Gathering Kilburn: The everyday production of community in a diverse London neighbourhood


Thumbnail Image
Change log

This thesis presents an ethnographic account of the everyday meanings and processes associated with the idea of ‘community’ within the London neighbourhood of Kilburn. In policy and popular discourse, community is cast both as somehow able to unite people across difference, and as under threat from the proliferation of difference, which is seen as impeding mutual understanding, cooperation and belonging. Within scholarly writing, ‘community’ is often challenged as too archaic, too rigid or too ambiguous a concept to provide sufficient analytical leverage or to work as a normative ideal.

Against this background, my PhD takes a look the neighbourhood of Kilburn, where amidst significant diversity, tropes of community are still widely used. I investigate how residents imagine various forms of community in relation to diversity, as well as the connections and discontinuities between these various imaginings. I draw on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork, following over a dozen community projects and groups, tracing informal local networks and getting to know residents individually. My ethnography ranges from community cafes, to religious youth groups, to urban ‘gangs’, to government-led urban regeneration projects.

Despite the variation in how different individuals imagined ‘community’, there was a shared view of community as a space which facilitated the bridging of difference and the construction of shared moral projects. These spaces did not exist sui generis. Rather they were opened up through the balancing of two traits: fixity and fluidity. Fixity involved defining community in terms of a clearly identifiable and familiar set of boundary markers, which serve to give it an ‘objective’ existence. Fluidity involved suspending this attempt to define community in terms of the familiar, once people were involved, in order to allow for new, shared understandings and values to emerge.

The first two chapters unpack this balancing of fixity and fluidity. Chapter 1, traces inclusion and exclusion in a range of community projects, and Chapter 2 looks at tropes of race and ethnicity, examining how such ideas might be treated as simultaneously fixed and fluid. . The two chapters unpack the transformational power of community. Chapter 3 looks at a community centre for young Muslims, as well as at a local community radio station, and argues that community spaces have the potential to foster an ethic of continual openness to difference. Chapter 4 looks at a group of ‘street youth’ and their diverse views of success, and argues that community can act as a collective repository of future potential, allowing community members to transform their ethical trajectory within their own lives.

The final two chapters look at contestations over community. Chapter 5 looks at clashing uses of public spaces and argues that such spaces are often read in highly fixed ways, and as lacking the potential for community-like negotiations. Chapter 6 looks at local regeneration projects and contrasts the ways in which community is valued locally, to the ways in which it is valued by state and market actors. The thesis concludes by emphasizing the necessarily plural, dynamic, contested and grounded nature of the idea of community described here.

Lazar, Sian
Community, Diversity, Anthropology, Britain, UK, London, Community building, Recognition, Ordinary ethics, Multiculturalism, Pluralism, Contestation, Migration, Cohesion, Regeneration, Gentrification, Public Space, Gangs, Youth, The right to the city, Age-friendly cities, Trust, Citizenship, Islam, Second-generation migrants, Community radio, Race, Ethnicity, Community organising
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
My PhD was funded by the Gates Cambridge Foundation