Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Is Communalism Dead? Reflections on the Present and Future Practice of Crime Prevention

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Is Communalism Dead? Reflections on the Present and Future Practice of Crime Prevention

Article excerpt

This article takes up a strange paradox or dissonance that characterises contemporary crime prevention, particularly in Australia. On the one hand, there is an ample literature pointing out the conceptual and practical drawbacks of "community" or more broadly of "communalism" (incorporating social capital) in crime prevention; on the other, policy and practice seem largely oblivious to these difficulties and hence, by extension, to the need for more appropriate conceptual formulations upon which to base collective approaches to crime prevention. The article is in two parts. The first traces the allure and the difficulties of communalism in general and in crime prevention in particular. In traversing what may be in some respects well enough known terrain, it underlines that until we recognise the innate difficulties with this conceptual framework, crime prevention will not face up to the challenge of developing new and more appropriate foundations for a collectively based approach in this policy arena. An attempt to address this challenge is taken up in the second part of the article.


Part One: Crime Prevention and the Crisis of Communal Faith


In the beginning was the word, and the word was--community. The concept may be secular, but the attachment thereto is almost religious in its fervour. Like most faiths, its fortunes wax and wane. It was promoted vigorously in Britain as a unifying theme during the Second World War (Knight, 1999), and there as elsewhere, it became a kind of low-church social revivalist theme of the 60s and 70s. Community obviously fared badly across the world of western policy during the era characterised by Margaret Thatcher's famous, if somewhat variably quoted maxim to the effect that "there is no such thing as society, there is just you and me". As Martin Albrow (2001, p. 150) acknowledges, however, as the 1990s wore on, society returned to become a favoured term in political discourse, community in the guise of "civil society", "third sector" or "social capital" again being acknowledged by national leaders.

Thus, more recently, and garbed in much higher church trappings, community has been enjoying an enormous come-back, at least in the Anglophone world. Tony Blair, would-be sociological ayatollah and local warlord, proclaimed with breathtaking social insight in 1998 that "it (community) defines the relationship not only between us as individuals, but between people and the society in which they live ..." (as quoted in McLaughlin, 2002, p. 90). John Howard apparently used the term no less than 11 times in his "Motion for Reconciliation" speech in 1999 (The Australian, August, 8, 2003). According to (but not necessarily endorsed by) Robert Sampson, currently one of the best-known sociologists working in the field of crime in the United States, community "now reigns as the modern elixir for much of what allegedly ails American society"(2002, p. 213). Here in Victoria, community and the building or rebuilding of its capacity is central to much of the present government's thinking, and a separate department has even been recently established to that end.

Overlapping and arguably set to overtake the interest surrounding community in contemporary social policy thinking is a new, or newly rediscovered belief in another article of faith--social capital. This term is used by most of its proponents as interchangeable with, complementary to, or constitutive of community (see e.g., Stone & Hughes, 2002). Social capital has become the ostensibly more sophisticated theological version of "communalism", a term I have appropriated to capture these two powerful belief systems to which so much appeal is made in contemporary public policy. The high priest or travelling evangelist (but certainly not the progenitor) of this particular creed, Robert Putnam, has recently endorsed what he terms a "lean and mean" definition of the term as "focused on social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trust" (Grootaert & van Basteleer, 2002, p. …

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