Conditions of Organization

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Community Organization/Raymond Breton

The existence of incentives to organize on an ethnic basis does not mean that the process will automatically take place. Several kinds of circumstances can affect the emergence and functioning of community organization. The following six factors will be considered here: collective identity; channels of communication; material and social resources; beliefs concerning individual and collective action; constitutional provisions, laws, and government policies; and internal differentiation within the collectivity and the potential for division and conflict.

A fundamental requirement for community organization is the belief among potential participants that they constitute a distinct social entity. The consciousness of a common identity and cultural heritage, as well as a sense of sharing the same conditions and facing the same problems and opportunities, is essential if an ethnic community is to exist at all and if it is to function effectively. A collective identity cannot, however, be assumed to emerge entirely spontaneously. It is a social construction more or less consciously shaped within particular circumstances and is the product of social forces operating within the collectivity and impinging on it from without. These forces can either strengthen or weaken the symbolic boundaries of the group. As a result, the borders are not defined once and for all; a collective identity requires a continuous process of redefinition in response to changes in the composition of the group, such as the arrival of new immigrants or the emergence of second and later generations, and to changes in the external environment, whether these be local, national, or international.

The symbolic potential of the group is an important factor in the fashioning and evolution of the collective identity. Symbolic resources must be available if cultural entrepreneurs are to construct or reconstruct the community as a cultural entity and maintain its boundaries. There must be some sort of collective experience on the basis of which a history, a social role, and a definition of membership can be formed. Ethnic groups can vary considerably in the eventfulness of their history, as well as in the nature of their collective experience. Negative experiences such as genocide, persecutions, internments, discrimination, and extreme poverty are the elements most frequently used to build a collective consciousness. They may be part of current experience or be drawn from more distant history. The contribution made by the country of origin to the broader civilization can also be important, whether it is in the arts, science, medicine, technology, or some other field of activity. Similarly, the accomplishments of members of the community in Canada can be defined as group contributions to the larger society and be a source for defining the collective identity.

In short, the ethnic group has the potential and the limitations of its own history, whether recent or in the more distant past, and the achievements of cultural entrepreneurs are probably more a function of the richness of the collective experience than of their own skills as individuals. Of course, the social integration of individuals into the larger society and their eventual acculturation progressively erode ethnic consciousness and the sense of sharing a common condition. In spite of the ideology of multiculturalism, these processes have been taking place on a systematic basis in Canadian society. Such acculturation may not occur among immigrants, but it has certainly taken place in subsequent generations.

Organization is unlikely to occur without communication among members of a collectivity and with their actual or potential leaders. A public debate about the concerns and interests of the community and the possible courses of action to address these issues must be possible. This process requires the establishment of channels of communication, such as newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and public meetings. It can be facilitated by the geographical concentration of community members, but this factor has become less significant because of the communications technology available in post-industrial societies. Opportunities for face-to-face interaction should not be ignored, however, since such contacts are still an important part of people’s daily life.

Organization also requires material and social resources of various kinds: financial contributions, investments of time and energy, interest, and moral support. Different types of incentives can lead members to contribute to and participate in community affairs. In the first place, an individual’s decision to do so depends in part on what is to be accomplished, on the specific goals to be pursued. These aims have two components: a policy and a program. The policy identifies, at least in general terms, what is wrong and needs to changed or improved. It also establishes the lines of action to be followed and the opponents or forces to be confronted or overcome. Programs, on the other hand, provide specific plans for the implementation of policies. They operationalize goals and may correspond in a greater or lesser degree to the policy intentions. In order for support to be mobilized, both the policy and the program need to be articulated. For instance, potential supporters may be presented with a compelling analysis of a problem and its causes, but only a vague program for action or none at all. Alternatively, a program may be proposed that strikes people as based on expediency rather than on a convincing analysis of the situation to be dealt with. In short, members’ willingness to contribute is dependent on their perception of the relevance of plans and the efficacy of strategies.

