What is a Community?

‘Community’ was a term that F. Tonnies contrasted with ‘Society’ (the German equivalents are ‘Gemeinshaft’ and ‘Gesselschaft’, the terms he actually used) to highlight the shift in social relations that took place in the late nineteenth century as a result of increasing industrialization, urbanization and alienation. A community of feeling had been replaced by a community of formal rules and bureaucracy. A community untied by tradition had become replaced by a market economy. None of this gets us very deep into the question of what a community is, and under what conditions it is possible. After all, communities did not simply disappear at the turn of the century, but changed in form.

Still, it is hard to pin down exactly what a community is. In a pluralistic society, there may not be any generally shared set of values. In a mobile society, one may not live in the city in which one is born, and one’s closest friends may not live in your neighborhood at all, but in another part of the country. With the Internet, these boundaries are becoming fuzzy indeed. Face to face communication may no longer be a necessary condition of close relationships. With a global economy, people at the same company may never even meet. So many of the determinants of social bonds are gone or greatly weakened.

Class may still be a potent factor. After all, one’s leisure activities, choice of where one lives and goes to school are probably more highly correlated with income level than any other single factor. Still, even if it were a necessary condition (that is, even if all close social bonds were formed between members of the same economic and social class), it clearly is not a sufficient condition (that is, people do not automatically become friends even within the same class). I think community membership is largely subjective: we recognize others as part of our community insofar as we feel kinship with them. People who live in the same neighborhoods are likely to have such feelings towards each other if they see themselves as sharing common problems, common tasks (e.g., keeping a local school running), and have friends among their neighbors. To locate community in the social psychology of individuals is not to deny that objective factors influence the feelings. Alcoholics and divorced people can form communities of support based on common problems- even if they live in different neighborhoods. People concerned with the environment, drugs, campaign finance reform, education- may form organizations that bring like-minded individuals into voluntary community. Still, I think that organization is not the mark of a community; community rather forms the presupposition for organizations of various sorts.

While it may sound corny, community is where you live. That gets at the heart of the matter. Where you live focuses on the environment in which you work, play, rest, eat—all seen through the lens of your values, concerns, needs and desires. A community of feeling draws from the sphere of concern, the things we care about: family, safety, space to move about, a place to call home, a set of values we abide by and expect others to respect. This I think, gets the role of religion right. We think that in a pluralistic society, religion cannot play the role of what unites us, and therefore has to be relegated to the realm of the socially indifferent. A more subtle analysis will show that there may be a great deal of overlap between quite different world-views and religious conceptions, and that overlap may be at least one feature in the community of feeling. It is community that enables us to cross all sorts of borders that exist between various groups to recognize the humanity we all share in common. That in fact is an underlying assumption of this course: we can understand and appreciate those with whom we have differences, even when those differences are large. Community, I suggest, is where such border crossings transpire in a pluralistic society.