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Title Community Work: Liberation or Control?
Author Sean Harte
Key Concepts Community Work, Anti-oppressive practice, Models and Definitions, Empowerment, Practice



“Is community work about liberation, social control or neither? Discuss this question, illustrating your answer with examples from practice where appropriate”


Source: Sayer, J. (1986)


To discuss this question we will first highlight the very problematic nature of what is collectively termed `community work`. In attempting to define the role of community work we will look at the theoretical educational role of the community worker, particularly discussing the concept of empowerment. The disparity between the theory of community work and its practice on a day to day basis will be discussed within the context of political ideological frameworks. The processes of liberation and social control will be discussed briefly in relation to community work theory and practice and some attempt will be made to propose how community work may operate within these processes.

Understanding `Community` & the Role of Community Work

Before we can begin to discuss the role of community work we must first come to a common understanding of the term community. This is more complicated than it may sound, as the phrase has been, and is used in many different ways to indicate different things to different individuals and groups. The term community has three major uses within community work practitioners:

1)                  It may be employed to describe locality (a given geographical area) as a basis of social organisation.

2)                  It may be used to refer to a local social system or set of relationships that centre upon a given locality (such as an administrative boundary area e.g. a Local Education Authority).

3)                  Community is used to describe a relationship which produces a strong sense of shared identity, or common interests which is not dependent on physical location (e.g. black community or Jewish community).

(O`Donnell, 1992; Hawtin, Hughes and Percy-Smith, 1994)

Thus it is impossible to provide a simplistic definition of what is implied and understood by the term community work. The concept of community is in itself problematic. As we can see, it has numerous interpretations, making it difficult, if not impossible to determine an absolute answer to the question “what is community work?”

Compounding the difficulty in explaining the concept and nature of community work is its ability to operate within political climates which it would often seem are in diametrical opposition. Thorpe outlines this notion concisely, explaining that `the term community work can refer to a wide range of quite disparate approaches, reflecting diverse, and often opposing, political ideologies` (Thorpe, 1985).

Popple’s analysis of the development of community work describes a plethora of compatible and conflicting theories, ultimately concluding that `there is no distinct community work theory, rather a clutch of theories which can broadly be divided into categories related to macro-theories of society` (Popple, 1995, p.32).


Sayer concurs that `Community work has long been characterised by a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives, and ideological principles` leading to a `confused understanding of the field of practice, and the role and tasks of the workers`. She discusses the difficulty is seeing a link between the various facets of the work, being learning, action, or resource development, ultimately concluding that `Community work tends to end up trying to be all things to all people` (Sayer, 1986).

However, Smith (1999) provides a synopsis of the development of community work in the UK, which goes some way to helping us to understand the role of community work. The term community work has a relatively short history in the UK. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s accounts of practice and theoretical texts began to appear which classified community workers as a distinct occupation in opposition to earlier views of separate groups of workers such as community centre wardens and development workers (Smith, 1999). Thomas (1983, p.25) argues that the main orientation of this new common occupational identity was education. This education of communities had previously existed and was earlier described as `community organization`, being a division of social work, the complementary methods being `casework` and `group work`. Community organization was described as: 

`primarily aimed at helping people within a local community to identify

social needs, to consider the most effective ways of meeting these and to

set about doing so, in so far as their available resources permit`

 (Smith, 1999 citing The Younghusband Report (1959))


 ¨       Helping local people to decide, plan and take action to meet their own needs with the help of available outside resources;

¨       Helping local services to become more effective, usable and accessible to those whose needs they are trying to meet;

¨       Taking account of the interrelation between different services in planning for people;

¨      Forecasting necessary adaptations to meet new social needs in constantly changing circumstances

(Gulbenkian, 1968, p.140)

The term often used to describe this educating process is empowerment. Interestingly the Gulbenkian committee believed that community work intervention, as an educational concept,  far from being the sole role of specialist workers, was the role of teachers, social workers, the clergy, health workers, architects, planners, administrators and others. This belief points towards a recognition that divisions within society are to blame for the unequal treatment of individuals and groups in communities, and without addressing these divisions from a holistic viewpoint, little real improvement will occur. This basic value, it will later be argued is fundamental to understanding the climate in which community work is undertaken.

Empowerment – Theory and Practice

Schuftan defines empowerment as `a continuous process that enables people to understand, upgrade and use their capacity to better control and gain power over their own lives` (Schuftan, 1996, p.260). Thus empowerment provides groups and individuals with `choices and the ability to choose` and to `gain more control over resources they need` for improvement in their lives (Schuftan, ibid.). Thus we see that empowerment is indeed an educational process, which does not directly seek to control people, but allows them to exercise choices.

