidarity" project, trying to build community Internet centres, particularly in rural areas in especially peripheral countries. This reflects the general growth of global Internet usage, from 200 million users in December 1998 to 606 million by September 2002. However, it also reflects the more particular persistence of regional disparities in Internet usage. At the end of 2002, for instance, while an average of 186.94 million people regularly used the Internet in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, an average of only 14.93 million were online in Latin America, the Mideast, and Africa (Benschop 2003).

While evidence supports the notion that increased Internet "teledensity" improves GDP about twice as much as the same increase in primary-school completion rates, Internet transactions typically require a credit card, which most people in target areas don't have. Also, ISP's are almost always run from core countries, determining website content and context, a significant challenge to articulating locally meaningful spatial poetics. For that matter, building of "Digital Solidarity" centres (and support with stable electricity supply, staffing with technical assistants, provision of necessary hardware, and so on) means less spending on rural education, healthcare, water supply, sanitation, etc. As previously noted, Internet access has grown dramatically in recent years, but growth is slowing and only 15% of the world has access. By contrast, more of the periphery and semiperiphery in the global South is within range of at least one mobile network than is the population of the global North. There are 3 times as many cell phones in Africa today than there were in 2000, and even a peripheral country such as Nigeria (Africa's most populous) will likely be provided nationwide wireless broadband service before the U.S. In short, there is opportunity for reminding a rapidly urbanizing world that otherwise marginalized and especially rural places are also more than incidentally likely to play a significant role in shaping the new century. This is especially important to appreciate given the unsustainable ecological costs of contemporary urban lifestyles, in Sao Paulo as in New York, in Shanghai as in Tokyo, in Lagos as in London.

So developing any poetics of new forms of community needs to include recognition of changing patterns of consumption and communication. While the 20th century witnessed the opening of a yawning gulf between global haves and have-nots, the 21st century seems able so far to support the uncomfortable paradox of maintaining that brutal division even as globalization stitches places and populations together in ever more tightly bound political, economic, cultural, and environmental relationships. Under such circumstances, of necessity "community" often becomes volatilized, as temporary and strategically unstable as are corporate and irregular military maneuvers.

Consider for example that more than half of the population in no less than 36 of Africa's 54 countries speaks a home language that is not the national language. Indeed, in the overwhelming majority of these countries, more than 90% of the population's home languages are given no official national representation. In nearly as many countries, the legacy of political borders imposed by European colonialists irrespective of African cultural geography has meant than more than half the population represents ethnic groups other than the majority or plurality population.

Under such conditions, the active participants in 21st century forms of community are likely to be neither {a} only risk takers interested in short-term gratification, nor {b} only long-term thinkers structured in their behaviour by tradition and regulatory culture. Beyond both narrowly conceived self-interest ({a}) and the "common good" defined by received wisdom of agrarian and industrial eras ({b}), a post-industrial sensibility of community requires organization around "concomitant goods", multiple and shifting objectives for community effort that include acceptance of impacts beyond both the spatial and temporal reach of local control. This is a big step away from merely future-shock oriented recasting of community as enforced nostalgia, and the identification of emerging 21st-century forms of community may better assist analysis of the trajectories of whole societies in the present era. Thus, developing a poetics of space for the 21st century will mean that besides an emphasis on new analyses of communication and consumption, we must commit to an equally novel analysis of not just intercultural but also intergenerational dynamics. As Alvin Toffler has said, "illiteracy in the future will not be the inability to read and write, but the inability to learn, unlearn, and relearn" (1974).

Opportunities in environmental crisis

As previously noted, the emerging era is one dominated by rapid and large-scale urbanization. But it is crucial to note that while cities occupy less than 2% of the Earth's land surface, they house almost half of the human population and, most importantly, use 75% of all available natural resources (AAAS). We should remember that

"Worldwide, more than a billion people live in urban areas where air pollution exceeds acceptable levels. The death toll from lung disease associated with urban air pollution could be half a million a year in China alone. The notorious traffic congestion in Bangkok costs an estimated 2 percent of Thailand's GDP."

