Diversity in translation: community organizing and questions of the commons in the UK

Farhan Samanani


Political divisions and tensions around the place of diversity in society have long been intertwined. In the UK, migration, multiculturalism, and the impact of these in British identity have long been some of the most pressing issues for the British electorate. Today, majority attitudes towards difference and diversity exhibit signs of fragmentation, where difference is valued to varying extents, and across different scales, moments, and issues. This fragmentation can be traced more broadly across British politics, where radical anti-diversity voices are finding renewed support, and there is a growing heterogeneity of political stances and commitments. This project examines this fragmentary landscape in relation to a particular political tradition that strives to build commonality out of difference - that of ‘community organizing’. Community organizing draws on an intellectual tradition and a practical toolkit which attempts to approach difference as the basis of political power, and to build common ground amongst people who hold, and retain, different values. Through ethnographic fieldwork with one of the largest community-organizing charities in the UK, this research attempts to trace how attempts to build a politics of common ground succeed and fail across a fragmentary political landscape. The project looks at difference and division not as fixed categories, but rather as everyday productions, which are contested and mobilized to both bring people together and to hold them apart. Initial empirical findings stress the importance of the ‘vernacularization’ of politics - where common cause is built by translating particular concerns or perspectives into familiar moral and cultural language - so that the same issue, such as homelessness, for example, can bring people together when framed in Christian terms for Christians, in the context of migrant struggles for Latin Americans, as related to struggles around home ownership for middle-class activists, etc.

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