Plausible policies and programs may mobilize a certain degree of support, but it is not likely in itself to be sufficient to result in action. Indeed, individuals who agree with the stated objectives and would even benefit personally from their attainment frequently do not contribute to the organization necessary for the pursuit of these goals. Except in small groups, people may think that their voluntary contribution towards a collective good will not make a noticeable difference, and the loss of one contribution is not seen as significantly increasing the burden for others. As a consequence of this phenomenon, no organization may result, or if one is established, it may not be able to sustain itself over an extended period of time. A particular collective enterprise, while it may be highly desirable from the point of view of its objective and the interests of the group, nevertheless may not be undertaken.

Under such circumstances, how can individuals be made to participate in organizations and contribute to the collective good? Two general kinds of methods can be used under appropriate conditions: constraints and selective incentives. The first type involves making participation or contributions compulsory through a credible – that is, enforceable – threat of sanctions. In ethnic groups, legal means are not a realistic possibility. Social and moral coercion, such as spreading a bad reputation, ostracism, or the withdrawal of business patronage, is more frequently attempted. Fear of such sanctions may be sufficient to induce individuals to contribute “their fair share” to community activity. On the other hand, social constraints can be internalized as a sense of obligation, a feeling of responsibility towards the group and its members.

Contributions may be a response to appeals to group solidarity. They can also be encouraged by providing services of various sorts to those who participate: financial assistance, employment information, education, language training, or protection against physical attack or discrimination. Also, support for community organization may be obtained by attempting to meet the social needs of potential contributors through dances, picnics, banquets, and cultural activities. If, however, the material and social needs of these individuals are ignored, it may be difficult to retain their interest and support.

The participation of members in community affairs and in the realization of collective projects places a burden on the group’s leaders. Indeed, they not only have to mobilize the resources necessary for programs and projects, but they also have to be able to motivate involvement on the part of the group. To do so, they must develop the goals of the organization, the reasons for its existence, and even the rationale for the continued existence of an organized ethnic community. They have to find benefits that they can provide to the members of their organization – valuable benefits not available to those who do not contribute or participate actively. The substantial expansion of the state into many areas of life in recent decades may have made this task somewhat more difficult by reducing the range of material incentives that ethnic organizations can offer their members. Indeed, many of the services that individuals previously found within their own communities can now be obtained from government agencies and departments and the various programs of the “providential state.”

A community’s system of beliefs concerning individual or collective action can also affect the decision to contribute or participate. If members of a community perceive that their position can be improved through their own effort, they are unlikely to want to form and support an organization. Rather, they will prefer individual economic and social mobility. If, on the other hand, they believe that their personal fate is tied to that of the group, that the only way to change their condition is to improve the status of the community, they will favour collective strategies and be more prepared to contribute to organized efforts. However, even though individuals prefer organized action, they may not favour it on an ethnic basis. They may feel that they have more chance of dealing successfully with their problems through institutions of the larger society, such as human-rights organizations.

Constitutional provisions, laws, and government policies can significantly facilitate the formation and maintenance of ethnic organizations. First, constitutional clauses or legislative acts may legitimize organization on an ethnic basis; secondly, the implementation of government policies and programs may encourage such organization and even require it. Indeed, governmental authorities need to communicate with the various publics, including ethnic ones, and in recent decades much of this communication has been taking place through a network of interest groups. Thus ethnic leaders are expected to articulate the interests of their collectivities with regard to various issues and eventually to serve as legitimizers of government action.

In the so-called administrative state, government agencies adopt a clientele orientation. When they develop programs, they take into account the views and possible reactions of users and their leaders. The latter are frequently the only source of information for policy makers and program managers. Also, the success of government programs requires the collaboration of the clientele. Thus a network of organizations and their leaders or managers constitutes a “community” that plays a crucial role in the formation of policy and its communication and legitimization. Multiculturalism can be seen as a field of activity within which government departments and agencies, organizations representing a single group or associations of ethnic organizations, researchers and research organizations, private consultative firms, and other institutions interact, debate issues, negotiate over goals and strategies, and determine resources. Although there may be an important divergence of views among them, the various elements of the network will generally support one another in defending their policy domain and the claims to resources for its maintenance and success. This interorganizational network constitutes a policy community that is largely the outcome of government activity.