A measure of the amount of resources needed to meet current lifestyle needs, the "ecological footprint" of the average American is about 10 hectares, compared to about 6 in Europe and Japan, 1.8 in China, and about 1 for most of the rest of the world's 6.3 billion people. While it is unreasonable to expect that we can engineer a humane and large-scale return to the countryside, one of the more significant reasons for rethinking the poetics of space is that cities in particular have enormous ecological footprints:

"They call on resources over a wide area to provide food and raw materials. Vancouver's half a million people consume resources from an estimated 2 million hectares -- 200 times the area of the city itself. London's footprint is 120 times the size of the city, drawing on resources from the wheat prairies of Kansas, the tea gardens of Assam and the copper mines of Zambia among other places. Locally, cities put huge strains on natural ecosystems, polluting rivers and coastal waters, consuming forests and water, degrading soils, disrupting drainage and stunting crops. Urban smog and acid deposition in China are estimated to be reducing crop yields by up to a third."

Needless to say, competition for resources under such an unsustainable consumption regime can- and frequently does- lead to confrontation. According to the UNESCO, the world spends at least 8% of its GNP on arms, compared to 5% on education and 2.5% on health (Eco-Compass 1999). Two days of global military spending (approx. $4.8 billion) is equal to the annual cost of the UN Action Plan to halt Third World desertification over 20 years. The US Department of Defense uses enough oil to run the entire US public transport system for 22 years. In less than one hour of flight, an F-16 fighter plane burns up almost twice as much fuel as the average American motorist does during one year.

Of course, some conservatives would argue that cost-benefit analysis is insufficient for determining ethical standards when dealing with environmental issues due to the uncertainty of scientific results needed for calculations. But an alternative basis for taking seriously the possibility of developing a new poetics of space is found in the notion of "symbolic utility" (Nozick 1993). After all, actions are not merely actions but also communicate, indicating much about the actor and her image of her surrounding environment. This is why people behave differently in public and in private: they weigh not only the "technical" consequences of their public actions, but the communicative effects as well.

Here again we encounter the compelling difference between praxis and poiesis in everyday life, not merely in abstraction. In other words, it is possible to find opportunities for community-building in environmental crisis. This is a crucial point, since, as Richard Schaull has written in a preface to Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (1993), "Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system. To the degree that this happens, we are also becoming submerged in a new 'culture of silence.'"


But what happens when two or more versions of symbolic utility are adequate ethical standards? There is no easy answer to questions such as this, and it raises only one of several challenges to construction of a poetics of space for 21st century forms of community. After all, compromise is an inadequate response when confronted by competing versions of symbolic utility, satisfying different populations with highly variable success. Consensus decision making, by contrast, is not about compromise but about seeking points of agreement and understanding (and transcending often implicit) roots of disagreement.

Closely connected to this issue of consensus building is the challenge presented by the need, previously articulated, to developing a new poetics of space that accommodates and even strengthens intergenerational dynamics. In this regard, Raymond Williams tried to recognize the ways in which a sense of place was organized in a "structure of feeling" which "gives the sense of a generation or period" (Williams 1977:131). The geographer Paasi adds to this the idea of a "structure of expectations", in which "generation is suggested as a mediating category for comprehending the relations between region and place" (1991:239). In each case, feelings or expectations have much to do not only with the ways in which social relations are shaped, but with how those shapes are perceived and interpreted (Jackson 1989:2).

This interpretive dimension of course involves the selection of locally-appropriate symbols for talking sensibly about social relations. Paasi suggests that the emergence of place-specific institutions is "the reverse of the increased use of territorial symbols and signs", that the institutionalizing of place serves to 'police' the use of symbolic markers, to push historically for a locally valuable conformity. This echoes Deleuze and Guattari's observation that "To code the business of the socius" (Deleuze and Guattari 1983:139), as well as Foucault's understanding that the "techniques of the self" are "proposed, suggested, and imposed" (Foucault 1988:11).

