Statistical Communities   Leave a comment

One of the big conundrums we are struggling with as we are embarking on this project is the question of what “community” is and how it relates to memory, floods, and resilience. Recently, Tracey Coates has written an entire PhD thesis on a similar question. A crucial insight from this thesis, as well as from other literature on community, is that community is most of all an idea that people strive for in particular contexts to achieve various goals. Least of all, community is a bounded collection of people fixed in a particular locality.

Possible the most contradictory step forward from this is another important aspect of the project, namely the gathering of socioeconomic survey data on the communities we are to work with. Luckily, lots of data from the previous Census (2001) is available on the website of the Office for National Statistics. But once we deal with statistics, we deal with exactly that sort of “community” that we just read was obsolete, that of definite people fixed to bounded places.

Where these boundaries are drawn spatially and socially is a rather arbitrary matter, which can be illustrated, for instance, by searching for census data on Tewkesbury, one of the communities with plenty of flood experience. Tewkesbury is the name of a local authority, which is probably similar to Tewkesbury Borough. It is an area of over 20 km in diameter and comprised (ten years ago) a population of 76 405 people.

Tewkesbury is also the name of a parish, however, for which there is another data set in the census. This “community” is no more than 2 km from east to west and about 4 from north to south, with a population of about 10 016 people. If the Borough is a local community, the Parish is probably even more of a local community. But the downscaling and localizing continues much further.

Tewkesbury Town is the name of a ward, the traditional smallest unit of census surveys, and also the basic administrative and electoral unit in the UK. In terms of the British state, perhaps these wards are the primary local communities. The ward of Tewkesbury Town had a (2001) population of 2 550.

But the Census classification does not stop there. In 2004, the Office for National Statistics has published their data in yet smaller units, so-called Lower Layer Super Output Areas, which can be aggregated into Middle Layer Super Output Areas. The idea of the Super Output Area is to create geographical entities that are both more stable than electoral wards (which occasionally get transformed for political reasons) to allow for comparisons over time, and more uniform internally and externally, i.e. they comprise a more homogeneous population than wards, and are of similar size across the country.

The Lower Layer Super Output Area Tewkesbury 002D looks like this, comprising 1 333 inhabitants in 2001.

The Middle Layer Super Output Area Tewkesbury 002 incorporates a number of such units alongside that one, which makes it look like this and gives it a population of 9 784 people.

Which one, of all these Tewkesburys then, is the best approximation of the “community of Tewkesbury”? The local authority with 76 405 inhabitants, or the Lower Layer Super Output Area of 1 333 people? Now, if you suggest taking an average, I will completely lose the plot…

Perhaps, this multiplicity in Tewkesburys in the Census data is, most of all, another reminder that “community” is not a definite area of land with a certain population confined by clear boundaries, but rather an idea that can unite people and places on different social and geographical scales.

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