Community Media Discussion – Interculturalism & Inclusivity

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about how intercultural concepts of community cohesion play a vital role in shaping public policy towards community media. We’ll be considering how policies and practices associated with community cohesion, which have been limited through the extended period of economic austerity, might be reviewed and repurposed to foster greater social participation in community and civic deliberation and discussion. Particularly for people who are most often overlooked and ignored in society.

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How can people live together cohesively in a world that is being rapidly reconfigured by technology, globalised patterns of trade and networked media? This is the question that Ted Cantle asks in his 2012 book Interculturalism, in which he scrutinises how contemporary society is being transformed by multiple social forces, including the climate crisis, and what we might do to meet these looming challenges with a more constructive mindset and outlook. There is an assumption, as Stephen Muers wrote in The Guardian in 2011, that communities are automatically believed to be “inclusive if they contained some members of a minority group.” This simplistic assumption was buttressed at the time by the need to find a functional response to periods of local social unrest that frequently manifested in towns and cities that were being transformed by de-industrialisation, immigration and widening cultural diversity. The expectation was, as Muer notes, that by placing a “greater value on cohesion,” we would also be able to harness the social forces that “empowers local people, and shapes and sustains neighbourhoods.”

However, and despite more than a decade passing since community cohesion became part of the social policy lexicon, changes to public administration, policing and community development, have returned somewhat circumspectly to the narrow view of community cohesion as an extension on ‘multiculturalism’; which has resurfaced in the Levelling-Up policy agenda, but this time in the form of dealing with ‘left-behind places. As Dain Brandy noted in 2019,

“Looking through the lens of the government, the Community Cohesion policy [became] an attempt to help support people to take individual responsibility to make the right choices and nurture an environment where different cultures interact with each other. It was hoped that this would result in positive intercultural relationships and contributions towards society, both for individual benefit and the overall social good… However, the policy was based on ideology rather than being evidence-based…  The ambiguity of the language and terminology interchanging between race and class has resulted in fragmentation, which served to reinforce the hierarchical institutionalised narrative that has prioritised white nationals over BAME communities.”

Rather than sticking with this functional mindset, we need to foster an intercultural attitude, writes Ted Cantle. A mindset that is capable of valuing the distinctions that are drawn between people with different outlooks and conceptual attitudes, and which are represented in the different cultural traditions and communities that people embody. So, rather than simply thinking about race, identity or assumptions of community membership, there needs to be a greater focus on interaction, integration and understanding that facilitates a stronger sense of intercultural community cohesion. In nurturing a more purposeful sense of intercultural understanding, Cantle argues, it should be possible to set the foundations for enhanced and constructive social collaboration that can meet the pressing challenges of an ever-changing society. The question that advocates and practitioners of community communications need to ask, as a result, is what is the role for community media in this process?

The problem of globalisation, Cantle notes, means that every country “will find that its population is increasingly made up of more people from different cultures, nationalities, faiths and ethnic backgrounds” (Cantle, 2012, p. 1). If significant parts of society are associated with ‘super-diversity’, Cantle asks what will be the necessary mediating cultural structures and social systems that will support collective interaction in a meaningful, purposeful and cohesive manner? As Cantle argues, “if societies are to become more cohesive and to avoid being riven by cultural and other divisions, they will need a new paradigm.” This paradigm, according to Cantle, is ‘interculturalism’ in the service of community cohesion, replacing legacy concepts of multiculturalism and fixed identity assumptions in both theory and practice of community development.

The multiple process of change that Cantle describes, and which as sometimes summarised as the Great Disruption (Fisher, 2016, Gilding, 2012), were new at the latter part of the Twentieth century, but are now deeply rooted in the structural dynamics of our daily lives here in the United Kingdom and other established economies. These process of change not only affect the resources that we depend on locally, but they also shape the civil and cultural expectations that we determine as viable for local social interaction. Globalisation, as we experienced during the Covid-19 Pandemic for example, indicates that any local social infrastructure that supports our daily lives are now significantly changed from what they were even in the recent past, say twenty years ago. For example, our healthcare system is now enmeshed and interconnected in an international system of trade in equipment, medicines and expertise. We have grown to accept, Brexit notwithstanding, the movement of qualified professionals, nurses, doctors and consultants, who can work anywhere in the world, as long as they keep up to date with the latest professional information and knowledge they need to practice.

Similarly, our information and news is now defined through globalised networks operating simultaneously between different parts of our local and globalised social experience. The global village that McLuhan imagined is now our reality (McLuhan, 1964). Local news is now increasingly shared via international networks and platforms of media distribution, such as YouTube, Facebook and so on. Media that was once designed exclusively to meet our local needs, and was produced and originated entirely locally, has become diffusely distributed through the globalised media networks, to the extent that we often can’t tell where one part starts, and the other parts begin. For example, local information is driven by data management systems in California, shared on smart devices that are manufactured in China, while people watch on-demand films and programmes that are made around the world, using knowledge and expertise that was crafted in universities who themselves form a virtual network of collaboration and knowledge exchange. This globalised media is designed to appeal to cultural diaspores, or ‘tribes’, which as Cantle argues, runs the risk of promoting cultural separation and segregation, often fuelled by misinformation, which subsequently limits the possibility of a shared social experience.

