Theorists do not agree on the precise definition of community. Referents for the term range from ethnic neighborhoods to self-help groups to Internet chat rooms. What is broadly agreed upon is that community is a locus of social interaction where people share common interests, have a sense of belonging, experience solidarity, and can expect mutual assistance. Communities are the source of social attachments, create interdependencies, mediate between the individual and the larger society, and sustain the well-being of members. When locality based, such as in a town or neighborhood, they also provide a place for people to participate in societal institutions and, as such, are linked with democracy. Because community is recognized as socially imperative, community absence or weakening becomes a social problem.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, social theorists, looking at different types of places (a typological approach), observed the shift of population from rural areas to larger, denser, more diverse urban-industrial places. They noted a transition also occurring in the way people related to one another. In smaller, traditional villages, people were bound together by their similarities and sentiments; in cities their ties were based on contracts and they lived a more anonymous existence. The concept of community became identified with that smaller, more intimate locality and the types of relationships within it. In the 1920s the theoretical framework of human ecology, using the city of Chicago as a laboratory, further reinforced the notion of community as a geographic entity.
As a result, community became a social concern as the proportion of the population living in urban areas increased. Social scientists depicted urban dwellers as bereft of involving social ties, emotionally armored against a world of strangers. They were detached individuals, lacking the necessary social supports for psychological well-being. The city thus had a disorganizing effect.
By the mid-20th century, however, research documented the existence of ethnic villages within cities, but more important, in a new conceptualization, community was described as “liberated” from place. Community was reframed as a network of individuals connected to each other possibly in a particular locale or possibly widely dispersed geographically. Researchers sought to uncover the locus of attachments, whether in the neighborhood, workplace, or religious institution. Network theorists gave assurances that people enjoyed necessary social supports but in a more far-flung manner.
With advances in technology, increased geographic mobility, and the expansion of later-stage capitalism, a concern has emerged among community theorists that societies are becoming dangerously privatized, individualized, and atomized. With a fragmented diversity in postmodern society, no longer is there a consensus on fundamental rules of order. Individuals construct their own social worlds and escape into hedonistic pleasures and narcissism. As civic engagement and social capital decline, the emphasis on individual rights strengthens while the sense of obligation and community responsibility weakens. As the tradition of community disappears, society becomes corroded by self-interest. Atomized individuals become at risk for totalitarian leadership and vulnerable to exploitation by hegemonic market forces.” Theorists, defining themselves as “communitarians,” call for a reversal of these trends, stressing individual responsibility for the greater common good and the re-assertion of shared values and norms.
Critics call communitarianism morally authoritarian, failing to grapple with questions of social diversity and inequity in the establishment of a normative order. Opponents charge that dominant institutions and power holders are not sufficiently challenged, and in consensus building, some groups could potentially be excluded and differences suppressed, leading to recent attempts to confront differences within and between communities as a starting point for political discourse. Pluralism is at the core, and democratic participation and power differentials are part of the debate. A more radical communitarianism encourages participation in multiple communities—to create dense social networks of solidarity—and attempts to incorporate a theory of social justice.
Most research, however, does not find people isolated and atomized. They still have family and friends and broader organizational contacts. Alarmist calls about declining civic engagement are countered by the assertion that the associations of today are not copies of the Rotary and Lions clubs of the 1950s. People today are more likely to have “loose connections,” temporary involvements in a range of social networks, each of which may have a different instrumental end and varying degrees of social solidarity. All institutional realms have become more porous as people, resources, and information flow across their boundaries. Individuals may join self-help groups, which they can abandon at will or reattach with in some other location. Internet connections allow individuals to establish new social contacts, often organized around particular interests or similarities, or to reinforce existing social ties as in e-mails among family members. Still the Internet community can be deleted with a click, subject to individual will. So there are new forms of connecting, reflective of and adaptive to present-day realities. By holding these new types of attachments to the standards of an earlier, geographic place-bound community, they seem weak and decidedly more individualized. The newer conceptualizations leave open to debate whether or not they should be called communities. Research questions remain on whether the essential conditions of democracy and citizenship are served by them.
Security or Freedom
Tension will always exist between the individual and the collective on how much individual freedom must be surrendered for the security and support of the latter. Amid the individualism described by the communitarians, other social theorists describe a contemporary trend where individuals choose to live in enclaves, whether by race, ethnicity, lifestyle, or social class, raising questions about whether these are true communities. The physical boundaries around these enclaves may be arranged on a continuum of permeability, from gated communities (fortresses) with guardhouses and elaborate security systems, to those with streets or other geographic features serving as symbolic borders. Each enclave distinguishes members from outsiders. Individuals are willing to forgo some individual freedoms for the security of knowing their properties are hedged against depreciation and that their neighbors are likely to be similar to themselves. People are fearful of those they perceive as different, especially in a post-9/11 world of terrorism, and seek the security of the homogeneous. In the face of globalization some may retreat into parochial localism.
With the bias in community research defining it as locality based, it can be studied as the site where social problems occur. Groups tend to be most concerned about their own spaces. At the neighborhood level they may organize to address social problems and their consequences, such as crime or environmental pollution. Community power differentials come into play as to who is claiming that a problem exists. Social class differences may also be prominent in certain kinds of issues, such as those pitting environmental concerns against economic opportunities. The community becomes a geographic arena where a threat elicits a unified response or coalitions form.
Given the multidimensionality of community, community development is an umbrella term. Community development may reference early historical designs to plan new communities; more often it has meant an action course to identify problems within a geographic community, assessing the needs of members, locating resources, and coordinating agencies to deliver the necessary goods and services. Earlier community development programs were more paternalistic where governments identified needs and problems and helped local people find solutions. A shift occurred toward an empowerment model where local people—taught necessary organizing skills and encouraged by activists and practitioners— identify their own needs and challenge centers of economic and political power to remedy the situations. Coalitions emerge and social movements begin. As centers of decision making become more distant from localities, especially in transnational corporate boardrooms, community development strategies may require widely dispersed social networks and cybermobilization. The Internet may be an effective means to organize geographically distant parties.
The notion of community development, given the concern about the absence or breakdown of community, may also refer to efforts to strengthen social capital. The communitarian platform urges and applauds strategies to encourage local interaction, civic involvements, and solidarity.
Questions for Research
In the postmodern world, the meaning of community is likely to remain fluid. People’s lives are less determined by place, but at the same time, there is more concern about environmentally sustainable local areas. Individuals have more freedom to choose their social attachments. Researchers and community theorists are consequently challenged by at least three questions:
- Are people connected? What is the nature and degree of their social attachments?
- Do the multiple communal forms fulfill the prerequisites of a democratic society in terms of citizen participation and social justice?
- Are contemporary communities able to respond to the major challenges of a globalizing world, particularly the increased diversity and global interdependencies, the retreat of the state from the public sector, the ascendancy of market forces, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor?
Some theorists see ominous trends, whereas others see evolutionary change. Ongoing research will assess whether contemporary social attachments are indeed communities, and whether their presence or absence or the nature of the bonds constitute a social problem.
- Bauman, Zygmunt. 2001. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
- Bruhn, John G. 2005. The Sociology of Community Connections. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Castells, Manuel. 2003. The Power of Identity. 2nd ed. New York: Blackwell.
- Etzioni, Amitai. 1993. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown.
- Little, Adrian. 2002. The Politics of Community. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
- Wuthnow, Robert. 2002. Loose Connections: Joining Together in America S Fragmented Communities. New ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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