Paulo Freire’s definition of empowerment describes a collective process in an open forum with a shared control over the curriculum (Freire, 1970, 1973; Heany 1995). Indeed Jeffs and Smith describe non-formal educators as those who have an interest in building a `bottom up or negotiated curriculum` (Jeffs and Smith, 1996). Freire describes education for liberation in terms of providing a forum open to the imaginings and free exercise of control by learners, teachers, and the community. Thus empowerment is both the means and the outcome of a pedagogy which some have come to call `liberatory education`. This is delivered via a complex process of praxis in which cycles of action-reflection-action develop a `critical consciousness` in which one becomes open to revision when analysing problems (Freire, 1970, 1973; Heany 1995). This educational process would appear to be congruent with many of the definitions of community work theory, as Shaw (1997) upholds, community work is essentially an educational activity (Shaw 1997, cited in Forrest, 1999).

This is a very thought provoking theory, however it is a theory that is rarely transposed into community work practice. Indeed if education for liberation is based on `praxis`, that is creating a culture in which individuals and groups become `critically conscious`, then surely community work as a process should have at least as much involvement with those groups who hold power as it does with those who face discrimination and oppression. If community work `empowerment` is indeed about dialogue rather than polemics, in its practice as well as its theory, would we see the plethora of community workers in projects working with the poor, ethnic minorities, women, and gays and lesbians? Or would community workers be dispersed throughout the whole community, communities with and without power, communities with and without wealth, and communities both oppressed and who oppress? Indeed the paradox of empowerment is that for every group we seek to empower, we are conversely seeking to get another group to disempower themselves. This empowerment process therefore involves more than one group, as community workers seeking the progress of liberation and democracy is it not required that we work with and on the behalf of all of these involved groups?

Community work practice both historically and currently tells a very different story. Community work in reality is an inherently political activity. Smith describes the demise of the educational influence in community work into nothing more than rudimentary expression in the texts of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Smith, 1999). Thus community work as an educational experience has been more or less confined to theory as the practice has begun to focus on process goals which reflect the ideology of the individual community worker, the organisation for which they work or those of local or national government.

Hence we have seen the contemporary explanations of community work described within a context of political ideologies (Lambert, 1978; Hanmer and Rose, 1980; Thomas, 1983; Sutton, 1987; Thorpe, 1985). Various community work methodologies are prescribed to particular political leanings, for example self-help and self-reliance, and the avoidance of dependency is prescribed to a Conservative ideology, whilst neighbourhood organisation is aligned to the political left of the Liberal/Reformist.

However, for some commentators `empowerment is a contested concept` (Forrest, 1999, p. 93). Forrest distinguishes the use of the term empowerment as a capitalist tool for increasing productivity in the workplace from `educational practice` empowerment which he feels can build `hegemony within the working class` (ibid. p. 93-107). Thus we become aware of not only an element of rhetoric surrounding the term empowerment but a disparity of meanings. As workers it is imperative that we are clear in what we perceive to be empowerment and that we remain focussed upon the educational process as discussed by Freire (1970, 1973).

Defining Liberation and Social Control


For the interests of community work, liberation may be described as a process seeking to promote freedom from the social hegemony, which institutes inequality and oppression. Thus liberation is about addressing issues of inequality and oppression and redressing the balance of power within society. We can see therefore that this process of liberation is only concerned with freedom from institutionalised oppression and poverty created within our advanced industrialist capitalist society, and thus is in reality liberation of the oppressed. The process of empowerment discussed above can be used to foster this liberation, by challenging the models which create oppression and educating that alternative models are available.

Conversely there is a group within society which currently holds power and wealth. It is the role of liberation and empowerment to re-educate this group towards ways of thinking which are not based purely on profit and greed, but on redistribution of wealth. So that ultimately every member of society has at least a minimal standard within essential services such as income, housing and medicine.

Rosendale discusses the suitability of community workers supporting direct political action from community groups attempting to redistribute power, emphasising that this may only be possible with the use of civil disobedience. These `political acts` are described as ``activity concerned with the acquisition of power, or gaining one’s own ends`. The argument concludes that `History teaches us that there is an irrefutable link between politics and education`, yet debates the difficulty faced by a community worker who wishes to endorse or maintain this role. Indeed Rosendale’s analysis of the situation is inconclusive, not least because of a lack of practice based experience with which to augment theoretical argument (Rosendale, 1996, p.60-67).

Social Control

Traditionally social control has been seen as a coercive process, which engenders social conformity and maintains status quo. Indeed `Without its values, society would have no way of regulating the interchange of citizens; without its order, chaos, anarchy and continuous war for hegemony are likely to result. The process which enforces values and maintains order is termed social control` (Hoghughi, 1983, p.26).

