Blog post

Why community matters in thinking about social problems

6 min read
12 Jan 2015

Continuing this series of posts on how we define and address social problems, today I want to consider how the communities to which we belong can shape our thinking about such problems.

The community or communities to which we feel that we belong can affect what we see as problematic and how we perceive those problems.

Our immigration theme offers a nice example of this idea – whether you care about immigration and what you think of it owes much to your community. As a crude empirical illustration, I looked at three newspapers local to Oxford (where I am based) – one conventional and two run by students at Oxford University. I searched the websites of each paper for the terms 'immigration' and 'immigrants' between 22nd November and 22nd December 2014.

The number of results returned was as follows:

Oxford Mail | Cherwell | Oxford Student | | Immigration | 437 | 8 | 1 | | Immigrants | 46 | 8 | 0 |

I'm not claiming that this is particularly rigorous, but it does give us an indicative starting point. There is clearly a significant difference in coverage between the three papers, even if we take into account the greater overall amount of content produced by the Oxford Mail.

I think the most likely explanation is that the differences in coverage reflect the differential importance of immigration as an issue – as a social problem – to the communities served by these papers.

You might be thinking it's a pretty obvious point that student newspapers aren't concerned with in-depth coverage of national political issues to the extent that other media outlets are – and it is, but it's important to ask why this is the case.

Any newspaper, while of course having its own agenda, is expected to cover news of interest to those reading it – otherwise it would be a poor business proposition. (The two student newspapers are free – but nevertheless they need to be read to obtain advertising revenue and continue to justify their existence).

The interests of a geographically defined community like Oxfordshire are naturally diverse. That community contains a large number of people from a range of age groups, ethnicities and social backgrounds. The things they're concerned about touch on a very wide set of topics.

By contrast, the interests of a more tightly defined community like that of Oxford University students (and in this case predominantly undergraduate students) are narrower. When an undergraduate, you are rarely personally affected by taxes, welfare, business investment – or any of a wide range of other issues, including immigration (with the single exception of student visas, which can of course be important).

What the numbers above suggest is that, as we might expect, the Oxfordshire community is one that cares about immigration quite a lot, while the Oxford University undergraduate community cares quite a bit less. The nature of the community influences the kind of problems likely to be seen as important.

Now this certainly doesn't mean that just because you are a student you don't care about immigration – or any number of other issues that might not affect you or your student community directly. Students can and do care about these things. The communities we belong to do not determine our thinking – they only influence it.

Partly this is because we are capable of thinking for ourselves – we don't automatically follow the herd – and partly it is because of a couple of more general caveats we must make about the idea of a 'community' (which I have deliberately understood in broad terms).

First, a single individual can clearly feel part of multiple communities. There may be students at Oxford who are intensely concerned about the provision of adequate transport links between Oxford and Abingdon. Those transport links will not be the subject of much interest amongst most undergraduate members of the university, however – and to the extent that students do worry about them we can suggest that it is because they also feel part of the geographically defined community of Oxfordshire residents.

A second thing we can say about communities is that they can be defined in different ways – by geography, certainly, but also by shared status, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.

So not only do you have the ability to think for yourself, but the community influences on your thinking may be many and varied. Despite this, we should nevertheless acknowledge the influence of our environments, however complex that may be. The environments in which we find ourselves lend themselves to some problems being seen as more salient than others, and being presented in particular ways.

As obvious as this point is, it is one that we often overlook.

This is particularly evident when – as is often the case – we talk in general terms about whether situation X is a problem or not, and in what ways. We rarely stop to consider whether what appears to be problematic from one perspective may be less so (or may be problematic for different reasons) from another. In other words, we need to ask who exactly it is a problem for and why.

Immigration is a great example. Often the debate is reduced to a crude 'more or fewer', 'good or bad' argument and left at that.

I think this is because the community that is often implicitly the most prominent in such discussions is the national community. A national community has sovereign borders – hence must consider immigration and related issues – and it is consequently (largely) at national level that policies on responding to such issues are set.

I won't touch on debates about whether this is the most suitable level at which to consider immigration. What I want to emphasise is only that other perspectives are available. And the choice of perspective can significantly influence the shape and character of immigration as a social issue. Stop for a moment and consider it from the point of view of a particular town, ethnic group, profession or age-range. How does it affect them?

While there may be no single 'best' perspective for considering immigration – or any other issue – it is important to consider what different perspectives can contribute to our understanding of a given problem.

In particular, we should be aware of what perspectives we may be implicitly or unconsciously adopting, perhaps as a result of the communities in which we find ourselves.

We may not be fully conscious of the perspective we are adopting when discussing a particular issue – but we should be. As long as we are aware of the perspectives we adopt we can ensure that we do not simply default to their assumptions.

This can be a useful exercise, providing an important check on what problems we choose to pay attention to and how we consider them.

This line of thinking has two obvious implications for questions of charitable donation.

First, when choosing which charities to donate to – that is, when choosing which social problems to address – it is worth thinking carefully about what communities we are part of and how they may be influencing our perceptions of the salience and character of particular problems.

That in itself can ensure that we think carefully about the presentation of charitable options.

It also suggests the importance of actively constructing communities in order to promote particular perspectives. The more widespread and cohesive the effective altruism community is, for example, the greater the influence it is likely to have over the problem-thinking of its members.

Second, because asking about problem perspectives entails asking the question 'who is this a problem for?' it also has implications for the assessment of charitable effectiveness.

If we do not fully understand who a particular problem affects, and how its effects are felt, then we will struggle to provide any meaningful assessment of efforts to address that problem.

Particularly when it comes to broadly defined problems, like poverty, we need to think carefully about exactly who is affected and in what ways. Setting out to learn more about the lives and needs of those we seek to help – for example in terms of international development – is an essential step in appropriately designing charitable interventions.

In short, then, the communities to which we belong can influence what problems we think about and how we think about them – and if we stop to question that it can open out new ways of thinking that can lead to better identification of, and solutions to, particular problems.