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Durham University

Policy, Professions and Communities Research Group


Publication details for Professor Sarah Banks

Banks, S. (2011). 'Re-gilding the ghetto: community work and community development in 21st-century Britain.'. In Radical Social Work Today: Social Work at the Crossroads. Lavalette, M. Bristol: Policy Press. 165-185.

Author(s) from Durham


The theory and practice of community work is bedevilled by debates around terminology, identity and ideology – just as much as, if not more than, social work. The term ‘community’ (noun), whilst often dismissed as meaningless, nevertheless has much more substantive content than the term ‘social’ (adjective) as it occurs in ‘social work’. While ‘community’ tends to have a positive evaluative meaning (associated with warmth and caring), it also has a number of descriptive meanings (Plant, 1974) and can be used to describe groups of people that are exclusive, hierarchical, homogeneous and conservative, as well as groups that are inclusive, egalitarian, heterogeneous and challenging. As Purdue, et al. (2000, p. 2) suggest, the contested nature of the concept of ‘community’ allows differing interests to ‘manipulate a term with multiple meanings to their own ends’. In so far as community workers tend to support groups of people with common experiences of disadvantage and oppression to take collective action, they can easily adopt a radical rhetoric linked with a social change agenda. Yet community workers are also very aware of how vulnerable they are to cooption, as governments and service delivery agencies appropriate the radical-sounding discourse of ‘community empowerment’ and ‘social justice’. Community workers have been, and some still are, intensely ambivalent about the mainstreaming of community work as a state-sponsored activity, about moves towards professionalisation and about whether community work should be regarded as a profession, occupation, social movement or a set of skills. To add to the confusion, ‘community work’ as a generic term for a range of practices is being superseded in Britain by the terms ‘community development work’ or ‘community development’ (traditionally regarded as just one of several approaches to community work).
This chapter will first explore the nature of ‘community work’ - outlining an analysis that regards ‘community development’ as one of several approaches to community work.