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What is Social Illusionism?

If it is bad to be disillusioned, it must be good to be Illusioned, right? The name of course is a kind of provocation, and though on one hand it is a criticism of how institutions have been doing community development and poverty reduction it is founded on principals of appreciation of gifts and abilities instead of weakness and need. Some of these ideas are notnew, a myriad of methodologies have been developed over the years: Appreciative Inquiry, Asset Based Community Development, Outcome Mapping, Asset Mapping, etc. But Social Illusionism brings some new philosophical theories to the table as well as some innovative tools.

Most development models involve giving or providing people or communities with what they lack base on our judgment. This assistentialism promotes passivity. Social workers involved in community work are aware of this reality and do a lot of work to foster participation, but lacking adequate tools too many times we are left with the only one option, planting the information and the ideas into the community so they can repeat it back to us as if it were theirs. We say, “How can we get them to participate.” In reality the question is, how can we participate with them?

In traditional community development models organizations will identify and separate out individuals that engender the interests and methodologies of the organization (not the community), in other words they do things FOR the community. This process is lineal, the organization sets goals and strategies and looks for the people that can make them happen and then gives them the tools and resources to carry them out.

Social Illusionism on the other hand is non-lineal, not only letting the community identify their own goals and strategies, but also knowing that there will be multiple goals and strategies at play and they will change constantly — the only goals that can be definite are here and now. Social Illusionism works through the preexisting personal relationships without dividing or sorting out. There are no “super-leaders” only situational leaders that change from day to day or situation to situation. Social Illusionists do thing WITH the community

From Object to Subject, from passive to active: Traditional development imposes the objectives and reduces community members to objects onto which we can impose objectives, objectives, of course, developed by the power structure we or the organization represents. SI revitalizes the identity as “subject” of the community’s and all its member’s ability to know and transform.

The social sciences, like all science, has dedicated itself to breaking things down to their small parts and studying them in an objective manner that allows us to understand how they work. Unfortunately this has converted people and their ways of relating to each other into unrelated objects. This has caused two general outcomes: 1) an erroneous, incoherent analysis of social systems and 2) dysfunctional development processes that do not create transformation.

However, we must realize that the fact that social transformation has not occurred is a sign that the objectification of society has not worked. Fortunately we are resilient and have resisted, obviously an important starting point for community work. Despite all of this we can still observe a vital force in society pushing to move forward. Another important acknowledgement in community work is to recognize the “subject to subject” nature of our activities and investigations.

One of the deviations found in Social Illusionism; a community’s inability to overcome its adversity is much more about who needs to be disempowered than needing to work empowering others. Almost inevitably if individuals are empowered the collective of the community will be disempowered and dysfunctional. This principal is well supported in psychology within the family systems theory.

It may also be helpful to remember in this conversation that the subjects and the objects, the governing and the governed, the powerful and the powerless will be liberated by the transformation and the creation of a new relationship. And according to Paulo Freire, that role, the initiator of this transformation can only be the oppressed.

Knowledge, action and Investigation cannot be separate, again part of the break-it-down methodology of our sciences has created this fallicy. In the real world these are never separate. Our purpose for investigating is not for knowledge it is for transformation.

The dominant science is the science of order, it only ventures into chaos in order to align its elements. True social science should impregnate itself and rethink itself from multiple “logics” of thought and action intertwined with collective actors. It should submerge itself in the logic of “alogic,” of the time and space of the multiple and dynamic cultures.

We must contextualize all participative processes, structures and organizing within the historical and relational dimension. This is essential because if we stray from this we will start to categorize and segmentize the chaos of the social continuum and when we do this we end up concentrating power in whoever does the organizing.

There is a constant risk in community participation to impose our perspective, a kind of homogenization into the culture of the masses. The consequences of the mass entertainment and show business cause this kind of imposition, but also the standard of community participation work of creating activities that separate people from their daily lives. The best way to avoid this is to be willing to enter into the chaos of the daily space and time of the local reality. Within these human networks we find multidimensional communication, constant interaction and transformation among the people that reinforces their autonomy, in this context power is generally shared and alternatives and unique “versions of reality” are embraced.

From individual subject/actor to collective Subject: We are not alone, we live in constant relationship to those around us. Our way of being, our identity and our ideas are constructed through these relationships. This is not about group think, where everything the group says is right, rather it is about disempowering of the individual to build the collective. For this reason it is important to initiate any process from the mediations, all social intervention is a communication process, and all communication is a series of social mediation. Effective action is collective action.

Social mediation is day to day collective communication and these can be dynamized to provoke new and diverse mediation and encounter in such a way that little by little social transformation occurs.

Written by Erik Friend

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