Lecture on the good life in the reflexive community: Aristotle & Lash
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Students’ questions arising from lecture “The good life in reflexive communities: Aristotle & Lash”

Hazel Ashton writes:

Last week I posted a lecture I gave to students: Good life in the reflexive community: Aristotle & Lash

I’ve since given a tutorial which focused on the student’s questions. The following are notes from the tutorial.

I’m not able to capture the to-and-fro of discussion but I’ve tried to capture the main points. Readers are most welcome to send in comments, challenges and links to resources etc.

Questions my students asked

1. Isn’t a world of good lives in reflexive communities too utopian?

I began the lecture with a quote from philosopher Slavoj Zizek who said, “For us, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than serious social change. Witness the numerous blockbusters about global catastrophe and the conspicuous absence of films about alternate societies…”

Zizek’s point is that currently we are only offered dystopian futures and this has diverted the focus away from social change needed to re-orient the world to a more sustainable and desirable future.

Yes the vision of the good life in reflexive communities is utopian, but I argue that in order to imagine and create a new world, utopian visions are needed – however, and this is an important however, also needed are practical and feasible steps to help achieve such visions.

I think the steps outlined in the last lecture for the development of the good life in reflexive communities are practical and feasible.  I’m happy to be challenged. I think this is the conversation we need to have.

2. I’ve got confused; can we have a brief definition of reflexive community?

This is my definition:

A community that can problematize ( not just presume, need to ask questions and check out )  its situations and its possibilities so as to better understand what is happening to it and what it would like to be and do in the light of this understanding.

In the lecture I mentioned television programmes Shortland Street (New Zealand) Coronation Street (England) and Friends (United States) as illustrations of village life and community life (in the Western world). Many important issues worked through in these fictional and virtual communities which can positively influence how the viewing audiences act and interact in their real community. However, the soap opera construction of community is produced by script writers, not local people, and is not accountable to real people living real lives in a particular place, whose problems do not disappear when the camera ceases to focus its attention on them.

However, these virtual communities point to ways people can reflect communally on life, what is happening, what is possible and how more accessible technology now makes it possible for local people to co-create their own good life  narratives – accountable to local inhabitants (human and non-human).

3. Do you have practical examples of reflexive community?

I did a case study of St Albans (a suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand) in the 1990s for my Masters thesis (2002). People involved didn’t use the term reflexive community but they worked with the idea. John Wardle, one of the community practitioners, describes the concept in a practical way:

We want to help create a community that will work together to identify its problems and find ways to improve itself. A community that recognises cultural diversity and individual difference as a wealth, not a problem. (interview 1997)

4. You talked about the need for participation in information and communication (I&C) structures – how does this help create the good life in the reflexive community?

That’s a big question. While focus has tended to be around the digital divide: participation of those with and without access to computers and internet etc, my focus (following Scott Lash) has included yet another divide –between those on the creating and receiving end of information and communication flows.

It’s not often that a community operates at the creating or interacting end, creating or co-creating with helpful others their future development. Communities usually find themselves at the receiving end of decisions made by well-networked interests. The usual response is for people to come together and resist and protest about what they don’t want. This kind of reaction takes a lot of energy and is only rarely successful.

In order for community to be effective in coming together to create what they do want, especially in what Manuel Castells refers to as “the global network society” and Ulrich Beck “the global risk society”, people in community need to set up their own networks.

I will go into more detail in future lectures, but the point I wish to make is that fully participatory local I & C structures can enable people to network and interact more intensively and effectively locally and, because many people have networks beyond the locality, this networking opens up opportunities for effective coalitions for projects that need resources or connections beyond the locality.

A close study of St Albans I&C projects in the 90’s points to many opportunities when there is an effective local I&C networking infrastructure. By I & C networking infrastructure I mean here technology that can augment face-to-face networking. In St Albans this included local media, community interactive website and screen interfaces and beginnings of the co-construction of their own filmed, good life narratives. I don’t wish to overstate the effectiveness of the St Albans experiments with networking technology, but it was a promising beginning.

5. Do you have an example of aesthetics?

People behind local development projects in St Albans in the 90’s didn’t use the term ‘aesthetics’ but they knew they had to attract and engage people because the reality is that community is not as appealing and engaging as it could and needs to be. John Wardle again:

I think like a lot of today’s world that we have to get into a lot of MacDonald’s type of psychology … Instead of sitting back like many community groups [generally having committee meetings which are boring to many people ] That’s why I think community as a movement needs to be turned into a sort of religious movement without the religion of course …people with things people can smile at – I am and I will and I’m part of this – make them feel something.

