Practicing community: Outline of a praxeological approach to the feeling of we-ness.

Author:Kluckmann, Matthias


Community, once a backbone of the social sciences as well as the study of folklore, has lost its status as a framing concept. My aim in this article is to argue for the analytical value of community for the study of expressive culture and the everyday. Based on assumptions of practice theory, especially the work of Theodore R. Schatzki, I propose to understand community as a feeling of we-ness that evolves and transpires through bundles of practices and arrangements among participants of these practices. The praxeological perspective allows comparing communities of different types in order to gain general insights into aspects of boundaries as well as spatial and temporal orders of communities.

Music played in the distance. I entered the district through a leafy graveyard. It was a hot summer day and immediately I missed the shadow I had been enjoying for the last few minutes. The streets around me--with their brick stone buildings, their small shops, bars and cafes on the main street, the allotments, the church and the school in the near distance--make up a small neighborhood in Stuttgart, a city in the southwest of Germany. The neighborhood is part of my fieldwork; the fieldwork is part of my research on the feeling of home and diversity in multi-ethnic neighborhoods. The neighborhood is commonly called Nordbahnhofviertel--literally translated 'North Station Quarter'. (1) It was built for railroad employees toward the end of the nineteenth century, in conjunction with a newly constructed freight station. At the beginning, the district was still located outside of the city boundaries, and it was built exclusively to accommodate railroad workers. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, these were mainly people from the rural lower class, who were mainly Catholic, in contrast to Stuttgart's Protestant population. This, and the location on the periphery of Stuttgart, meant that in comparison with the rest of Stuttgart, a socially homogeneous district separate from the (Stuttgart) community arose. After the Second World War large numbers of people moved into the district from the neighboring state of Bavaria. However, the federal railroad company increasingly hired foreign workers during the 1960s to cope with the labor shortage in the post-war period. (2) The immigrants were initially housed in three railroad residential homes on the edge of the district, but during the 1970s they started moving into apartments in the district itself. This was possible because many of the district's inhabitants had started to leave toward the end of the 1960s due to the poor standard of accommodation. More than 60 percent of the 4301 people living in the district today have an immigrant background. (3) The largest group among them consists of individuals with Turkish origins. (4)

The first thing people told me when I introduced myself to residents, politicians, and social workers was that I should come to the annual street festival. I was told that the street festival was the perfect opportunity to get to know a lot of people and to get an impression of the community. So I followed one of the streets that led to the main street and wound down a small hill. Walking along the street I heard the music grow louder and at the end of the street I saw a small group of stalls. They were set up in the open area in front of the social worker center. The center has organized the street festival for over 30 years. It has been called International Street Festival to reflect the changes the district has gone through by means of immigration since the 1950s. (5) The street festival is intended to provide a platform for different (immigration) associations, enabling them to present themselves and their work. Aside from selling foods and drinks at the respective stalls they put on stage performances. The nationality represented by the stall near the entrance to the festival is readily identified by the large Portuguese flag beside it. Viewed from the entrance, the stalls formed a semicircle opposite a stage. Between the stage and the stalls there were rows of benches and tables. In the background, a DJ played taped music. I walked along the stalls. Each of them represented a different country. Not every stall was identifiable by a flag; some could be identified by the language of the menu and the types of food on offer: pizza from the Italians, tea and Gozleme from the Turkish, steak and sausages from the German allotment association.

Almost immediately, I thought of the World's Fair where every nation presents itself in a clear and distinct manner. And indeed, the observation that each nationality tends to remain separate is a repeated feature of description of the International Street Festival. This assessment of a common, but nationally separated form of coexistence is a basic perception in the district. In various following discussions with the district's residents, the street festival would often be taken as a starting-point for talking about community and coexistence. Later Erwin Neuer, (6) a resident and one of my interlocutors, for example, would emphasize that while it is nice for everyone to get together, everyone eventually ends up sitting at individual tables according to nationality:

Germans are sitting at one of the tables, and at the other table there is sitting that group and at another table a third group. You won't see Germans, Italians and Turks sitting at one table together. And every group has its own folkloristic performance. I like those but again, unfortunately, every group remains for itself. (Neuer [pseud.] 2010) For Paolo Vernandez, another resident, this separation is above all evident in behavior. He described the festival to me in the following manner: "If you are an Italian, you go there and eat pizza and everything from Italy, for example, and when the Turkish group goes on stage, all the Turks will get up to dance" (Vernandez [pseud.] 2009). In our later conversation, Vernandez described belonging as expressed by means of participating, by joining specific collective activities.

"Acting in common makes community," Dorothy Noyes wrote around twenty years ago in an article in The Journal of American Folklore (Noyes 1995, 468). Her article was part of a special issue on keywords for the study of expressive culture wherein she states that community emerges in performance. I agree with that idea. However, I conceptualize community as practiced and in doing so part ways with Noyes' approach. Community is an important idea that structures people's everyday life, as for instance the residents' comments above have shown. What is more, community can be a valuable analytical concept. (7) For different reasons, which I will discuss later on, community has functioned as a descriptive rather than an analytical term within the study of folklore. (8) My aim in this article is to show that community as a concept in the study of expressive culture offers a possibility to understand processes of boundary making as well as temporal and spatial orders of different communities in a better way than other related terms, such as "group". Motivated by practice theory, this article sets out to provide a more precise concept of community for the study of expressive culture. I will develop community as a feeling of we-ness that evolves and transpires through bundles of practices and arrangements among participants of these practices. (9)

I will develop my argument in the following three sections. First, I briefly summarize different ideas and understandings of community in the social sciences. Second, I abstract the main assumptions of practice theory and discuss a definition of practice based primarily on the work of Theodore R. Schatzki. Finally, I promote community as an analytical concept. Taking the work of Etienne Wenger as a starting point and my own fieldwork example of the International Street Festival introduced above, I sketch out research questions, advantages, and empirical implications.

Community: A Matter of Commonality

Going through my field notes I wonder how one analytical concept might be able to integrate all the different notions of community I came across at the street festival and in discussions about it afterwards. To understand and to structure their everyday life, the residents use the concept of community. It describes and expresses differences between Italians and Turks. It distinguishes inhabitants of the neighborhood from people living elsewhere, immigrants from autochthones and people taking part in community activities from those who do not. By what means is it possible to approach these everyday notions of community? Is there one community divided into several sub-communities? In other words: does the neighborhood, with all the people of different nationality and ethnicity--or both--living there, describe a community? Or is it the other way around, with nationality and ethnicity as the base of community and the neighborhood just a place where those meet and interact? Or is it even more complex, with people belonging to various and multiple communities that intersect all the time? How to study this with the help of one single concept?

In her article in The journal of American Folklore, Noyes develops a concept of group instead of a concept of community. She distinguishes between a cultural aspect of group--that is, "networks of interactions in which culture is created" (ibid.)--and an identity aspect of group, that is, community--which she then locates within performance: "The community exists in its collective performances: they are the locus of its imagining in their content and of its realization in their performance" (469). Consequently, group is the term that facilitates a dialogue between these two aspects. As I will show later on the distinction between an institutionalized pattern of social interactions (i.e. networks) and an imagined belonging to a collectivity (i.e...

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