Community Adhesive: A Discussion on the Work of Aristotle and John McKnight

Posted on February 11, 2019
By Jonathan Massimi

nature-3042751_1920I love reading, unfortunately, I can’t commit to reading one book for an extended period, thus leaving many suspended mid-chapter. Outside of cluttering my nightstand, such a practice allows me to bring a variety of thinkers into unlikely conversation. A recent conversation featured Aristotle and John McKnight. Surprisingly, I found a strange affinity between their work, particularly, Aristotle’s discussion on friendship, and John McKnight’s emphasis on gifts.

Beginning with Aristotle, in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, he discusses three varieties of friendship, they are Friendships of Utility, Friendships of Pleasure, and Friendships of Virtue. Briefly, Friendships of Utility are those friendships that exist between you and someone that is useful to you. The person may have a skill or ability that can help you complete a particular task. Friendships of Pleasure exist between you and those whose company you enjoy. These friendships develop around a shared interest, activity or experience. Finally, Friendships of Virtue. For Aristotle, this is friendship in the fullest sense of the word. It is a connection that is powerful and enduring, where two people recognize that they have similar values, passions, goals, and an understanding of the good. It is a relationship of care, respect, admiration and mutual support.  For Aristotle, there is a beauty in friendship, for it is the glue that holds communities together.

Along these adhesive lines, John McKnight claims that the glue that holds neighbourhoods together are the gifts of individuals brought into association. This emphasis on gifts finds expression in a community organizing approach created by McKnight known as Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).  ABCD differs greatly from needs-based approaches which tend to focus on deficiencies. Rather ABCD emphasizes a community’s capacities. It maintains that a community is able, outside of institutional intervention, to address many of the issues it may be facing.  The key tenets of the ABCD approach are 1. Everyone has a gift to contribute 2. Relationships are key to building community 3. Care is not something an institution or service can offer, rather, it is the commitment of citizens one to another. In identifying the gifts of individuals, McKnight speaks about the Gifts of the Head, Gifts of the Hand, and Gifts of the Heart. Gifts of the Head are those gifts that are within the realm of knowledge, information and experience. Gifts of the Hand are those gifts that are considered practical or professional skills, and Gifts of the Heart are internal. It is a category that identifies peoples’ passions, values and goals.  

Based on this very brief overview, we can see how the work of Aristotle and John McKnight are somewhat related, in that the gifts discussed by McKnight can potentially result in the friendships identified by Aristotle. When individuals share their skills, Friendships of Utility emerge. When knowledge and experience is shared, Friendships of Pleasure develop, and when people connect with others based on their passions and values, Friendships of Virtue can materialize. Such a relationship highlights an aspect of ABCD that is often missed. ABCD is not simply a cost-effective supplement or alternative to programs and services. Nor is it a method that can easily be adopted by social service agencies and institutions to further their own agendas. Rather, ABCD is how friendships are developed. Its end is friendship. Its goal is “friendly” neighbourhoods where people are connected through the sharing of their gifts.

One cannot befriend a service or institution, and in turn, an institution cannot befriend an individual. Intuitions cannot call another friend. The only relational categories available to them are customer, client, patient, consumer, and recipient. Never friend. This said, if we simply rely on intuitions to fix our problems, communities become fragmented, because its essential adhesive, friendship, is lacking.

Blog, Cities Deepening Community

Jonathan Massimi

By Jonathan Massimi

Jonathan Massimi is a Supervisor of Community Centres with the City of Kitchener. Jonathan has worked in a variety of neighbourhood settings and is a seasoned Asset Based Community Development practitioner. In 2017 he completed his doctorate where he explored the relationship between ABCD and communities of faith. His supervisor was John McKnight.

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