Building on this, from Bourdieu (1977) we derive the important notion of cultural or symbolic capital (not incidentally related to Novick's idea of the symbolic utility of action). Previous analyses have considered symbolic capital as invested in places to demarcate which areas of the local landscape are to be considered as "set aside" for particular groups. This demarcating process is carried through by assessments of what Bourdieu calls "cultural competence". Those who cannot muster adequate or appropriate symbolic capital may nonetheless be able to 'appear' in those parts of the local landscape for which they are not culturally competent, but such presence will not be permanent. For Bourdieu, such an individual is a visitor only, an outsider who has to "find his [sic] way around in a foreign landscape and who compensates for his lack of practical mastery, the prerogative of the native, by the use of a model of all possible routes" (1977:2).

But when new modalities of migration and changing patterns of communication and consumption open up possibilities for the creation of hybrid identities, the distribution and deployment of social capital becomes less obvious (Oyseman, Sakamoto, and Lauffer 1998). In other words, how do we define a 'community' when any given member thereof navigates "all possible routes" within the local landscape by means of interchangeable competences- would we even be able to recognize this variable situation as community (Freeman, Lawrence, Christofferson, and Kiilu 2004; also, Lawrence and Mwanzia 2004)?

Closely connected to this is another crucial issue to raise in closing: what impacts will demographic change have on any poetics of space (timeworn or innovative), especially throughout the many parts of the global North now rapidly aging? In 1900, one person out of every 25 in the United States was over the age of 65; by the year 2050, even if the current spasm of anti-immigrant unfriendliness had not seized the country, the ratio will be 1 in 5. While the demographic portrait of the global South is just the opposite, populations there overwhelmingly young, the issue remains the same: How can we expect a new poetics of space to be implemented if there are too few of a capable age to ensure its sustainable deployment without the distractions either or infirmity or infancy?


A novel poetics of space clearly requires us to reconsider the difference between 'community' as place and 'community' as attitude. Both are daily realities- or at least striven for as a meaningful reality, visible in specifiable surroundings (a combination of the two senses of the term). On the one hand, a megacity (Mumbai, let's say, with 30 million, or Mexico City) certainly can be disaggregated into many, perhaps hundreds, of constituent 'communities' across its spatial reach. On the other hand, there are populations of particular types that transgress the boundaries of those territorial units but which nonetheless are recognizable as 'communities' of another type.

Really, this is an old notion, since politicians have spoken fantasies about a 'community' of nations for a long time- but now, perhaps more legitimately, we can speak of global 'communities' of other sorts. Transnational social movements, not least of all those focused on environmental activism, organize communities from 'below' and 'across' political spaces as effectively as the State tries to regulate communities from 'above' and 'within' national boundaries (Lipschutz and Mayer 1996; Smith, Chatfield, and Pagnucco 1997; Warkentin and Mingst 2000). Cultural hegemony is a powerful trend, for good and ill both, but direct broadcasting satellites now facilitate "narrowcasting" to specific transnationalized ethnic groups (Cunningham & Sinclair 2000; Karim 2002). Likewise, 'virtual communities' not only link communication technology elites and others around the planet (Mitra 1997; Rheingold 1994). Consider for instance the simultaneous global protests by Kurdish immigrants of the capture of a PKK guerrilla leader after they learned of it from an online source. For that matter, electronic media not only create new spaces for expression of recognized identities, but "offer new resources and new disciplines for the construction of imagined selves and imagined worlds" (Appadurai 1994:3). Then, too, the old political hope of intergovernmental 'community' is reforming, including around collective thinking about environmental crises (Beck 1992 and 1997).

