Imbricated Roles

A post this week, about the presence of development workers in neighbourhoods, mentioned imbricated roles. A search for the term showed me it is not present online. Google claims they are the same as nested roles.

A nested role is one job within another.  Perhaps this happens where the job description for one job has other related tasks added to it.  The new role may have additional privileges, eg higher pay but contains an older job.

Imbricated roles, especially within community development, describe how two functions overlap.  So, a local resident employed as a development worker in their own neighbourhood has a highly imbricated role.  Note being a resident is not part of the job; their appointment may be because of their knowledge of or commitment to the area but it is not a formal part of the job description.

Unfortunately I have mislaid my copy of Skills in Neighbourhood Work by Paul Henderson and David N Thomas.  I have checked the index online for the second and fourth editions and under roles there is a section about overlapping roles.  It is possible they demystified later editions by reverting to the word overlapping.  (The word imbricated in Latin means overlapping.)

It would have been helpful to re-read their section on imbricated roles but that won’t stop me!  I favour sticking with the term imbricated roles because I think it makes a specific point about development work.  What are the implications for varying degrees of imbrication?  This is not about deciding the ideal degree of overlap so much as assessing the pros and cons of differing amounts.

What are Imbricated Roles?

I understand imbricated role to mean specifically overlap between residence in and commitment to a particular neighbourhood with the formal role of development worker.  It is easier to follow if you assume by formal role, someone appointed to do the job by some independent authority.

There may be other types of overlapping role.  A rural doctor may find, for example, their circulation around their patch means they play several roles in addition to their medical role.  But I shall use imbricated role to mean a specific commitment to the neighbourhood which at one extreme means residence in the neighbourhood.

To illustrate why this is important I shall consider four degrees of overlap and their strengths and weaknesses.

75% – 100% Living in the neighbourhood

These percentages are notional but this degree of overlap strongly implies the worker lives in the neighbourhood where they are practicing development work.  100% may be someone born there and living their life in the same place.  75% may be someone who moved into the neighbourhood when they started to practice as a development worker.

Many workers choose to do that.  Of course living there can mean a variety of things.  The worker could move into housing in some out-of-the-way corner, or in an adjacent neighbourhood.  They might live there but not make a big thing of it and spend a lot of their time elsewhere.

The big strength of this approach, especially for the lifelong resident, is stability.  This is someone with a proven commitment to the place, trusted and so able to act as a catalyst for change.

However, there are disadvantages.  Potentially the biggest problem is role confusion.  If the worker is not clear about the difference between community activism and development work, the chances are they will find they are paid to be a community leader, the role played before employment!  This role confusion has he dual effect of (1) undermining the activist role, and (2) downplaying the development role.

Perhaps this approach works for some.  From experience, I would not recommend workers take on this type of overlapping role.  Mostly they need more distance.

50% – 75%  Identifying with the neighbourhood

Here the worker is not resident in the neighbourhood but spends a lot of time there, drinking in the pubs, participating in events, etc.  They may live outside the neighbourhood, far enough away to experience some distance.  Most workers find they drift into this degree of overlap because they might have moved into the first neighbourhood they worked and then their job moved on and they were happy to stay where they were.

Where a worker enjoys building inter-personal relationships, this approach may work very well.  They have some distance from the neighbourhood, perhaps enough to be perceived as an outsider but also likely to be trusted.

The temptation is to identify too closely with activist work.  Many workers find they are doing admin for local groups or participating in leadership roles.  I found it is too easy to be drawn into taking on roles that should be occupied by local people, perhaps because the worker is one of the most skilled people around and has the time to do it.

25% – 50%  Accompanying the Neighbourhood

This level of overlap implies someone who committed to developing a particular neighbourhood and approaches it by mentoring community leaders.  A development worker of this type will stand out as different from the local residents.  I found I was more successful when I wore a jacket and tie in my development worker role.  It reminded residents and other local workers that I was an outsider with a specific role and it also reminded me.

This approach does not imply reduced commitment to the work, it is an alternative approach and perhaps better suited to the more introverted worker.  It does have the big advantage of making a clear distinction between the development and activist roles.

The big disadvantage, as the degree of overlap declines, is disengagement from the neighbourhood.  Finding a balance between an outsider who brings new ideas and resources to a neighbourhood and someone delivering a government scheme is really important.  There is a fine line between development work at this level of overlap and simply being a worker in the community.

0% – 25%  Independence from the neighbourhood

At first this degree of overlap may seem to be a non-starter.  There are any number of workers in the community placed there for a few months to deliver some scheme.  Their focus is in delivering their employers’ programmes and not local development work.

However, an example of someone who rarely or never visits the neighbourhood and yet has a development role might be the manager of a community development team.  They might care about several neighbourhoods and act as a mentor for their team.

I have suggested in my ebook, Community Development is Dead!, the future of development work is centrally based teams with no-one assigned to specific neighbourhoods.  They would work by supporting local leaders or activists.  They would visit a neighbourhood to help with the design of events or activities but the networking would be largely carried out by local activists.

A similar role might be carried out by an online development worker who coaches local activists.  These may be in communities far away, they are never likely to visit.

Can this work?  The potential disadvantages are obvious.  The development worker would not develop the networks of  contacts, the relationships that result in successful development work.  This would be and possibly should be a task for local activists.  Certainly it is hard to see how this might work for someone with no experience of working on the ground.  But existing practitioners and even retired practitioners may be able to contribute something of value from a distance.


I have attempted to present each degree of overlap in the most positive light possible without denying the disadvantages.  The point is to show what is at stake.  Each degree of overlap has strengths and weaknesses and it is important the worker understands the dynamic of their chosen approach.  It certainly is not a given that the only valid approach is to live there.  Development workers soon find the work is simply not that simple.

So, what percentage would you assign to your approach to development work?  What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of your chosen approach?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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Incarnation Online - Community Web Consultancy - December 23, 2015 Reply

[…] last Friday, I explored one aspect of this in more detail.  Imbricated roles explores degrees of overlap of physical presence with the formal role of community development. The […]

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