Community Building Tetrad

4 Questions to Ensure our Help does no Harm

In last week’s post I pointed out four very distinct ways of helping, highlighting how Asset-Based Community Development is different to the others. The blog invited readers to consider in which quadrant the bulk of their current time, energy and practice is invested, and how well that investment relates to their professional and organisational vision and purview.

In this week’s blog I have developed a set of companion questions to sit alongside last week’s piece. These questions are inspired by the renowned Canadian communication theorist and philosopher, Marshall McLuhan. He coined what are now well known phrases/concepts including: “The medium is the message”, meaning it is not the content of the medium but its intrinsic impacts on society that count most. He also came up when the concept of “The Global Village” long before the World Wide Web was conceived. McLuhan’s classic questions on ‘mediums’ were framed in what’s known as a tetrad (see diamond shape figure below). He designed this tetrad as a pedagogical way of thinking through how new technologies/techniques might impact on society.

So for example if appraising the impacts of the smartphone on society at their inception, using McLuhan’s tetrad we would look at:

  • enhancement as “the amplification of effects” with a “focus on the practical” and presents a “solution to previous problem”;
  • retrieval as “the recovery of values and insight” previously “lost or eroded”, that is, the movement of a phenomenon from the periphery to the centre of attention;
  • obsolescence: displacing/replacing/denigrating/eclipsing a previously valued function;
  • reversal as “the reverse of enhancement…. Pushed to its limits… [media] flips on its user” and becomes counterproductive.

McLuhan's Tetrad

I believe this elegant and deceptively simple framework can also be used to test out community, health and housing projects before they are implemented. Hence why I have developed the following four questions as a means of examining the effects of such efforts on society. The purpose of these questions is to pull us back from the ‘planning’ brink, and hold us just a little bit longer in ‘discovery’, or ‘search’ mode. The significance of positioning them in the framework of a tetrad as did McLuhan is to make the point that they should not be considered in chronological or sequential terms, the laws of the tetrad exist simultaneously. That in mind as we consider these questions we should do so dynamically, because then we get to explore what McLuhan might have referred to as, the “grammar and syntax of the language” of community building efforts. Here are the questions that I propose we ask of each of our community, health & wellbeing, housing and justice projects:

  • What does the initiative (community building effort) enhance in local communities?
  • What does the initiative (community building effort) displace or replace in local communities?
  • What does the initiative (community building effort) retrieve or restore that had been obsolesced in local communities?
  • What does the initiative (community building effort) turn into when pushed to extremes in local communities?


I invite you to take a cross section of programmes/projects/initiatives in your community and/or your organisation and put them through these questions in a deliberative and dynamic fashion, making sure to actively include a wide range of citizens; with particular efforts made to welcome in marginal voices. I suspect by end of the process, not all your initiatives will have survived and near all would be altered for the better. My observation is that many agencies, in particular, become wedded to the ‘enhancement story’, and go into selling mode. Thereafter, much of what passes for Co-production conversations have a blindspot or bias which causes them to omit or quell the voices that ask the other three questions. The primary benefit of having an explicit framework such as this on the table is that it opens up deliberations around all four questions, hence a) democratising decision making, b) challenging blindspots and c) upping the chances of failing quickly and cheaply. The price of entry into such a conversation is bravery, you must be willing to hang a ‘DNR: do not resuscitate’ sign on all initiatives. The democratic and fiscal payoffs make it more than worth the risks.

A secondary benefit of such a intentional and deliberative process is that as well as enhancing that which is ‘done with the people’, it serves to protect existing community created efforts and opens up new space for that which is ‘done by the people’.

In the final analysis institutions are not benign; their gravitational pull will draw them back time and again to doing things ‘to the people’, ‘for the people’, and ‘with the people’, that belong in the domain of citizen to citizen work done by the people. The community helping tetrad I propose above offers a modest mitigating or countervailing force, which can help us do no harm through our helping initiatives.

Cormac Russell

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