But does this mean that social relations at a more local level will dissolve completely because of a need, either voluntarily or out of necessity, to be more 'flexibile'? For many liberals in the global North this may be materially affordable, a kind of chic, while for millions in the global South it is already materially unavoidable, a bitter reality. So, will 'place', 'home', 'belonging to' become terms of a past era? Are human beings really able to adapt to permanently and rapidly changing circumstances in gigantic global (even virtual) 'communities' without being reduced to fighting for mere survival? Denying oneself (or others) the choice about what kind of identity matters most from one moment to the next may be the "illusion of destiny" (Sen 2006), but it could be argued that a loss of place includes the loss of a knowledge base for how to be in that former place, thereby eroding one's ability to be active in even a practical sense (let alone a poetic one).

At the same time, the organization of massive 'communities' of interest more or less spontaneously challenges not only the individual but repressive institutions with a flexibility that we might wish to encourage as much as weather (Calhoun 1994; Melucci 1989). Adapting to changing circumstances obliges us to reframe the issue: assuming that we must become more flexible, what happens to our definitions of 'place', 'home', 'belonging to', and so forth (Giddens 1990)? Communities are never merely the people and circumstances of the present, but also of the past partially forgotten and selectively remembered, as well as of the future only dimly seen and selectively envisioned. In other words, it is not unreasonable- indeed, it is crucially necessary- to frame analysis of communities (and of our actions working in, with, and for them) in terms of dramaturgy, the staging and performing of the meaningful activities of people in places that define them as particular places (Wise 2000). The dramaturgical rests foundationally upon the poetic, because as Kearney suggests, poetics amounts to the "saying of being", a speaking-into-existence that "prevents the object from being exhaustively represented". My purpose here has been to suggest that we take seriously the possibility that new modalities of migration, changing patterns of communication, and the appearance of opportunities to find advantage in environmental crisis all now make of "community" an object that can resist being exhausted of meaning (by residents and service agencies as much as by political institutions). It is in this sense that "community" can be thought of as equivalent to narrative in its development as a dialogue between authors and readers of change, invested with symbolic capital of one sort or another and organized in a distribution of spaces and moments of significance much as a narrative has a rhythm of chapters. However, to pursue the implications of this initial analysis is to take heed of Kearney's warning that to the degree that there is any equivalence between narrative and community is to keep narrative "perpetually mindful that it is narrative- and, therefore, open to being other than it is".

Thus, perhaps the overriding challenge of developing a new poetics of space is found in the need to clearly distinguish forms of ethical standards for defining what it means to work in, with, and for 21st century communities (Perry 1970). For too long, our worldviews have been dominated by the simplistic, received view of "ignorant intolerance", a black or white ethics of Either/Or. We have also suffered through the confused moral relativism of a grey Neither/Nor ethics. So what are our alternatives? We could opt for the reluctant black and white tolerance of compromise ethics, a Both/And position of 'I'm OK, you're OK (even though I don't agree)'. Or, we could try living in a less monochrome reality of what some have called "informed intolerance", recognizing social complexity and environmental responsibility for what they are, working with a broader palette of commitment within relativism.

This is of course likely to be a highly challenging ethical position, and therefore one requiring a serious and sustained shift of focus away from issues of definition and immediate purpose to those more importantly of dialogue and intermediate vision. We should, in other words, rally to John Dewey's call that "Policies and proposals for social action [should] be treated as working hypotheses, not as programs to be rigidly adhered to and executed.the essential need is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. This is the problem of the public" (1927:202-203). While praxis can generate a public active for a moment to resolve a particular dilemma across the "spaces of places" (Castells 1989), the new modalities of migration, changing modes of communication, and gathering environmental crises we now face oblige us to pursue poiesis generative of a public more persistently active, not for a moment, but across the span of generations of necessity across the "spaces of flows" (Yang 2002).


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2001) Atlas of population and environment,

Adorno, T.W. (1983) Against epistemology, London: Basil Blackwell.

Aitken, S.C. and J. Wingate (1993) "A preliminary study of the self-directed photography of middle-class, homeless, and mobility-impaired children," The Professional Geographer 45:65-72.