Like the larger society, ethnic collectivities are characterized by internal differentiation and contain a wide range of social differences to which divergent interests and ideologies frequently correspond. To the extent that such disparities are present, participants in the public affairs of the community will promote or support more or less contradictory ideas about the issues and what should be done about them. They are also likely to compete for power and for control of community resources so as to assure that their own interests prevail, whether these be material, political, ideological, or symbolic. Viewed from this angle, the ethnic community is an arena in which rival groups may confront each other over economic interests, political philosophy, organizational power, social status, and whatever resources the collectivity has to offer or can generate.

Which area of social differentiation becomes salient and forms the basis for conflict at any period of time depends on several factors. The nature of the issue is important: the control of a church, a community association, or an event may result in different social divisions from a government proposal with regard to immigration, an issue involving the country of origin, or the steps to be taken in dealing with the police or civic government in regard to discrimination. The depth of a social cleavage is also critical: divisions with a long history, which therefore cut deeply in the community, tend to resurface whatever the issue. Such is frequently the case with social divisions based on religion or political ideology, including those rooted in socio-political conflicts in the country of origin, in part because divisions with a long history are between groups that are well organized and have an articulated ideology. Frequently, they are also driven by intense personal conflicts.

Changes in the aspirations of certain sub-groups in the collectivity or the emergence of new groups can result in different demands and thus activate social divisions. For instance, tensions between traditionalists and those who favour new approaches may arise when members of the second or third generation or a new wave of immigrants seek modifications in the ways in which community organizations are run, their goals and programs, or the cultural elements that they promote. This cleavage may be reinforced by differences in educational levels and in the relative importance attached to the country of origin, as opposed to the land of adoption. Changes in aspirations may also spill over from movements in the larger society. Such is the case, for instance, with the feminist movement and its demands for reform with regard to the position of women in the social, economic, and political structure. The same kinds of issues have been articulated within a number of ethnic collectivities and have made socially and politically significant the division not only between men and women but also between age groups or generations and between the ideologically liberal and the conservative.

A frequent issue in ethnic communities concerns the strategy to be adopted in dealing with institutions of the larger society. There is often opposition between those who advocate confrontational tactics and those who support behind-the-scenes protests, claims, and negotiations. This opposition tends to activate social divisions based on age, the younger members being more willing to “rock the boat” than the older generation. But it is also frequently based on social class. Indeed, the ethnic political class, business and industrial groups, and property owners tend to favour modes of interaction with the institutions of the larger society that do not result in antagonism or a bad reputation for themselves. They also wish to avoid drawing attention to problematic situations within their community. On the other hand, militants and their supporters whose ideology includes confrontation and conflict and those who, in order to gain power and influence in the community, wish to create problems for the established leadership may well prefer to adopt a strategy that includes severe criticism, drastic claims, militant rhetoric, various forms of overt protest, and as much media exposure as possible.

Thus political action tends to involve competitive or conflictual relationships and processes. Such a view is radically opposed to the idea that “community” necessarily involves cohesion and concerted or cooperative relationships. Instead of the idealized notion that there is no community if there are divisions and conflict, a more realistic view is that community almost inevitably involves social and economic differentiation and consequently divergent interests and ideologies. When there are no disputes over the state of affairs and the possible courses of action – that is, when there are no public issues – not much of interest is happening in the public life of the collectivity. The more this is the case, the more it is not really a community, but rather a group sharing a symbolic ethnicity or simply an aggregate of people with a particular ethnic origin.

Social cleavages and opposition are therefore not necessarily obstacles to or destroyers of community. It is the failure to deal with them by establishing organizational structures for negotiation and conflict resolution that can be destructive of social cohesion, rather than the existence of divisions as such. In short, ethnic collectivities are not characterized by a single interest or point of view. The community cannot be said to be weak or lack cohesiveness if a single perspective on issues is absent. In certain circumstances, a consensus may emerge with regard to a particular problem or condition, but such an occurrence should not detract attention from the process, frequently conflictual, through which that consensus came about. Indeed, even when there is a clearly identifiable external threat or internal problem, there usually is some disagreement about its cause or the best way to deal with it.

The “single community interest” is frequently a political assumption made by those who claim to represent the community and who contend that there are no competing groups or organizations with different views concerning its well-being. Promoting the idea of a single community interest can also be an ideological or tactical tool used by officials of mainstream institutions for the purpose of strengthening particular organizations in the ethnic community by defining them as more representative than others.