Abstract: Comparative Contextualizing of Community Organizing: The Challenges of Neoliberalism in the USA and UK (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Comparative Contextualizing of Community Organizing: The Challenges of Neoliberalism in the USA and UK

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 11:30 AM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 16 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Robert Fisher, PhD, Professor and Chair, Community Organization, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT
Purpose:   In the contemporary political economy, community and community organizing are widespread and expanding (Edwards, 2011; Wainwright, 2003; Dionne, 1998). This global proliferation results partly from the neoliberal policy turn of the last 30 years (Harvey, 2007). While this might seem ironic or counter-intuitive, one of the impacts of economic globalization of the past 30 years has been to incorporate community-based efforts, either by their becoming part of or replacing state functioning or their developing moderated forms of community organizing which adapt to the strictures of the contemporary context (Mayer, 2003). Neoliberal incorporation as well as related funding impacts are the foci of this presentation on current theory and practices in the USA and UK.  

The unquestioned primacy of the market is clearly at the center of many civil society initiatives. The turn to neoliberalism has meant a fundamental transformation in the relations between the state, capital and communities. To be sure, the expanded interest in this “turn to community” comes not only from the public restructuring since the late 1970s but also from 1960s activism and more recent efforts which emphasize the virtues of decentralized, participatory forms of local democratic activism. Both of these trends have converged to spawn not only a vast proliferation of community-based efforts but efforts with broadly varied politics. 

While the contemporary turn to community would appear fortuitous for community organizations, the reality is more ambiguous. “Moderated” models of community organizing turn away from the broader context at the very moment that the neoliberal state and economy pushes people into communities and theorists into narrowed conceptions of community organizing (McKnight and Kretzmann, 1999). Moreover, neoliberalism helps produce an adaptive funding culture, which has been unable to respond effectively to the decline in funding since the Great Recession. It continues to focus on a single sector funding source -- private philanthropic foundations --  despite the funding literature overwhelmingly emphasizing the virtues of diversifying funding sources in order to enhance organizational longevity (Boris, 2010; O’Donnell, Beckett, and Rudd, 2006; Dodge et al, 2013). This practice is even more obvious in light of recent initiatives in the UK, where neoliberalism has also delegitimized the state but where there exists a significant model of government funding community organizing (Fisher and Dimberg, 2015).

Methods: As to research methodology, I will use the same tools used in my previous books and articles on state, market, and community-based initiatives. Trained as a qualitative historian and interdisciplinary social scientist, I tackle the issues through broad-based primary and secondary sources. In addition this study is based on 22 interviews with community organizers, members, government personnel, and theoretical and applied social scientists. 

Results and Implications:  The results emphasize the challenges to social action and transformative forms of community organizing in a neoliberal context and the importance of critical theory and analysis to effective organizing practice. The implications call for consideration of inclusion of public sources being added to funding cultures of community organizations and looking beyond USA borders for alternative models and examples.