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Deprivation Is Not The Same As Dysfunction

April 10, 2010

A political debate is developing about how to tackle ‘dysfunctional communities’ after the general election. Discussing how to improve things for people in ‘disadvantaged’ or even so-called ‘deprived’ locations is one thing, and many of us have made this the focus of attention over the past decade or three. But the repair of ‘dysfunctional’ communities is another matter – not least because this concept is desperately negative and is unfair to the decent majority.

The Big Society idea is not improved by using talking about ‘dysfunctional’ communities.

Of course dysfunctional behaviour exists, and we have also not always succeeded well in working to reduce disadvantage – though I’d argue there has been more success than some concede. 

But at least we know what we’re talking about when we consider disadvantage. There are many agreed measures and indices by which disadvantage can be identified and located, and by which progress towards reducing it adjudged.

Can whole communities be ‘dysfunctional’?
Can the same be said of dysfunction, as applied to not just particular behaviours, but actually, as the newly announced Big Society idea does, to whole communities?

I’d argue it can’t be so applied. What looks like group dysfunctional activity to one observer can seem fairly ordinary to another. (To trade briefly in stereotypes: how do you feel about sending children away to school routinely at age seven or eight? And how might some who do this view the idea of regular family TV suppers from the chip shop? Or whatever….)  It all depends where you stand. 

Who has the right, in the end, to label others’ legally okay behaviour as dysfunctional?

Decent people live everywhere.
We are mistaken when we see whole communities as ‘not working’, if that is what is meant here by the term ‘dysfunctional’.  In every community, or location, there are people who work hard to do the right things, as well as those who don’t; and labelling an entire group of people as being members of a dysfunctional community is not helpful either to them or to those who wish to support them.

A central plank of any strategy to alleviate disadvantage is to provide a positive framework which offers the chance for people in that location or community to change things for the better.  

We may not yet have found the right way to do this for every situation, but slowly we are learning, and that learning needs to continue in as focused a way as possible.

Neglecting the potential for good
Referring to whole ‘communities’ as ‘dysfunctional’ is a step in the wrong direction. It neglects the potential of good people everywhere who want to make things better.

And it glosses over the stark fact that the dice remain loaded in favour of those who might see dysfunction, where others perceive more often plain and simple disadvantage.

A version of this article was published in the New Start Blog on 10 April 2010. It was subsequently selected as ‘Blog of the Month’ in New Start magazine for May 2010.

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