We need to talk about conflict

If we’re serious about community empowerment and bottom-up change, we need to recognise the inevitability of community conflict and tension. This is particularly important in poor neighbourhoods where resources, so often the cause of conflict, are most scarce.

There’s a growing consensus that political and social change will be driven directly in future by individuals and communities. Emerging technologies, a new assertiveness about citizenship rights, and old doubts about big government all mean that the future locus of action will be the individual and the local community.

Neighbourhood groups across the country are looking at parishes, co-operatives, development trusts, asset transfers and other mechanisms for driving change locally.

Local authorities of all political persuasions are interested in community budgets, participatory budgeting and individual budgets as the way forward for public service reform.

Politicians at the national level are often the most vocal supporters of ‘giving power back to the neighbourhood’ and ‘letting communities decide’, at least when making speeches.

The problem with the emerging consensus, at least at the national level, is that it tends to sideline the reality that most communities have their fair share of tensions and latent conflicts.

So when ‘community’ is used by politicians and commentators to automatically denote the positive – local answers, caring neighbours, the so-called ‘soft stuff’ of place making – it makes a mockery of the whole agenda. Garry Heywood responded to my previous blog on this point, asking why I hadn’t addressed the inevitability of tension when talking about bottom-up change.

I was prompted again to think about on community conflict at the launch of the second edition of Prof. Marilyn Taylor’s Public Policy in the Community. In the first edition, Taylor warned against the temptation to see community policy as a ‘spray on solution’ to all manner of social ills. Local communities, like any other human construct, have a potential ‘dark side’: power imbalances, processes of exclusion and people who aren’t heard because others claim to speak for them.

For many activists, the word community also means tensions, problems, spikiness, baggage. Stemming from half-remembered disputes from generations back, and half-expressed conflicts from recent changes in the area.

We should also remember that tension often comes from a positive source, from the fact that people care about their area and have ambitions for it. As Saul Alinsky put it, ‘Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.’

If conflict is the price of change, then most of us would opt for that over the prospect of life in a frictionless vacuum.

The importance of working with tension links back to my previous argument about the end of regeneration and the shift to more bottom-up, locally driven processes of change in deprived neighbourhoods.

Regeneration assumed that places could be changed from above, and local people would be grateful passive recipients or obstacles to be managed out of the picture if they didn’t fit the vision.

The new emphasis on resilience starts with what exists locally: the assets, skills, networks and connections. And alongside those good things, the more challenging aspects too: the tensions, conflicts and rivalries. This was the bit I missed last time, and I’m grateful to Garry and others for pointing it out.

None of this means we should be any less confident about the potential for community-driven renewal. But it does mean that we need to get better at recognising, naming and dealing with tension, especially over the next few years as local budgets and programmes are further cut back. In this context, the worst strategy is to ignore local tensions or wish them away, until the day they mutate into sudden and violent conflict.


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John Hitchin
John Hitchin
12 years ago

An important point.

Your reference to Alinsky makes me think of a wonderful piece that Tessy Britton wrote earlier in the year. It includes lots of great links

In accepting that there is conflict, the next question is how to respond to it. Alinksky’s approach is to rub that conflict – to pull it out and use it as a mechanism for change. Tessy Britton advocates something different.

I think national policy is a long way from engaging in the implications of these different approaches, but I personally fear that the conflict approach is used more often than it should be. In acknowledging the existence of conflict and tension in neighbourhoods, people need to think carefully how they respond to it.

12 years ago

I think national policy is a long way from engaging in the implications of these different approaches, but I personally fear that the conflict approach is used more often than it should be. In acknowledging the existence of conflict and tension in neighbourhoods, people need to think carefully how they respond to it.

Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
12 years ago

Hi John & John (and anyone who follows!)

I agree with John Hitchen that Tessy’s re-written Rules for Radicals is a useful reflection point in this debate. And one of things that I did raise in my response to John Houghton as well as conflict was also conflict mitigation. Where I tend to depart from Tessy’s rules is I too frequently see a tendency for consensus to become an operational parameter. A condition of participation, almost. (I blog about this in relation to ‘Who Governs Merseyside’ but I think it reads across to this discussion ) So occasionally, I do wonder in who’s interest the consensus is operating, because there is lot of vested interest from the commissioners and professions in moving their solutions on…

The real danger therein is that there becomes a tipping point in which the consensus has critical mass sufficient to exclude dissent and to close-down discourse. This is apparent is the Salford conflict that raised its head on John’s last blog. Stephen Kingston from the Salford Star is in a much better position to talk about that, but from my perspective it raises the question of who shapes the consensus. Its important to reflect that consensus operated as a mantra in the top-down regen too.

I recently read blog that while written in rather sneering tone made a valid point about Community Organisers and a discrimination in their application process toward people of a positive demeanour. The blog raised the probability that lots of good community organisers, of the organic variety rather than state-sponsored, were driven by passion for community and energised by anger about continued oppression yet they were frequently type-cast as negative. This was articulated to Freire’s theme of the Culture of Silence and asked if Locality were silencing combative types out of the equation. Its an extreme example and bit of a straw-man but does help us ask the question, what happens if we define conflict in a certain way and then declare its not helpful in solution-building? I think this does happen.

In the original blog John eloquently described a paradigm shift from a top down regen to a bottom-up community development. Although he didn’t discuss the shift explicitly, he did imply that rather than a Gestalt Switch, in which we move seamlessly from one perspective to another, that a more complex process would occur, a phase shift from one state to another with all the attendant chaos of reordering. And if there is a defining instrumental referent to this shift, it is about power and all baggage that comes along but most importantly resource allocation. That transition wont happen without conflict.

Yet, it would be equally bad for conflict to be the exclusive mode as it would for consensus if its distorted by the wrong vision or priority. I should perhaps add though, I’m optimistic that we can do more consensus and be more participatory, I don’t think it will be an easy ride, and nor should it be. I suppose, what I trying to say is that I raised the issue of conflict because its an important theme for reflection, and I did so in the spirit of John’s original piece which I think was intended in that light. We need to do a lot of reflecting if we’re going to do better.

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