Using Theory to Frame Community and Practice

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

University-community partnerships stimulate reflection on the body of knowledge that informs professional practice in community settings, and they provide places to challenge assumptions about both theory and practice. This article calls attention to the multiple perspectives on community and considers how theory also shapes images for professional practice. It discusses the importance of becoming aware of such frames and suggests how safe places for conversation contribute to that awareness as well as to enhancing community. As such, it is also an example of praxis in that it is a reflection on experience.

Keywords: theory, practice, conversation

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INTRODUCTION

Federal policy in the 1990s encouraged universities in urban areas to work with their communities to address pressing urban issues. Two programs particularly provided support; one was the Department of Education's Urban Community Service Program, and the other the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) Community Outreach Partnership Program. While budget cuts in the Clinton administration eliminated the former, the latter continues to fund such partnerships. Both programs have brought university faculty and students into cooperative efforts with communities. In so doing, the programs stimulated an awareness of the importance of theory regarding community as well as provided a setting to prepare practitioners for entering the field.

This article considers the role of theory in providing orienting assumptions about community and the usefulness of multiple perspectives in exploring how we know community, particularly as professionals. It illustrates how engagement in a university-community partnership created awareness of assumptions regarding community as well as new ways of understanding professional practice. In doing so, the article demonstrates the reflexive relationship of theory and practice, and it recognizes the potential for democratizing professional practice. As such, it is also an example of praxis in that it is a reflection on experience. It proceeds in four parts, first considering theories as orienting frames, then the contribution of theory toward developing awareness of assumptions. Next it explores the potential for learning about both community and practice in university-community partnerships. Finally, it concludes with the contribution of such learning for reframing the professional role.

THEORY: ORIENTING FRAMES

Theory is powerful because it organizes what professionals pay attention to and how they pay attention. It shapes beliefs that in turn shape action. Presented as orienting frames, however, theories are available to the user as consciously chosen alternative ways to approach understanding settings and developing strategies to address issues. This approach encourages praxis as disciplined reflection engaging theory to enrich practice.

Roland Warren's (1966) classic compilation of theory regarding community illustrates the range of perspectives one encounters in approaching the subject. His collection introduces a range of metaphors for community, e.g., organism, ecology, or power and politics. Calling attention to the metaphors raises awareness of the multiple lenses available for perspective, an approach Gareth Morgan (1997) has described in regard to organizations. Each metaphor provides an orienting frame for the practitioner who wants to work in community settings. For example, the metaphor of organism calls attention to the interaction of functional systems and natural processes of growth. Shifting the lens to ecology balances emphasis of function with an interacting network of relationships. Introducing the lens of politics and power adds consideration of who benefits and how. No single metaphor alone is sufficient for understanding community settings.

Common elements in these images of theory connect people and place. …