What are community studies?
4th ESRC Research Methods Festival
St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 6 July 2010
Graham Crow,
ESRC National Centre for Research Methods
Outline of presentation
The community studies tradition of research
Methodological issues in community studies
Some exemplars
The evolution of community studies
The community studies tradition of research
• Community studies as a long-established,
recognised body of work
• Focus on ordinary people’s everyday lives
• Classic studies include influential best-sellers
e.g. M Young and P Willmott Family and Kinship
in East London (1957) which sold over half a
million copies
• Impact on audiences within and beyond
The community studies tradition of research
• Tradition often traced back to Robert and Helen
Lynd’s 1929 Middletown: A Study in
Contemporary American Culture.
• Portrait of a typical town with sections on six
areas: Getting a living; Making a home; Training
the young; Using leisure; Engaging in religious
practices; Engaging in community practices
• Re-studied by the Lynds in Middletown in
Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937)
Overviews of the evolving tradition of
A Vidich et al Reflections on Community Studies (1964)
R Frankenberg Communities In Britain (1969)
C Bell & H Newby Community Studies (1971)
R Wild Australian Community Studies and Beyond
• G Crow & G Allan Community Life (1994)
• T Blackshaw Key Concepts in Community Studies
• M Savage Identities and Social Change in Britain since
1940 (2010) ch 6
• ‘Community’ notoriously difficult to define
• ‘The popularity of the word has not made its meaning
any clearer’ (P Willmott 1989, p.2)
• People with something in common – but what is that
thing? Shared territory, interest, or attachment, or some
combination of these? Mining communities as an ideal
• Further problem of the word ‘community’ almost always
being used positively, as a self-evidently good thing
• ‘Community is a valued and valuable achievement’ (R
Plant et al 1980, p.206)
• Community studies as research projects that seek to
capture and portray ordinary people’s everyday lives in
the round, showing how their various parts fit together
• As critical social science, community studies do not prejudge the presence or absence of romanticised visions
of community e.g. J Rex and R Moore’s Race,
Community and Conflict (1967); K Dempsey, ‘Smalltown’
as ‘one big happy family’ (1990)
• Community may be, but is not necessarily, greater than
the sum of its individual parts
Methodological issues in community studies
• If understanding a community requires studying its
economy, domestic life, education and training, leisure,
religion, and politics, and how they all fit together, this is
a methodological challenge in several respects
• The sheer scale of the enterprise – this can take years to
complete e.g. J Foster’s Docklands took 10 years; S
Keller’s research over 30 years
• Gaining access – ‘In my early days in the village I would
often climb a hill and look sadly down upon the rows of
houses on the housing estate and wonder what went on
inside them’ (R Frankenberg 1969, p.16). Researcher as
Methodological issues in community studies
• Even when access is gained, various aspects of
community life may continue to be hidden – Geoff Payne
(1996) asked why community studies are so full of nice
• Information may be more readily available from some
community members
• There are risks for researchers involved in revealing the
less attractive sides of community life where these upset
community members’ self-perceptions
Methodological issues in community studies
• Further criticism of community studies as
descriptive or based on analytical frameworks
that are not challenging
• ‘the endless “community studies” of the
sociologists often read like badly written novels’
(Mills 1959, p.368)
• Just because some previously un-researched
community exists, it doesn’t follow that there is
necessarily any value in studying it
Some exemplars
• A Rees, Life in a Welsh Countryside used the
local expression ‘woven together like a pig’s
entrails’ (1951, p.74) to convey how households
were understood to be linked by kinship (and
why researchers in the field need to be careful
about what they say to community members
about other community members)
• An early example of social network analysis
Some exemplars
Some exemplars
• R E Pahl Divisions of Labour (1984), on ‘work’
• Methods summarised (p.vii) as ‘ethnography,
historical demography and quantitative survey
• historical documentary research
• survey data on households and on employers
• interviews, including oral histories
• ethnographic observations
• visual methods
Some exemplars
Some exemplars
• Karen O’Reilly The British on the Costa del Sol
• Ethnography of a mobile community, framing
interview data and observations and historical
material in an analytical framework highlighting
ethnicity and community
• New angles on community and place, on the
insider/outsider distinction, and on community
and time
Some exemplars
• Eric Lassiter et al, The Other Side of Middletown
(2004) on Muncie’s African-American population
as a neglected side of this much-studied
community used as a basis for generalizing
about middle America
• Researchers’ focus changes, along with
methodological practices
• Participatory ethnography
• Visual methods
Some exemplars
The evolution of community studies
• Re-studies are one way in which the community
studies tradition continues to evolve
• Re-studies are not replications, but offer insights
into social change e.g. Nickie Charles et al
Families in Transition (2008); Lois Bryson & Ian
Winter Social Change, Suburban Lives (1999);
Geoff Dench et al The New East End (2006)
• Re-studies may be by the same researchers or
different teams
• Community studies a distinctive tradition of
• Evolution due to methodological and theoretical
• Interesting issues related to interdisciplinarity;
archiving; the philosophy of the case study and
generalization; mixed methods; the relationship
between researchers and the people being
researched; and the purpose of research
• Bell, C and Newby, H (1971) Community Studies London: George
Allen & Unwin
• Blackshaw, T (2010) Key Concepts in Community Studies London:
• Bryson, L and Winter, I (1999) Social Change, Suburban Lives St
Leonards: Allen and Unwin
• Charles, N et al (2008) Families in Transition Bristol: Policy Press
• Crow, G and Allan, G (1994) Community Life Hemel Hempstead:
Harvester Wheatsheaf
• Dempsey, K (1990) Smalltown Melbourne: Oxford University Press
• Dench, G et al (2006) The New East End London: Profile Books
• Foster, J (1999) Docklands London: UCL Press
• Frankenberg, R (1969) Communities In Britain Harmondsworth:
• Lassiter, E. et al (2004) The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring
Muncie’s African American Community. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira
• Lynd, R and Lynd, H (1929) Middletown London: Constable
• Lynd, R and Lynd, H (1937) Middletown in Transition New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company
• Mills, C (1959) The Power Elite London: Oxford University Press
• O’Reilly, K (2000) The British on the Costa del Sol London:
• Pahl, R E (1984) Divisions of Labour Oxford: Blackwell
• Payne, G (1996) ‘Imagining the community: some reflections on the
community study as a method’, in E Stina Lyon and J Busfield (eds)
Methodological Imaginations. Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp.17-33
• Plant, R et al (1980) Political Philosophy and Social Welfare
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
• Rees, A (1951) Life in a Welsh Countryside Cardiff: University of
Wales Press
• Rex, J and Moore, R (1967) Race, Community and Conflict London:
Oxford University Press
• Savage, M (2010) Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940
Oxford: Oxford University Press
• Scheper-Hughes, N. (2001) Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics:
Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Berkeley: University of California
• Vidich, A et al, eds, (1964) Reflections on Community Studies New
York: Harper and Row
• Wild, R (1981) Australian Community Studies and Beyond Sydney:
George Allen and Unwin
• Willmott, P (1989) Community Initiatives London: PSI
• Young, M and Willmott, P (1957) Family and Kinship in East London
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

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