Together: sense of community is alive and well, just compartmentalised

Pointing to the proliferation of small groups in the first part of the 21st century, Henry Hemming's latest book challenges the notion that society is becoming ever more disconnected.

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In one of the later chapters of Together, Henry Hemming's book about the revival of small groups in Britain, the author confesses this wasn't the work he intended to write. Instead, he had planned to document the decline of clubs and societies in Britain, recording a broken country with little community. "This was to be an account of a vanishing world ... Forget about Together, what I had in mind was Apart."

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But as Hemming visited a huge number of small associations across the country, spending time with historical re-enactors and knitting circles, he began to unravel a secret world of small groups that showed far from Britain becoming lonelier, there was in fact a surge of small associations in the first part of the 21st century.

In contrast to gloomy ideas of "bowling alone", of an atomised society where people don't know their neighbours and experience little feeling of community, Hemming found a collection of small, vibrant communities of people who had chosen to come together. Britain was not broken, he discovered, simply that the nature of community had changed and politicians and journalists were looking for it in the wrong places. Together is a book about these groups, about how and why they come together and what it means that they do.

The first part of the book is based on his experiences among these groups. He takes us inside a successful amateur football team, formed by disgruntled supporters in reaction to their club being sold to foreign investors. He explains how a small, eclectic group of climate change activists had a disproportionate effect on public opinion. And he travels to far-flung parts of the UK, tossing in anecdotes about his time with Druids and beekeepers and peppering his book with historical analogies.

Yet Hemming is also preparing an argument, which the anecdotes and experiences of the first two-thirds of the book are mere preparation for. His argument is with the nature of "community" as defined by politicians and policy-makers. Hemming smartly identifies the ideal of an English village as a model that continues to be perpetuated through policy circles.

In a talk in London, Hemming noted this English village was "an imaginary place, a cross between Ambridge, Cranford and the Shire". This is a romanticised version of how people lived in Europe in the past that has informed the political notion that the best way for people to live in the present is in small communities, living, working and playing in proximity. In such a place, as Hemming quotes a politician explaining, there would be "a commitment to one's community, its values and institutions".

Hemming traces this idea in policy announcements, showing that not only has the UK government believed this notion for at least the past decade, but it has spent considerable sums of money attempting to make the vision a reality.

Yet Hemming outlines the dark side of such tight-knit communities, particularly their tendency to discriminate against members who don't precisely fit the community's mould, such as ethnic and sexual minorities.

"Wherever you look," he writes, "it seems that this singular vision of community, in which you must belong to the community of your neighbourhood ... will often bring out the medieval villager within each of us." Such communities are mistrustful of outsiders and tend to encourage an authoritarian atmosphere - a rules-based world that threatens violence against nonconformists.

Hemming, whose previous book was a celebration of English eccentricity, finds this deeply worrying. He thinks we can do better and looks to associations and groups for an answer, arguing that there is a bias towards a rooted, physical location, with undue political attention paid to the places where people simply happen to live. He proposes a shift in our understanding of community, away from a handful of small, local groups, towards a plurality of groups not rooted in a particular location. Indeed, he says this is already happening, as borne out by his research into small groups.

Hemming is right that an idealised model of life in a medieval village has pervaded political thinking, not only in Britain and not only in Europe. As the majority of the planet shifts to living in cities, policy-makers have looked to the past for models.

In particular, there has been a tendency to imagine that creating "communities" among people who simply share the same geographical space is an obviously good thing. And that's true only if the model of a rural village is followed, in which new arrivals would appear rarely and stay for years and generations. But that is not the case with most modern cities today, where there are lots of new arrivals who stay for relatively brief periods of time. They may move on to different countries or they may go to different areas of the same city - to be nearer a new job, to afford a larger home, to be close to a particular school. This is now the reality of life in 21st century cities.

This is Hemming's insight and it is a particularly powerful one: that the political class are pushing a model of living in society that is hopelessly outdated. That an attachment to place is at odds with how people live today.

In Together, Hemming uses an organisation I founded in London as an example of how new communities are formed. Once every couple of weeks, we would bring together a diverse mix of people from the arts, the media and politics for a private, informal conversation and discussion, usually with a notable speaker. The group eventually became the largest salon in London, purely through word-of-mouth.

For Hemming, the old version of community was public, compulsory and local, whereas community today is mobile, private and voluntary. Our salon, like so many groups across the country, fits this description: our members came together purely because they wanted to, from different parts of London and, in several cases, from other parts of the country.

As an example of how people are coming together voluntarily, forging links and creating communities that are not dependent on spatial proximity, our salon is a good example. In some ways the salon was a lot like a community: our members collaborated on projects together, they socialised and formed relationships with each other. For many, the salon was an important fixture in their life and people often spoke of it in emotional terms, as an entity greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet the salon could not replicate a tight-knit community: our events were only held every fortnight and because of the number of people who attended, if one particular member was absent (for example through serious illness), it might be weeks before we found out.

This is where Hemming and I disagree about the importance of placeless communities and whether they can be adequate replacements for the life of a village. For Hemming, the new groups his research illuminates show that community has evolved and he thinks this can be a replacement for the old links that held societies together. It seems to me that even if we are not, as a society, getting lonelier, it is still the case that the fragmentation of society that the politicians are addressing is a real problem.

In part, this fragmentation has come about because of the rise of cities. Life in a big city increases the frequency of weak social ties, while weakening strong ones. No longer do we interact with a core group of people daily. We have brief conversations with a changing roster of people and fewer face-to-face interactions with people we know well.

It is this fragmentation that many of the people at the salon were reacting to. They were reaching for a sense of intellectual community - we were a group not located in one place nor linked by particular social or professional backgrounds. Yet the community the salon members sought was a reaction to the world outside.

Admitting that fragmentation is not to pine for the life of a village. The move to cities has brought a vast change in social and cultural norms, bringing new experiences and allowing us, collectively, to accomplish much more. The world Hemming describes of people linked to many groups and associations offers rich rewards.

Yet the replacement of ties based on location with those based on associations increases the number of links we have to others - but decreases their intensity. We have only weak ties to each other. That isn't an argument against associations, but my feeling is that associations are not an argument against stronger ties. We cannot replace a few strong ties with lots of weaker ones.

The ties that bind people to an association are weak ties, because they are based on interests (which can change) and, crucially, are chosen (and so can also be revoked). Contrast this with the "strong" ties of people to their families or close friends, or, in some places, to neighbours they have known all their lives.

Imagine a scenario where a woman faces, for example, extensive legal costs. In this case, her weak ties to many associations might mean those members are able to contribute small amounts. But the only people who are likely to take on a significant sacrifice, who might dip into their life savings or mortgage their home, are her family and close friends. Strong ties provide a safety net, which is also a function of community.

We need both. Hemming is right to identify the model of the English village as outdated. We cannot go back, as much as the flight to the suburbs suggests some want to. Yet we need to find a way to increase the ties we feel with others, to make weak ties into strong ones.

If the groups that dot our horizons - where we work, where we live, where our children are schooled - are merely incidental, merely transactional, then we end up a community of strangers, occasionally linked by associations, but lacking that strong pull to any group larger than a handful of family members and friends. The cities that have brought us together are also pulling us apart.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.