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Postill, J. Review of Hopper, P., Rebuilding Communities in an Age of Individualism

Postill, J. Review of Hopper, P., Rebuilding Communities in an Age of Individualism

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Published by John Postill

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Published by: John Postill on Dec 13, 2009
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Book review for 
Comparative Sociology
of Hopper, P.,
 Rebuilding Communities inan Age of Individualism
, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).This book explores the prospects for local community-building in the context of thegrowing individualism deemed to be afflicting the contemporary West, especiallyBritain and America. The first part of the book is an impressive survey of theinterdisciplinary Anglophone literature on social change, globalisation, individualism,and communitarianism in late modern Western societies. The author attributes thedepletion of social capital in neighbourhoods across the Western world to thecombined forces of post-Fordist production models, egocentric consumerism, identity politics (‘tribalism’) and the decline of traditional settings of community interactionsuch as trade union clubs, local shops and community churches. In his view, we are inthe midst of an Age of Individualism counter to the primal needs of human beings for  belonging and community – needs that are yet to be fully recognised by Westerngovernments. The second part follows from the preceding discussion and offers a‘modest proposal’ for the reinvigoration of local communities, namely centralgovernment campaigns to persuade citizens to devote small amounts of time (up tofour hours a month) to ‘inclusive’ community-building activities in their local areas.It is hard to argue against the author’s refreshingly modest ambitions for communityregeneration, not least given his painstaking research into the matter. After all, manyauthors take the reverse approach by dreaming up grand visions of social change onthe basis of scant research or reflection. Yet there are, in my reading, two main problems with the book’s main thesis that there is a direct causal link between the riseof individualism and the decline of local communities in the West. First, we are givenno historical baseline with which to gauge the erosion of local communities described by the author, or indeed its causal links (if any) with growing individualism.Occasionally there are references in the book to better community days of yore,mostly in working-class communities blessed with what EP Thompson called ‘ritualsof mutuality’ and other forms of solidarity, but there is no diachronic analysis or ethnographic fleshing out. Instead the author opts for vague gerundives (the
form) when discussing social change, for instance when he contends that there is a‘growing shift’ in Western societies towards individualistic social practices (p. 11).Second, the elusive notion of community is never defined but rather qualified bymeans of the term ‘local community’ (p. 4). But even this qualification is notconsistently carried through. At times community appears in the unhelpfulformulation ‘our communities and societies’ (pp. 87, 148); at another point it isidentified with the ties obtaining between grandparent and grandchild (p. 144); atanother point it refers to national states (p. 114); at yet another it is linked to theeconomic realm, e.g. ‘Economic activity is an essential prerequisite of community’ (p.16). There is no engagement in the book with critiques of the concept of communityor with the notion of social network, a currently influential concept in many socialscientific quarters. Notwithstanding the limitations of its main thesis, with its broad overview of keydiscussions in social and political theory and accessible style, the book can be a usefuladdition to undergraduate reading lists in political theory, sociology and social policy.Two caveats, however, in this regard. First, it is based on a DPhil completed in 1997,and although revised for publication in 2003, it still has a strong mid-1990s feel andcontent; thus Japan (not China) appears as the rising economic power in East Asia,

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