Allen, J. and D. Massey. (1995) Geographical worlds, Milton Keynes: Open University.

Appadurai, A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Public Worlds, volume 1), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Arendt, H. (1961) Between past and future, New York: Penguin.

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Toward a new modernity, London: Sage Publications.

----- (1997) The reinvention of politics, London: Blackwell Publishers.

Benschop, A. (2003) "Demography and geography of the Internet", University of Amsterdam; accessed online at

Bhabha, H. (1988) "The commitment to theory", New Formations 5:5-23.

----- (1990a) "The third space," in Rutherford, J. (ed.) Identity: community, culture, and difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

----- (1990b) "DissemiNation: Time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation," in H.K. Bhabha (ed.), Nation and narration, , pp. 291-322, London: Routledge.

Bloch, E. (1977) "Nonsynchronism and dialectics," New German Critique 11:22-38.

Bloom, S. (1996) "Remaking the American Dream: Strangers in a settled land", Wapsipinicon Almanac6:36-46.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BBC World Service (2004) The pulse of Africa: How Africans view their lives, their countries, their continent, their future, the world,

Calhoun, C. (1994) Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the struggle for democracy in China, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Castells, M. (1989) The informational city: Information technology, economic restructuring, and the urban-regional process, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cooke, P. (1985) "Class practices as regional markers: A contribution to labour geography", pp. 213-241 in Gregory, D and Urry, J., eds., Social relations and spatial structures, New York: St. Martin's Press.

----- (1990) Back to the future: Modernity, postmodernity and locality, London: Unwin Hyman.

Cunningham, S. and Sinclair, J., eds. (2000) Floating lives: The media and Asian diasporas, St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1983) Anti-Oedipus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

----- (1987) A thousand plateaus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dewey, J. (1927) The Public and its problems, Chicago: Gateway Books.

Dews, P. (1986) "Adorno, post-structuralism, and the critique of identity", New Left Review 157:28-44.

Eagleton, T. (1991) Ideology: An introduction, London: Verso.

Eco-Compass (1999) "The Environmental Impacts of War",

Egerer, C. (2001) "Ambivalent geographies: The exotic as domesticated Other", Third Text 55:15-28.

Fanon, F. (1969) The wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and punish, New York: Vintage Books.

----- (1984) "Nietzsche, geneaology, history", pp. 76-100 in Rabinow, P., ed., The Foucault reader, New York: Pantheon.

----- (1988) "Technologies of the self," in L.M. Martin, H. Gutman, and P.H. Hutton, eds., Technologies of the self, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Freeman, Lawrence, Christofferson, and Kiilu (2004) "The impacts of migration on establishment of social capital and environmental degradation in Kibwezi, Kenya", Proceedings of the 29th Annual Third World Conference.

Freire, P. (1993) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Giddens, A. (1990) The consequences of modernity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

Gillespie, M. (1995) Television, ethnicity and cultural change, London & New York: Routledge.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the prison notebooks, Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith, eds. and trans., New York: International Publishers.

Hargreaves, A.G. and Mahdjoub, D. (1997) "Satellite television viewing among ethnic minorities in France", European Journal of Communication 12(4):459-77.

Harvey, D. (1989) The condition of postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell.

Husband, C., ed. (1994) A richer vision: The development of ethnic minority media in Western democracies, Paris: UNESCO / London: John Libbey.

ILO (n.d.) "Current dynamics of international labour migration: Globalisation and regional integration", online at

Jackson, P. (1989) Maps of meaning: An introduction to cultural geography, London: Unwin Hyman.

Jones, O. (1997) "Little figures, big shadows: Country childhood stories," in Cloke, P. and J. Little (eds.), Contested countryside cultures: Otherness, marginalisation, and rurality, London: Routledge.

Karim, K.H. (2002) "Diasporas and their communication networks: Exploring the broader context of transnational narrowcasting", Carleton University.

