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Mind the Map!

Do we really need to understand our communities before we can help create greater cohesion between them?  Peter Latchford looks at why this may not be as good an idea as it seems.


We are reportedly facing a “summer of rage” as the economic downturn starts to bite, disadvantage deepens, and social tensions escalate as a result.  In response, the public sector is showing renewed interest in the issue of community cohesion and, in particular, the perceived need for each local area to “map their community” and use that map as a way to identify tensions and opportunities.  An industry has sprung up, proffering a wide variety of mapping approaches and methodologies to help local authorities and their partners understand the cohesion challenge they face.

The approach is consistent with a wider public sector fashion for “mapping and gapping”.  Like many central government-inspired fashions, it looks like good sense and has real logic behind it: before we act, we must identify what the issues are and clarify what is not being done, before specifying what needs to be done: in short, how can we act if we do not know what’s needed?  The results can, however, be counter-productive and, in the context of community cohesion, they can be potentially both distasteful and dangerous.

Categorical Mistake

The problems start with categorisations.  When you categorise, you generalise and simplify.  By categorising me as White British, for instance, you assume – or allow others to assume – two things: that this classification has some objective validity (that it is “true”) and that it also has some utility (that it indicates some commonality of behaviour or need).  In this example, both of these assumptions are flawed.  Ethnicity has very little science behind it.  There is more diversity within ethnic groups than between them.  We are all more similar than we realise.  As a result, the utility of the classification is limited.  The socio-economic needs and behaviours of working class British Bangladeshi Muslims are not so very different from their white working class counterparts.  But, by using the ethnic groups classification, we promote the idea that there is something inherently different between those groups; we may even use public sector funds to intervene on that basis; we allow and encourage the concept of “otherness” to creep into our thinking at this gross, summary level; we close the door to the very thing, cohesion, we are trying to encourage.

This is not to say that particular groups do not have distinctive needs which the public sector should understand and work with.  But we must be careful how we identify and label those needs.  Have you noticed how happily we apply the word “community” to these convenient categorisations (“Muslim community”, “gay community”) and assume that other people live within and are defined by them – but how few of us would want to be wholly defined on the same basis?  It is true that those who are categorised as belonging to specific black and minority ethnic groups are more likely also to experience various forms of disadvantage, and that the public sector must continue to do something about it.  But not all black men are unemployed, nor are all white men employed.  A more sophisticated and personal understanding is needed.

Who Categorises?

Categorisation is also about power.  Though, generally speaking, it is important to look before you leap, to understand before you act, the key question is Who? Whose understanding? Whose action?

The default public sector model maintains a senior management power base by giving them the prime role in this information loop.  Mapping and gapping, for cohesion or any other issue, must happen at the “strategic level”; in meeting rooms, across partnerships (the artificial friendships which manifest another contemporary public service fashion), at the macro level; perpetuating the rituals of a scientific management approach.  Here, “understanding” is interpreted as a statistics, numbers and trends.  It positions analytical ability above personal experience, numerical and verbal reasoning above human empathy.  This form of understanding therefore advantages one class of person above the others.  It has a tendency to keep those people who need help out of the decisions about how they will be helped, since it disallows involvement, passion and complexity in favour of detachment and economies of scale.  It keeps the spending decisions in the hands of the removed.

If we accept that the best way to start addressing cohesion is to understand it at the macro level, what we get is this limited, simplistic, analytical version of understanding and the “we are gods” intervention model that goes with it.  But there are other forms of understanding which can be progressed in parallel.  The unemployed black man used as an example above has a name, a family, a home, a history.  He has a character and a set of circumstances which cannot be contained within the phrase “unemployed black man”.  He is, as we all are, mysterious and complex.  He can only really be understood, as much as any of us can be, personally.  As a human, his needs are many, and most of them can only be met by the people around him, not by public sector service provision.  If he does need help from the public purse, the person who helps must have the space and flexibility to shape their support to a deeper understanding of his needs than is contained in the “unemployed black man” label.  The understanding of his needs, and the response to them, are personal and contained within a relationship between him and the person(s) helping.

These forms of understanding should not be in conflict.  It will be necessary to use a macro level analytical understanding in order to help target our personal level understanding.  But too often the analytical understanding is all we have; it results in simplistic interventions that fail to address the issues; it perpetuates dependency by “doing to” rather than “working with”; and it castes some of us as victims and some of us as gods: not a good route to cohesion.

Timing is All

There is a further problem with macro level cohesion mapping: it is often wrong.  Its errors tend to be most pronounced in the statistics which describe those groups which are most vulnerable or problematic.  Why?  Because the population does not stand still.  Incoming groups arrive after surveys have been completed; people with multiple issues tend to be less fixed (by home ownership, by social network, by school loyalty) to a particular neighbourhood; and these are the groups where our understanding needs to be most focused, if we are to respond to the cohesion imperative.  In addition, in my experience, senior management understanding of what their own services are doing in the front line may itself be out of date.  Workers at the coal face (for instance, in education, health, adult services) are more likely than their senior bosses to have a visceral understanding of what is happening in the neighbourhoods they serve and, if they are brave, may already have bent their services to meet the real need.  So the strategic mapping and gapping exercise can end up listing gaps that have already been closed in the context of out of date needs.  The difficulties presented by the data collection process can be so painful that it is not attempted again for the duration of another planning cycle – perhaps two or three years – during which time the formal suite of services on offer has become either significantly useless or significantly out of line with what the front line people are actually doing.


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