Placing the Big Society

by Robin de la Motte

The “Big Society” is an as yet underdeveloped concept promoted by the UK’s new coalition government. A Guardian article by Luke Bretherton summarised the issues, and argued that there are “two distinct and rival anthropologies” in the coalition, one which focuses on the role of individuals, and the other, the “big society” approach, focusing on the role of social relationships. Both are intended to shift the emphasis away from the role of the state, but involve contrasting visions: one of the individual as the primary agent (with more emphasis than in the past on co-producing and co-governing public services), and one of “people power” with “co-ordinated and common action in pursuit of shared goods”. Where the former is somewhat rootless and placeless, the latter involves identifying and strengthening the places around which communities are built. Bretherton, focussing on the potential role of churches in the Big Society, argues that churches “need to decide which anthropology best reflects their vision of the good life and work out how best to strengthen it.”

A forthcoming article by Joseph Pierce, Deborah G Martin, and James T Murphy examines the nature of place-making – “place” being a key theoretical idea in geography since at least the 1970s. In surveying the literature, they identify three categories of “the politics of place”, “networked politics”, and “networked place”. The first category centres on how shared place understandings interact with political contestations, in an iterative process in which they shape each other. The second category centres on the understanding of networked communities as based on a shared identity, often across scales and locales, creating “an interlocking bricolage of (always partially) shared place understandings”. The final category to a certain extent combines these, with networks “always ground[ed]… in multiple, interconnected, multi-scalar and overlapping places”. The article draws on Doreen Massey’s (2005) concept of place as bundles of individual experiences constantly re-negotiated, creating “temporary constellations” of place which appear to have greater permanence to those who recognise and participate in their making than they do from outside. So for example the place of “Toronto” appears durable even as it expands to encompass neighbouring municipalities, and otherwise evolves, being constantly recreated and subtly changed. Featuring case studies of Bolivian forests and an American hospital expansion, the article demonstrates “the always ongoing character of relational place-making”. The authors argue that “all places are relational, and are always produced through networked politics”[emphasis in original].

Big society and the church Luke Bretherton The Guardian, 7 October 2010, “Big society and the church

View the Pierce et al (2010) article here Pierce, Joseph, Martin, Deborah G, and Murphy, James T (2010), “Relational place-making: the networked politics of place“, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Early View

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