In this article we are asking, Why is it important to incorporate identity research and identity engagement into community development and regeneration


How can we get started in the process of incorporating identity into our work?

Let’s start off with a key perspective: 

As well as existing as a physical neighborhood populated by buildings and people, a community also exists as a metaphysical world – at the level of individual and collective imagination

When we practice community development or regeneration, we will routinely take stock of the physical and quantifiable aspects. We will likely have a geographic map showing the layout of houses and roads and infrastructure. We will also potentially code our map to illustrate demographic characteristics of that population: age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. Understanding this physical space and measuring the demographic features of those who live there is critical for effective community regeneration practice. 

It is important to see the community in terms of geographical and demographic space. But how else can it be seen?

But what about our understanding of the individual and collective imagination – or identity – of that community? Do we know the ideas which allow diverse individuals and subgroups in this community to see themselves as part of the same group or space? What stories do people see themselves as part of that give the community real meaning to them and of their life as one of its members? How is the community actually divided into smaller units of people who think about themselves as having very different values from other members or subgroups? And what contributes to a member or members feeling like they don’t have a place in that community, that they don’t belong, and how “others” are defined across a range of contexts?

Most of what makes community life meaningful is a sense of belonging. And the factors related to belonging, such as identity, are not commonly mapped or systematically engaged with. 

At the OICD, we would like to change that.

How can we go beyond the commonly quantifiable complexity of a group of people, to understand how they think and feel about themselves and others?

The Case for Incorporating Identity-Based Methods

There are numerous potential advantages to researching and engaging with identities as part of community development and regeneration. 

Firstly, by simply starting to pay attention to identities – e.g. by asking questions to find out how people think and feel and imagine themselves in their community – we can show individuals that their identities are being valued, acknowledged and respected. 

Ask enough questions of enough people in the community and this value compounds. Research has shown that when individuals feel that their identities are acknowledged and respected, they are more likely to actively engage in community building efforts (Haslam et al., 2009). This increased likelihood of engagement in itself fosters a sense of inclusivity and belonging and promotes positive relationships among community members.

Research has shown that when individuals feel that their identities are acknowledged and respected, they are more likely to actively engage in community building efforts

Beyond this increased potential for participation as a by-product of identity research, researching identity can be a path to critical discoveries and a regeneration strategy and intervention design. 

For instance, researching the cultural narratives of groups who, on the surface, seem to be divided by politics, ethnicity, religion or class, can reveal deep and important shared themes, values and stories. Understanding, and then employing, these intersectional cultural components in community building can become the basis of an entire strategic approach to building collective identity, thereby strengthening social cohesion, trust and cooperation as a whole (Reicher et al., 2005). 

Identity-led approaches to community development can allow new ways to access and engage with previously unseen root causes and dynamics

Identity-led approaches can serve a range of more specific purposes too – they can be tailored to reveal the roots of marginalization of minorities; they can help to identify the vulnerabilities of community members to gang activity and criminal involvement; and they can be used to understand and address issues of social, economic and/or political non-participation. 

Build on a Strong Ethical Foundation

While it is the point of this article to highlight the incredible value of identity-based approaches to community development, it is important to note that community building efforts should be mindful of the potential risks and limitations of engaging with identities. 

The OICD’s approach, for example, makes it compulsory to adhere to a strict checklist of ethical practices when engaging identities. This checklist includes a specific condition that while it is generally good practice to build upon existing community stories, no narrative components should be criticised or negatively portrayed, even if these components are morally problematic. 

The risk of backlash to identity-based approaches can be minimalized and positive impact increased with a well thought-out ethical approach

The danger is that any such critique acts to impose a cultural narrative onto a community (rather than, for instance, amplifying or adding to existing narratives). This can put community development efforts at risk by introducing the possibility of backlash by members of the community who oppose the introduced narratives. Following a well-conceived ethical framework mitigates the risks and amplifies the benefits and impact of identity-based approaches.

Getting Started with Identity Research

Okay. So we see the value of incorporating identity-based research and engagement but how do we go about doing this work? 

While practitioners with a social science background may have a slight advantage at the outset, it is important to note that good identity-based research and practice does not require such a grounding, and the OICD has trained many practitioners without a social science background.

The key skills that need to be fostered are observational, conversational and general communications skills. These should be abundant in most organizations that operate in the community building sphere. 

Observational skills are vital in accessing identity-relevant information. As well as speech, individuals perform identities through their body-language, gestures, mannerisms, behaviors, cultural practices, clothing styles, body art and food choices, among others. By practicing what anthropologists call “participant observation” – a sort of deep observational approach to “hanging-out” with people – we can train ourselves to keep track of and record how community members reveal their identities through simply living their everyday lives.

Conversational skills are vital as so much of the content of narratives – the key building blocks of identities – is revealed through conversational exchanges. The kind of exchanges we want are not necessarily the kind that occur in formal surveys or interviews (any experienced social researcher will tell you that the most interesting/important data only emerges when the recorder is switched off and/or the formal interview ends), but rather the kind that occur amongst trusted conversational partners in informal settings such as at the kitchen table, the pub, or the park bench, rather than the dining room table, community office or public building.

Seeing the client or community member as a guide can be a transformative way to approach identity-based research

The key to a conversation rich in identity information lies in eliciting narratives from individuals. In other words, the goal is to encourage people to tell stories about themselves. Instead of self-identifying as a “researcher”, a practitioner should position themselves as passengers embarking on a guided journey. The client or community member is the guide. Allow yourself to be guided, ask questions to encourage the journey to continue, and ask to be taken to places you want to go. Seeing the client as a guide is a mindset that can be highly effective in gaining access to the imagined world of identities and narratives.    

Putting Identity to Use

Once you have a good system of gathering identity-based information from the community, you’ll want to start working out what to do with this information. The OICD approach uses optional software-based tools to visualize community identities as network maps – or “Identity Maps”. Just like the geographical maps, identity maps help practitioners and community members to see an overview of the entire identity structure of the community. Maps can be coded to show identities which consider themselves marginalized in some way, or otherwise illustrate the clustering and connectedness of individuals and groups around concepts, ideas, values and stories.

This map is deliberately unfocused in order to anonymize the content – Identity Maps show the networked relationships between the ideas, narratives, concepts which combine to create identity structures of “us” and “them” in a given community

However you organize the identity information you have generated, it will now serve you as an invaluable tool for identifying problems and coming up with strategies to overcome them. As the community changes over time and in response to community building work, these identities will shift and change. Keeping track of these changes is an important tool in identity-based work in its own right. Identity changes help measure social impact and can even be used to create early warning indicators for, for example, dangerous levels of discrimination or political polarization.

The Sky’s the Limit

Incorporating identity-based approaches to community development and regeneration can allow new levels of engagement, strategy, intervention design, and impact. With a careful consideration of ethics combined with systematic and skilled approaches to research and analysis, harnessing the power of identity to meet the challenges of, and release the human potential within, community development contexts becomes an achievable goal.  

Are you interested in learning more about identity-based approaches to community development and regeneration? We share many insights and practices in our Power of Identity Newsletter for social change agents. Sign-up today. You may consider attending a OICD webinar. Or you may like to contact us directly on [email protected] to discuss the opportunities to engage in training and/or consultancy.

References and further reading:

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘participation’: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269-283.

Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Postmes, T., & Haslam, C. (2009). Social identity, health and well-being: An emerging agenda for applied psychology. Applied Psychology, 58(1), 1-23.

Kostovicova, D. (2005). Kosovo: The politics of identity and space. Routledge.

Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(4), 547-568.