The myth of ‘community’: Bogus concepts and distracted knowledge in disaster reduction and climate change

Humanitarian Studies Centre seminar with Dr Professor Terry Cannon
Humanitarian Studies Centre
Emeritus Professor Terry Cannon
Emeritus Professor from the Institute for Development Studies
Wednesday 17 Apr 2024, 15:30 - 17:00
Spoken Language
Aula B
International Institute of Social Studies
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In this Humanitarian Studies Centre seminar, Professor Terry Cannon challenges the concept of 'community', questioning whether it distracts from the actual causes of problems and for whose benefit it is used.

Cannon argues that ‘community’ is one of the most widely used (and abused) terms in development studies, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and all manner of problem areas. It has become the default language, used unthinkingly to refer to the local level. 

It supposedly demonstrates that whatever the intervention, it is guaranteed to be people-centred, participatory, bottom-up and therefore ‘a good thing’ . It is rare for the word ‘people’ or ‘locality’ to be used. Instead researchers, donors and most organizations claim to be working with ‘communities’. It is also reflected in the prefix ‘community-based’, which can be added to fix any problem. 

In this presentation, Terry Cannon challenges the way that ‘community’ is perceived and framed, and argues that it is used  for our benefit and not for the people who are the supposed beneficiaries. He argues that using ‘community’ distracts from understanding the actual causes of problems. It has become a ‘fake concept’ that makes it unnecessary to explain the root causes in exploitation and oppression, and instead frame them as something non-political and unrelated to systems of power.

Terry Cannon

About Terry Cannon

Terry Cannon was senior lecturer in rural development at ISS from 1989 to 1991. He has been teaching and researching in development studies for almost fifty years, most recently at the Institute for Development Studies (University of Sussex, UK) where he taught in the MSc Climate Change, Development and Policy. 

Until 2009 he was Principal Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI, University of Greenwich) and jointly Reader in Development Studies. He is Honorary Professor in the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, and also teaches at King’s College London (on development, climate change and disaster vulnerability). 

In 2021 he was selected by UNDRR to be one of the “Disasters Pioneers” to be interviewed about the origins of disaster studies.

His main research focus is on rural livelihoods, disaster vulnerability and climate change adaptation, especially at the local level. Along with this is a major focus on the significance of perception of risk and the role of cultural understanding of hazards, and on the way that ‘buzzwords’ become harmful as they are absorbed and co-opted by systems of power. His assessment of ‘community’ is given in Alexandra Titz, Terry Cannon and Fred Krüger (2018) ‘Uncovering “Community”: Challenging an Elusive Concept in Development and Disaster Related Work', Societies, 8(3), 71 

Professor Terry Cannon

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