Not everyone watches Netflix, or downloads music from Apple, yet the hype suggests this is the only form of media that anyone is engaging with. As a result of this economic hype, the BBC’s Digital-First policy goes largely unchallenged, and communities further loose out on local and self-defined representation. The challenge, moreover, and in the face of increasingly diverse communities is, according to Ted Cantle, to figure out how we can better make sense of how our communities are changing and on what basis? For example, attitudes that indicate how we each wish to be recognised as part of a social in-group, and the sense of belonging that many people hold in relation to these inherited or self-identified in-groups, vary massively. In the network communications age people increasingly see themselves as having multiple identities. So, rather than assuming anyone is part of a singular, homogenous group, we are starting to learn to accept that many people describe themselves as constituted by a whole range of intersecting social identities drawn from a continuum of modes of cultural expression.

These identities are a combination of local and international social identities that cover a range of interconnecting purposes. A passion for sport, music or fashion is often more important to many people than faith or nationality would have been in the past. Generational change and an integration of globalised identities, therefore, plays an enhanced and significant role in recasting the possibilities of social identity. With continual shifts of possibility from one generational community to another, expectations of cultural expression are becoming more fluid. Expectations that originated with a migrant community, for example, who have held on to their inherited identity, which continues to be purposefully carried by that specific group of people who share that common social experience, eventually starts to weaken as subsequent generations become removed from that social experience, and are integrated and assimilated into other emerging and new patterns of social engagement and cultural expression. Plus ça change!

Global brands, it seems somewhat disappointingly, are more likely to connect people through a cohesive sense of belonging and identification, than legacy religious and ethnic identities of the past can do. The dominance of consumer culture, with expectations of tourism, international study, global knowledge exchange, and so on, each accelerate the belief that in a globalised world we should expect to take part in an ever-expanding flow of media interaction. All of which further adds to the sense of uncertainty and anxiety because we are no longer sure that our identity is fixed and rooted in anything solid. As financial capital flows freely in international markets, so too does cultural and social capital. As with all markets, however, there are winners and losers.

Since Ted Cantle was writing in the early part of the Twenty-First Century, we’ve experienced a persistent and forthright financial austerity here in the UK, which has resulted in the stripping away of many of the public services that supported community cohesion. Ironically, the proposal to ‘level-up’ is itself a response to the public policy failures of the last decade, with austerity only further embedding long-term economic inequalities. The sense of decline is all around us, and is a result of public policy choices that determined that debt repayment was more important than the quality of our lives. Leaving the European Union, the rise of populism and nationalism, community antagonism, and so on, are the result of a failed social policy process that hasn’t attended to matters of social solidarity and social cohesion, particularly in the forms that Ted Cantle has warned about.

From the point of view of community media advocates and makers, therefore, there are many questions that we can explore and challenge. Given the circumstances, do our communities feel better informed about different people who become their neighbours, or do we feel increasingly segregated and distrustful of one another? In places of super-diversity, like Leicester for example, are we doing enough to promote integration and cohesion? Have too many people been abandoned to fend for themselves, with no investment from our civic and public services that promote a common sense of social and public purpose? Has unquestioned diversity itself become a dilemma for people advocating meaningful social development? One might value diversity in its own terms, but if that diversity comes with cultural and religious conservativism, or exploitative employment practices, or political extremism and populism, then surely the forms of diversity that are practised need to be challenged. Ted Cantle warns that we can fall back into segregation and social antagonism, are we heading these warnings?

It is clear that what we mean by diversity in a multicultural world is changing. Ted Cantle suggests, therefore, that we need to meet these changes with a different approach to the way that we go about building a good society. One that is socially inclusive, while remaining open to innovation and change. What will enable the cross-pollination of cultures, rather than sticking with our identities and forms of expression formed in the past?  The question to be explored, then, is how do policies that promote social inclusion and cohesion work in practice? What kind of social/meaning institutions do we need to develop that will ensure that our society is unified, purposeful and offers meaningful opportunities for creative and inventive solutions to the challenges of the future? What is our media’s role in this, and how can community media demonstrate that there are advantages to encouraging participation in self-producing media communities of practice, expression and identity? What’s the role of media in a socially democratic, cohesive society?

Cantle T. (2012) Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity (Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke).

Fisher T. (2016) Getting Ready for the Great Disruption. In Moore S.A. (Ed.). Pragmatic Sustainability – Dispositions for Critical Adaptation 2nd edn. (Routledge, London).

Gilding P. (2012) The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy (Bloomsbury, London).

McLuhan M. (1964) Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man (Routledge, London).

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