Social control within a context of community work may be regarded as a process of continuity. Indeed much community work, especially that of those with right wing political ideology, involves self-help and making the best of what you have. Thus, it could be argued that this kind of work reinforces the current hegemony and deflects from attempts to challenge the oppression it creates, especially if this challenge may manifest as civil disobedience. Furthermore it could be argued that many community workers who work towards small political gains and improvements for individual communities are only serving to pacify a potentially threatening collective group of radicals. That is by allowing them political gains in their local community they are discouraged from seeking collective action with other groups in similar positions of disadvantage and attempting a radical change at a regional or even national level. Thus by working with relatively isolated communities for individual political gain we can see that it is possible to interpret this work as protection of the current hegemony, within the context of society as a whole, and thus the work could feasibly be described as social control.

Similarly, it may be argued that by adopting a `non-directive` approach to community work, that is one in which consensus, discussion and consultation is used to reach agreement on goals with the worker taking a `passenger seat` may also reinforce current hegemony (Massallay, 1990, p.78). The theory of this work is truly empowering, yet as Massallay (ibid.) describes as the disadvantages of this style as a possibility that it may prove `counter-productive`, for example if unrealistic goals are set and thus not achieved communities may lose confidence in themselves and/or the worker. This may lead to a negative attitude of defeatism, groups may potentially cease some or all action, thus once more the current hegemony is retained. Perhaps a more directive approach may help to prevent this potential.

Is this form of social control really within the remit of the community worker or is this merely a matter of individual interpretation?

Community Work Ideologies: Education, Egalitarianism and Politics

Whilst endorsing the educationalist stance on community work, Filkin and Naish dispute that community workers should start with a neutral aim. They describe the main aim of community work as `resource-redistribution from the powerful to the weak` arguing that this would `bring enormous benefits to people living in inner city areas, outer city estates … rural feudalism, or belonging to groups which society discriminates against, such as women, black people, teenagers, gays or the poor`(Filkin and Naish, 1982). Thus they have described not only the process that is community work but also the groups for whom this process should be applied.

Moreover they strongly challenge a tradition of community work which has an `objective` or `neutral tradition`. They argue that there are many fundamental conflicts within community work such as:

·        the interests of the poor versus the interests of the affluent;

·        between racists and those who they harass and oppress;

·        between tenants and landlords;

·        between the unemployed or homeless and those who own and manage jobs and houses;

·        the whole question of resource distribution in an `outrageously unequal society` (Filkin and Naish, ibid.).

They argue that community workers should not ignore these conflicts of interest, for in working to redistribute resources more evenly and not at present `by class, ability to pay or sex, but less damaging and more egalitarian criteria, the life chances of many people and neighbourhoods would be transformed` (Filkin and Naish, ibid.). Thus they argue that community work must operate from fundamentally egalitarian principles.

Contradictory to this ideal are the writings of commentators who believe in `politics –practice congruency` (see Dixon, 1990). This is a belief that community work practice will be, and is influenced by the ideological political beliefs of the individual practitioner. The Association of Community Workers (1975) asserted this notion, stating in their manual on community work skills and knowledge, that the ideology of the worker will influence which groups a worker does and does not support and the strategies endorsed by the worker. Thorpe (1985) expands upon this creating a model directly relating political ideology to community work practice (see Appendix 1. `Political Models of Community Work`).

Sayer builds on the question of ideology in community work theory and practice explaining that `the way a worker makes sense` of concepts will influence their practice. She quotes an example of how a practitioner with a feminist ideology may react differently to a child who says `women don’t work` than another worker. This is because their ideological concepts of `family` are very different.

Sayer discusses a redefinition of  ‘community’ as not dependant on locality, or organisation, but on `multiplicity of discourses which may or may not be articulated into the current hegemony of the state`, thus believing the process of community work is about celebrating the multiplicity of society and involving communities in discourses which `create expansive hegemony`. She proposes that by a) being aware of current social ideologies, their own ideological perspectives and any points of alliance and confrontation; b) promoting active conscious involvement in rearticulating the above; and c) using activity to negotiate and transform ideology, workers are able to define, understand and explain their role within communities (Sayer, 1986). Thus she believes that the key to defining the position of community work lies in bridging a current gap between theory and practice.


To even attempt a definitive assessment of what is understood by the term community work is highly problematic. Historically it is true that community work has been relatively chaotic, lead by governmental, organisational and individual politics. This has created confusion over the role of community work, both within the field and with external bodies who have created and developed issue based community work with manipulation of funding and targeted objectives.

It is argued that, theoretically at least, the role of the community worker is primarily that of an informal educator. This education as we have seen may be relatively non-directive, however this becomes problematic as individual and organisational political ideologies materialise when this educational theory is put into practice. Thus it can be seen that it is possible for community work to be used both as a tool for liberation, and a device for social control. Indeed it is possible that practitioners and projects may jump from one mode to another instantaneously, or even work simultaneously towards both ends within certain activities.

