The Struggle for 'Community' in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner-City Area: Paradise in the Making

Farrar, Max
Edwin Mellen Press
0773470425 (pb)
4440 pp.

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Three decades of research went into this book. This constitutes a long time, even by the standards of community studies that require extended periods of fieldwork. As a result the author has ample evidence available to convey the fluid character of community relationships. The temporal dimension of local social life is stressed by Farrar whose theoretical framework emphasises the 'postulated' nature of community: communities are approached not as things but as dreams that are pursued as part of people's 'yearning for a new society, free of racial and class oppression' (p.108). The religious connotations of this language are intentional, but the chronology of events in the Chapeltown district of Leeds conforms to the book's subtitle of 'paradise in the making' only partially. The early 1970s did witness many examples of people coming together across ethnic and class lines, but subsequent episodes of violence against the police and local businesses divided popular opinion, thereby undermining nascent broad-based coalitions. Segmentation along primarily ethnic lines took the place of utopian notions of 'community' as 'social justice and racial equality' (p.353). Farrar's study thus points to the important yet often overlooked conclusion that sociologists ought to focus not only on processes of community 'formation' but also community 'deformation' (p.2). In other words, the field's subject matter is 'the construction and de-construction of 'community'' (p.45).

Farrar is conscious of how Chapeltown's recent history could be interpreted as merely another instance of the familiar loss of community theme. People understandably become disillusioned when 'their vision of a new life of happiness, emotional warmth and communal solidarity' (p.78) fails to materialise. The author's intended message is, however, somewhat different: that the utopian vision of community has the potential to re-appear, and that sociologists can contribute to this outcome by delineating the conditions under which community-based social movements become effective. Farrar is well-placed to comment on these matters. His thirty years of participant observation of community action prompts a thoughtful methodological appendix which considers the issue of objectivity relating to ethnographic insiders who have been part of the processes that are the subject matter of the research undertaken. Use of data derived from 'innumerable personal encounters over a long period of time' is defended against the charge that such material is 'unrepresentative or anecdotal' (p.285), and this case is supported by the consistency of the interpretation with the conclusions drawn from other types of data. He recounts, for example, his (wrongful) arrest during one of the area's periodic disturbances (p.219), and his experience of being attacked by a street gang (p.319), but there is also documentary and statistical evidence as well as journalistic and fictional material.

The book has moments of humour as well as seriousness. The campaign by Sikh employees of the Leeds bus company to wear turbans to work was opposed not only by their employers but also by fellow workers. White working-class prejudice even extended to voicing the opinion at a union mass meeting that 'if Sikhs were allowed to wear turbans, West Indians would want to bring their spears to work' (p.178). This was in 1974. It was neither the first nor the last episode in which an ethnic minority population was constructed as a dangerous 'Other' (p.151). Chapeltown's Jewish inhabitants had previously been the subject of similarly negative portrayals, while reactions to the Rushdie affair in the 1980s also prompted coverage of the area's Muslims as a group whose 'difference' (p.268) posed a threat. Such circumstances hamper appeals to broad, inclusive notions of 'community'. In Farrar's opinion they represent 'a step backwards' (p.264). But despite his rediscovery that community can mean 'many things to many people' (p.186), Farrar intends that his book 'be read as an effort to contribute to the rehabilitation of the term' (p.343). By approaching the key questions about community as 'matters that must be investigated, not assumed' (p.99), and by providing his readers with the results of his painstaking investigations, his book can be adjudged a success in relation to this as well as its other objectives.

Graham Crow
University of Southampton