Community as enabler of human capability in western urban areas

Jansen, Erik; Brummel, Annica; Brukx, Frans (2014). 'Community as enabler of human capability in western urban areas' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The development and wellbeing of the individual person are in the center of the universe of the capability approach. In our social work practice in the Netherlands we focus primarily on community development. In this paper we discuss the role of community in the capability approach. Should we consider community as an entity per se, which may be incompatible with a human-centered approach? Or should we see community as an emergent feature of individual functioning? To explore these questions, we start from social relations as a function of individual capabilities and development potential. If community can be viewed from the perspective of an individual, it should become clear how engaging in social relations contributes to human flourishing of the individual. Therefore our research question is formulated as follows: How does community act as capability enabler in individual wellbeing cases in western urban areas?

In our paper we propose a working hypothesis of community as a phenomenological entity or collective space that facilitates the transformation of individual capability into functioning. In this view we start from the assumption that being embedded in a network of individuals means that each individual as a means in itself contributes to collective structures by forming alliances, i.e. meaningful relations, with other individuals in various domains of daily life. In this way each individual brings his or her social capabilities into practice thereby allowing others to do the same. Thus, a collective structure emerges in which each embedded individual may contribute to the options for a life of human flourishing for all connected. These networks may be seen as social capital (Putnam, 2000) and individuals contribute to social capital by way of healthy functioning based on their inherent capabilities. In line with this notion, the network of bilateral relations or alliances that emerges forms the actual community. However, for individuals the role of community may on the one hand be enabling but on the other also disabling in promoting their options for functioning. For instance, the formation of shared values and beliefs in emerging groups may also lead to mechanisms of exclusion for non-conformant individuals.

To assess the vitality of this view we analyse several cases from our own social work practice in the urban town of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In these cases we take the Central Capabilities (Nussbaum, 2000) as a descriptive framework to explore the situations of individuals that live in an urban setting. To extend the concepts of corrosive disadvantages and fertile functionings (Wolff and De-Shalit, 2007) a four-part frame is applied addressing the capacity-burden ratio in terms of both individual factors (strengths versus vulnerabilities) and contextual factors (stress versus support; see De Jonghe, Dekker, & Goris, 1997). Based on this four-part frame we identify fertile as well as corrosive mechanisms of community from the perspective of the individual in his or her own context. In the presentation we will share some of the analyses of this work in progress and we will reflect on the purpose and experiences in using the frame. Also, we will go into the potential prtactical strategies for social work in these particular cases.

Our early reflections suggest that community should not be seen as a concept incompatible with a person-centered approach, but instead may be regarded as an emergent property of individual capabilities and functionings. This approach may provide new directions for the application of the capability paradigm to social work in policy and practice as it opens a perspective for detecting and anticipating on corrosive and fertile mechanisms in local communities. Potentially, therefore, the notions put forward may provide a new angle to integrate social networks and individual wellbeing and their relation to public policy and democratic institutions. Finally, practical consequences for community development approaches in western urban areas in general and the current Civil Society paradigm in the Netherlands in specific will be discussed.

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