Kearney, R. (1995) Poetics of modernity: Toward a hermeneutic imagination, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Kolar-Panov, D. (1997) Video, war and the diasporic imagination, London and New York: Routledge.

Latour, B. (1993) We have never been modern, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lawrence, M. and E. Mwanzia (2004) "Lessons under the mango tree: Making place out of space and community out of place in the 21st century", Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice, available for review online at

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The production of space, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lin, N. (2001) Social capital: A theory of social structure and action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipschutz, R.D. and Mayer, J. (1996) Global civil society and global environmental governance, Albany: SUNY Press.

Massey, D.B. (1992) High-tech fantasies: Science parks in society, science, and space, London: Routledge.

----- (1994) "Double articulation: A place in the world," in Bammer, A., ed., Displacements, pp. 110-121, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Melucci, A. (1989) Nomads of the Present: Social movements and individual needs in contemporary society, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mitra, A. (1997) "Virtual commonality: Looking for India on the Internet", in Jones, S.G., ed., Virtual culture, identity and communication in cybersociety, London: Sage.

Moore, H.L. (1986) Space, text, and gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nozick, R. (1993) The nature of rationality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Oyserman, D.; Sakamoto, I.; and Lauffer, A. (1998) "Cultural accommodation: Hybridity and the framing of social obligation", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6):1606-1618.

Paasi, A. (1991) "Deconstructing regions: Notes on the scales of spatial life", Environment and Planning A 23:239-256.

Perry, W.G. (1970) Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pile, S. (1996) The body and the city: Psychoanalysis, space and subjectivity, New York: Routledge.

Pile, S. and N. Thrift (1995) Mapping the subject: Geographies of cultural transformation, New York : Routledge.

Pred, A. (1984) "Structuration, biography formation and knowledge: Observations on port growth during the mercantile period", Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2:251-275.

----- (1985) "The social becomes the spatial, the spatial becomes the social: Enclosures, social change and the becoming of place in the Swedish province of Skåne", pp. 337-365 in Gregory, D. and J. Urry, eds., Social relations and spatial structures, London: Macmillan.

Rheingold, H. (1994) The virtual community: Finding connections in a computerized world, London: Secker& Warbug.

Riggins, S. (1992) "The media imperative: Ethnic minority survival in the Age of Mass Communication", pp. 1-20 in Riggins, S., ed., Ethnic minority media: An international perspective, Newbury Park: Sage.

Sassen, S. (1996) Losing control? Sovereignty in an Age of globalization, New York: Columbia University Press.

Scholte, J.A. (1996) "The geography of collective identities in a globalizing world", Review of International Political Economy 3(4):565-607.

Seagrave, S. (1995) Lords of the Rim, New York: G.P. Putnam.

Sen, A. (2006) Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny, Norton.

Sibley, D. (1991) "Children's geographies: Some problems of representation," Area 23:269-270.

----- (1995a) Geographies of exclusion: Society and difference in the West, New York: Routledge.

----- (1995b) "Families and domestic routines: Constructing the boundaries of childhood," in Pile, S. and N. Thrift, eds., Mapping the subject: Geographies of cultural transformation, New York: Routledge.

Smith, J.; Chatfield, C.; and Pagnucco, R., eds. (1997) Transnational social movements and global politics: Solidarity beyond the State, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Toffler, A. (1974) Learning for tomorrow: The role of the future in education, New York: Random House.

Valentine, G. (1997) "A safe place to grow up? Parenting, perceptions of children's safety and the rural idyll", Journal of Rural Studies 13(2):137-148.

Warkentin, C. and Mingst, K. (2000) "International institutions, the State, and global civil society in the Age of the World Wide Web", Global Governance 6(2):237-257.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

----- (1979) The fight for Manod, London: Chatto and Windus.

Wise, J.M. (2000) "Home: Territory and identity", Cultural Studies 14(2):295-310.

Yang, G. (2002) "Information Technology, Virtual Chinese Diaspora, and Transnational Public Sphere", Manoa, Hawaii: Department of Sociology.



Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice