The social and political impact of an everyday utopia

January 17, 2014
The social and political impact of an everyday utopia

New research by Professor Davina Cooper from the University of Kent presents an argument for the political value of everyday utopias - a term developed to capture the way different kinds of organisations, spaces and networks perform everyday activities in unusually innovative ways. The research also explores how everyday utopias can encourage wider social change.

The research, contained in a book titled Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces explores everyday utopias' activities and values. Everyday utopias challenge the common assumption that utopia means a perfect but unattainable place that is far away - both in time and geography. Rather, the book describes how everyday utopias are present and near to hand, aspirational but also imperfect spaces, that are open and accessible.

The research which took place over eleven years focuses on six sites dedicated to very different kinds of everyday activity - from governing, trading, and schooling to appearing in public naked, debating, and having sex.

It was conducted through first-hand observations and interviews with 150 participants, including those at Speakers' Corner in London, the famous "free school" Summerhill School in Suffolk, and the Toronto Women's Bathhouse.

The research reveals how everyday utopias can help us to rethink concepts, such as care, property, equality, markets and touch, in new ways thanks to how everyday utopias go about their activities. Studying Summerhill School demonstrates how property and ownership can work to enhance relations of belonging rather than exclusion, and how they can help to build community life. Researching Speakers' Corner shows how markets can be playful, and how they might operate without money or the exchange of goods. The Toronto Women's Bathhouse demonstrates how spaces for casual sex can involve a great deal of care and caring.

Davina Cooper, of the University's Kent Law School, said: 'Everyday utopias are often written off as marginal and trivial sites, but as well as being socially innovative, they also offer challenging spaces for re-imagining and experimenting with social concepts.

'Everyday utopias are hugely important incubators when it comes to developing concepts – what they mean and how they're enacted. Not only do they put concepts into practice in innovative ways, for instance the care shown at the Toronto bathhouse, or the way local currency networks approach trading, but they are also places which help concepts to be re-imagined.

'Knowing more about these sites can help those of us who don't take part to think about everyday concepts, such as the state, equality, property and markets, differently, and more imaginatively. Doing so opens up possibilities for wider social change.'

Professor Davina Cooper is Professor of Law and Political Theory in Kent Law School. She was previously a locally elected councillor in Haringey (1986-90), a magistrate, and has published four previous books.

Her main areas of research sit at the interstices of socio-legal studies, political theory, social diversity and the transformational potential of state and non-state sites.

Explore further: Social networks act as political rallying sites, report says

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