Reclaiming Community Expression

The fascinating question arises why Adopted Cultural Practices like yoga, samba and salsa are so widespread and popular in contemporary Western societies. From Los Angeles to Athens we can find people who adore these activities and devote much of their leisure time to behaving like imagined people from a far away culture. I am going to argue that this is because the ACPs allow us to reclaim something which our societies are losing or destroying. What I am talking about is complex but I can boil it down to two terms: community, and active art. Contemporary Western societies tend to emphasise the individual and individual lifestyles and choices. They also tend to commodify artistic expression, so that it is something to passively consume alone, rather than something to actively do together. Before I go any further in explaining how Adopted Cultural Practices enable a sense of community and active art, we need to consider some relevant social models.

Sociologists have long differentiated between ‘community’ and ‘society’. Because these concepts were initially discussed in German by Ferdinand Tönnies and then by Max Weber, they are also often referred to as ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’ respectively. Community in this sense means a traditional grouping, such as a village, tribe, or extended family. In such a community we can imagine a limited number of people, between a few dozen and a few thousand, many of whom know each other. They would share a culture with all its facets: food, music, dance, religion and so on. Within this group there would be certain hierarchies according to attributes such as age, gender, particular skills, knowledge or power, but the hierarchies would be clear and tangible. Leo Tolstoy describes such a community in his short novel The Cossacks. He describes a village of people who are all invested in the same existential work of growing food, hunting and defending themselves against enemies. They are intimately aware of the loves and intrigues of their neighbours, and they celebrate together with pride and joy in their shared life. Clearly, this is an idyll; an idealised traditional peasant culture that is being contrasted with the more urban and modern life of the 19th Century Russian elite, which was heavily influenced by France. It can stand for the many versions of the idea of a traditional community, an idea which can be associated with backwardness on the one hand, or with a more natural life on a human scale on the other. Frederic Jameson sums up the contradiction between nostalgia and disdain that marks the stance of modern societies towards such communities.

‘The dominant white middle-class groups—already given over to anomie and social fragmentation and atomization—find in the ethnic and racial groups which are the object of their social repression and status contempt at one and the same time the image of some older collective ghetto or ethnic neighborhood solidarity; they feel the envy and ressentiment of the Gesellschaft for the older Gemeinschaft which it is simultaneously exploiting and liquidating.’ (Jameson, 1979)

We can see in this the various processes that accompany the social changes of modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation. However, ‘community’ and ‘society’ are simplified snapshots of ways of living that in reality can overlap and are inevitably dynamic, complex and layered. As concepts of human organisation they nevertheless serve the purpose of exemplifying typical features of these different ways of life. I will briefly sketch these out, but to the two already mentioned I would like to add a third: post-industrial society, because what was original meant by ‘Gesellschaft’ when juxtaposed with ‘Gemeinschaft’ was industrial society.

  1. ‘Community’ I have already described above as a small collection of people who share many or their forms of expression and are closely interconnected with each other. 
  2. ‘Society’ refers to a much larger group of people, as we might find in a nation state, many of whom would live in cities and work in big industries. They would be subject codified laws and organised into large segments such as social classes. Their culture could be partially community based, such as the choirs and brass bands of industrial Wales, but would also be largely homogenised, commodified and commercialised in media such as cinema or radio. 
  3. Post-industrial society still exists in urbanised nation states, but it is marked by a progressive weakening not just of community ties of family, neighbourhood and ethnicity, but also of the mass identifications of class and national identity. Their place is taken by a collage of ad hoc communities which individuals can seek out, but which ultimately underline the atomisation of a society in which people have to search for and refashion their own sense of identity and belonging. 

I must reiterate that these are concepts rather than accurate descriptions of actual ways of living. Looking at the contemporary West at the time of writing, we can see that clearly local and national identity are far from dead and are in fact being hotly debated. One example is David Goodhart’s influential The Road to Somewhere in which he talks about the divide between a mobile educated elite, and a more rooted provincial set of people who feel left behind. This dichotomy can be related to recent political battles such as that over Brexit, and the resurgence of nationalism and populism in many places.

However, there are many features of post-industrial society that militate against the features of community living. For instance, families are less stable and smaller than they used to be. In most Western countries more people are getting divorced and more live in single-parent families or single-person households than fifty years ago. Worklife is less stable, with people having to change their profession more frequently due to technological and economic changes than before. And in the realm of leisure, there is a great deal of domestic entertainment such as TV, social media, and computer gaming, which has taken people away from places such as pubs, cinemas or theatres, where they would formerly have congregated. 

In terms of culture, we are very far removed from sharing a body of songs and dances with our neighbours. Music is a matter of personal identity and taste, rather than something that binds a community together. Furthermore, artistic expression is largely left to specialists, to experts or celebrities, rather than being something for everyone. Sure, there is a lively amateur dramatic scene in the UK, but most people will watch stories served up to them by professionals on a screen. Dancing is particularly specialised and individualised; we dance our own individualistic dances, mostly with a peer group rather than an intergenerational community.

All the aspects of life which are strong in communities, but weak in post-industrial societies, are offered by Adopted Cultural Practices. Here we meet a knowable group of people on a regular basis. We share an interest with them, the interest in yoga, belly dance or another practice. We learn to move in the same way, we follow a teacher who we all defer to; this provides a tangible hierarchy. We become members of a cultural community, albeit a purely leisure-time one. But like a full-time community it can tie people together, it gives us a kind of identity, which is expressed in music, movement, dress, words and more. ACPs are not the only way that people in our contemporary societies reclaim these things, but they have come to provide accessible, enjoyable and effective types of communal expression for many.