There is an important distinction between community aesthetics generated by people in a community to enhance their common, community life – in the routine achievement of meaning for that community- and aesthetics whose meaning is artificially constructed, often serving interests other than those of the community.

An extreme example of the latter was Hitler’s attempt to create a feeling of a return to the traditional “Volk” (people’s) life of the Gemeinschaft (traditional community), when people actually lived in what was a turbulent, hyper-bureaucratic, hyper-industrialising Gesellschaft (society of atomised individuals) in the years 1933-45. See: Scott Lash (1994: 149) for a more in-depth discussion of aesthetics.

6. How does what you’re saying relate to Human Services?

The idea of community and village life is reasserting itself at all levels: localities, local government, central Government in New Zealand and elsewhere (in particular in Western countries), all the more so with the current global recession and ongoing ecological pressures.

Human Service organisations serve human needs and are mainly employed by national and local governments to do this.

A key point is that where village living is reflexive, Human Service professionals will be better able to work in with local inhabitants who know and can articulate their needs and aspirations.

The problem is Government decision makers and officials use terms like ‘community’ and ‘village’ as if they already exist, as if villagers share an understanding of what they are, as if it would be relatively unproblematic for all to come together as a community or village and act with relative autonomy.

Those involved in designing and providing Human Services therefore need to be able to understand how terms such as “community” are being used.

When communities are called on, how does this call relate to communities that actually exist or are seriously intended to exist? Or are terms like “community” just linguistic expressions in policy documents?

7. What do you mean by a reflexive turn and how does this relate to the good life?

Another big question – I’ll try and simplify:

7.1 The First (Nation-State) Modernity

Modernity (expressed in the promise of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century) promised individual freedom –in effect, individuals could be free to create their own life narratives – what they wanted to be and what they wanted to do.

This was to be done in the newly emerging nation states of the period.

Early sociologists such as Durkheim feared that such freedom could result in anomie or breakdown of social bonds.

However, modern institutional infrastructures, constructed and co-ordinated in the context of the nation, ensured individual and social well-being.

There were of course major problems but in Western countries at least, and notably in New Zealand, by the 1950s modern institutions ensured in the main:

  • Full or nearly full employment, which meant the mainly male workers, could be a “good provider for the family”;
  • Through effective union pressure, eight hour days with weekends off for most workers so there was time for “good work and good leisure”;
  • Primary caregivers, mainly women, had time, support and resources to be “good mothers” and “good carers” of family and community;
  • Free education meant children could be “good students” and go on to be “good workers” ;
  • The economy was coordinated largely within the nation state so it could be run to provide for the “common good” (free education, free hospital treatment, good transport systems etc);
  • Social welfare provided “good back-up support” where the economy couldn’t meet needs;
  • Goods such as “good healthy food” were often produced nationally and locally – likewise services such as “good training” of doctors etc;

7.2 Modernity globalised

Enter the global information age.

In the 1970s there was major technological change, particularly with the advent of the Internet and micro chip. Global telecommunications resulted in more global coordination: resource exploitation, transport and energy production, marketing, franchises etc. With these trends and dependence on global capital sources and ratings agencies the national economy became part of a financialised global system.

In the modern nation-state of the twentieth century, countries like New Zealand used to refer to cradle-to-grave social security, i.e. care and support for babies and mothers, free education, full employment, safe work places, amply sufficient retirement pensions, and care for the elderly.

Now with globalization a regime of cradle-to-grave care for profit is replacing that older concept as nation states privatize care that is then taken over by global corporations: early childhood schooling, education, work, and elder-care and so on.

The institutions of modernity are breaking down as are the social bonds.

7.3 So, the Reflexive Turn
It is in the context of the breakdown of modern institutions that we note the reflexive turn and especially how unintended consequences produce more risk (to the individual, society, ecology etc especially now the context is global) (Ulrich Beck)

But as modern institutions become overloaded or break down there are increasing calls for community to help …


However, because calls for community to fix problems are made without problematizing whether community exists, or how it can exist, the current problem fades from view and the spotlight turns on other problems… and so it goes on.

While many recognise the need for community – for village life – for the good life (personal and social) there’s much more to creating community than a passing positive thought or purely “feel good” localism.

In the next lecture I’ll describe a methodology to support the development of reflexive communities.

Your comments, challenges etc most welcome: See below – no membership or passwords required.

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