Sunday, February 22, 2015

Archaeological concepts of community confront urban realities today

Yesterday I spent my Saturday at a meeting of the Phoenix organization, "Neighborhoods Connect." The goal was to gather together neighborhood organizers and others interested in improving social life in Phoenix neighborhoods, to share experiences and examples of successful practices. The impetus for this first stakeholders meeting was to increase civic participation within the city of Phoenix. The State of Arizona has low levels of civic participation compared to other states, and the Neighborhoods Connect initiative grew out of several organizations  to improve civic participation, including "The Arizona We Want", and the Center for the Future of Arizona. Of particular concern to the neighborhoods program is a recent Pew poll finding that only 12% of the people of Arizona believe that the people in their community care about one another.

The organizer of Neighborhoods Connect, Susan Edwards, roped me into the organizing committee after reading some of the posts on my urban blog about neighborhoods and communities (one exampleanother example). My archaeological knowledge of ancient neighborhoods didn't contribute much to this program, but my broader knowledge of the social scientific study of urban neighborhoods turned out to be very useful to the group at a few key points in the planning process. In particular, I circulated a paper by John McKnight, which helped the group articulate their goals.   (McKnight, John   2013   Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide. National Civic Review 102(3): 22-24). For more information on McKnight, see his website.

During a lull in the meeting yesterday, I reflected on how this effort related to archaeological research on neighborhoods and communities. This was a very practical group of people: neighborhood organizers, police officers, people from key institutions (churches, schools, hospitals, the Mayor's office), an explorer post, a bunch of energetic junior-high kids form the Phoenix Police Department's "Wake-Up" program, a couple of city officials, and a few academics from ASU. These people want to get more city residents to know and interact with their neighbors, which will help reduce crime, increase civic participation, and improve the quality of life in the city.

It occurred to me that the definition of "community" that I favor, and one used by many archaeologists in Southwest archaeology, related very well to the activities and goals of Neighborhoods Connect. This concept focuses on the interaction among people as the key defining features of social communities. In the words of Bowles and Gintis:

“By community we mean a group of people who interact directly, frequently and in multi-faceted ways. People who work together are usually communities in this sense, as are some neighbourhoods, groups of friends, professional and business networks, gangs, and sports leagues. The list suggests that connection, not affection, is the defining characteristic of a community. Whether one is born into a community or one entered by choice, there are normally significant costs to moving from one to another.” (p.F420)

Then I considered an alternative definition of community as promoted by interpretivist archaeologists: "the community as a social constituted institution”(Yaeger and Canuto 2000). In this approach, the focus is:

"on the constitution of past social groups through dialogic relations to other subjects as well as the material world. In this approach, community is a social group with an explicit discursive identity that develops through participation in meaningful practices, at meaningful places, and using meaningful objects.” (Canuto & Yaeger 2012:702).

The Bowles and Gintis definition is understandable and useful to the people struggling to improve Phoenix neighborhoods. My participation included some discussion of their concept. On the other hand, I doubt that the Canuto and Yaeger concept would have any resonance at all. In fact, I can't imagine even saying those words in such a gathering, much less trying to explain to people what the definition might mean. Part of the problem is writing and semantics, the contrast between plain and clear scholarly writing (Bowles and Gintis) and postmodern obfuscatory prose. But part of the problem is conceptual. The 150 participants yesterday agreed that social interaction is THE key attribute of successful neighborhoods, and there was little emphasis on neighborhood or community identity or meaning.

While community activism in a contemporary city is a very different enterprise form trying to make social sense of archaeological remains, I believe strongly that our archaeological concepts and research should transcend the specific research setting of our fieldwork. If a definition of community or neighborhood makes little sense in the modern world,  why should we expect it to make sense for the distant past? I explore some of these issues of defining community in Smith (2016).

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis
2002    Social Capital and Community Governance. The Economic Journal 112 (483): F419-F436.

Canuto, Marcello A. and Jason Yaeger
2012    Communities in Ancient Mesoamerica. In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher Pool, pp. 697-707. Oxford University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2016    Quality of Life and Prosperity in Ancient Households and Communities. In The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology (book in preparation), edited by Christian Isendahl and Daryl Stump. Oxford University Press, New York.

Yaeger, Jason and Marcello A. Canuto
2000    Introducing an Archaeology of Communities. In The Archaeology of Communities, edited by Marcello A. Canuto and Jason Yaeger, pp. 1-15. Routledge, New York.

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