Community work has thus become a marginal activity which although boasting a grandiose philosophical theory of empowerment, redistribution of power and wealth, and equality, has delivered minor gains for individual communities, and very little major benefit to society as a whole. Indeed as Cooke describes `Despite the rhetoric surrounding it, community work is not an inherently radical activity ... several studies … have demonstrated that community work is more often about continuity than change` (Cooke, 1996, p.6). This is not an attempt to be hyper-critical of the very important function carried out by the profession, but is an acknowledgement of the difficulties encountered in a largely confusing role in which workers are often in a position of incongruity. As Forrest suggests `community workers, like plumbers or teachers are more often than not in work environments which are at odds with a radical view of the world` (Forrest, 1999).

It is time that community workers reanalyse their role and become clear of their political agenda. Now is an important period to act to interrupt the widening divide between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. It is key to the role of community work that challenging oppression and a redistribution of wealth is placed firmly on the political agenda. Critical to the effectiveness of this role is the process of education, not only as an underpinning theory, but as a tool for everyday practice. Indeed, `A radical agenda for community work practice needs to be articulated in critique, analysis, and prescription. This agenda can only be activated by a revitalised and proactive educational role` (Shaw, 1997).

© Sean Harte & Student Youth Work Online 2000

References & Recommended Reading

Association of Community Workers (1975) Knowledge and Skills for Community Work London: ACW

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1968) Community Work and Social Change. A report on training London: Longman

Cooke, I. (1996) `Whatever Happened to the Class of `68? – The Changing Context of Radical Community Work Practice` Chapter 1. in Radical Community Work – Perspectives from Practice in Scotland Great Britain: Moray House

Dixon, J. (1990) `Will Politically Inspired Community work be Evident in the 1990’s?` Community Development Journal Vol. 25 No. 2, 1990

Filkin, E. and Naish, M. (1982) `Whose side are we on? The damage done by neutralism` Chapter 4. In Community Work and the State London: RKP

Forrest, D. W. (1999) `Education and empowerment: towards untested feasibility` Community Development Journal Vol. 34 No. 2, p. 93-107

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed New York: Seabury

Freire, P. (1973) Education for Critical Consciousness New York: Seabury

Hanmer, J. and Rose, J. (1980) ‘Making sense of theory’ in The Boundaries of Change in Community Work Edited by Jones, D. and Thomas, D. London: Allen and Unwin

Hawtin, M., Hughes, G. and Percy-Smith, J. (1994) Community Profiling: Auditing Social Needs Great Britain: Open University Press

Hoghughi, M. (1983) The Delinquent: Directions for Social Control Great Britain: Burnett

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1996) Informal Education – conversation, democracy and learning Great Britain: Education Now Books/George Williams College

Lambert, J. (1978) ‘Political values and community work practice’ in Political Issues in Community Work Edited by Curno, P. London: RKP

Massallay, J. L. (1990) `Methods, techniques and skills of youth and community work: Community Action and Groupwork` Chapter 4. in Youth and Community Work Practice Edited by Osei-Hwedie, K., Mwansa, L-K. and Mufune, P. Zambia: Mission Press

O’Donnell, M. (1992) A New Introduction to Sociology Great Britain: Nelson

Popple, K. (1995) Analysing Community Work – Its Theory and Practice Great Britain: Open University Press

Rosendale, M. (1996) `Campaigning and Community Work` Chapter 4. in Radical Community Work – Perspectives from Practice in Scotland Great Britain: Moray House

Sayer, J. (1986) `Ideology: The Bridge Between Theory and Practice` Community Development Journal Vol. 21 No. 4, p. 294-303

Schuftan, C. (1996) `The community development dilemma: What is really empowering?` Community Development Journal Vol. 31 No. 3, p. 260-264

Shaw, M. (1997) `Community work: towards a radical paradigm for practice` The Scottish Journal of Community Work and Development No. 2 (Summer) p. 61-72

Sutton, C. (1987) A Handbook of Research for the Helping Professions London: RKP

Thorpe, R. (1985) `Community work and ideology: an Australian perspective` in Community Work or Social Change?  An Australian Perspective Edited by Thorpe, R. and Petruchenia, J. Great Britain: RKP

Thomas, D. N. (1983) The Making of Community Work London: George Allen and Unwin

Younghusband, E. L. (1959) Report on the Working Party on Social Workers in the Local Authority Health and Welfare Services London: HMSO

Heany, T. (1995) Issues in Freirean Pedagogy

Smith, M. K. (1999) The Informal Education Homepage



Source: Community Work or Social Change (Thorpe, 1985)



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