Communities of place, interest, and Communion

Last Updated on July 17, 2024 by Muzammil Ijaz

The notion of community encapsulates interrelated and sometimes contradictory themes of discourse: historical and cultural factors, identity formation, place identification, self–other relations, feelings of mutuality, personal freedom and autonomy, self-expression, pluralism, collective responsibility, and integration, to name but a few (see Selznick, 1996). In general terms, community can be thought of as forming around or emerging out of the many facets of lived relation that ultimately shape its meaning and makeup. Community relations comprise multifold types and intensities of associational life. And, in the absence of definitional agreement, the community concept is applied to diverse modes of association and communal existence.

Indeed, there are “weak” and “strong” uses of the term community, for example, loosely connected agglomerations of individuals, as compared to persons bound together by some sense of commonality and collective identification (see Tyler, 2006). The following discussion presents three oft-noted representations of community based on (a) shared space or place, (b) common interests, and (c) communal bonds or communion. Although these intersecting elements do not exhaust the many ways of characterizing community, they offer a basic framework with which to consider its inherent complexities.

Place, Locale, and Shared Space

There is an undeniable relational fabric woven into both place- and nonplace-based communities. Early twentieth-century approaches to the study of community typically included some reference to place or local residence, in combination with social, cultural, or social–psychological elements. And, notwithstanding the deterritorialization of community, Christenson, Fendley, and Robinson (1989) contend that the most significant interactions occur within localized spaces.

The place-based view of community offers an image of people living in close proximity and going about their daily affairs in ways that bring them into regular contact with one another. Propinquity provides opportunities for community members to develop social networks through which they can access information, resources, and supports. Sustained interactions within a shared space can, in turn, influence identity formation such that residents come to think of themselves as members of a community (Miller, 1992). It is also possible to conceive of a community as a “functional region” that is socially constituted by local inhabitants’ thoughts and actions (Morgan & Moss, 1965, p. 349). Day and Murdoch (1993) indicate that the notion of “locality” was put forward as a potential surrogate for the somewhat more definitive concept of community. And, although locality was initially interpreted more so in spatial than social terms, it came to correspond more and more closely to earlier understandings of community (Day & Murdoch, 1993).

Localities, much like communities, can be viewed as situated complexes of social experiences, meanings, and actions. This is reflected in Murdoch and Pratt’s (1993) depiction of locality as a place that exhibits a distinct configuration of economic and cultural features. The spatial aspect of a locality (or community), along with its constituent networks and interactions, can facilitate psychosocial feelings of connectedness and collective identity (see Mattson, 1997). The shared geography of life and living can be a significant basis of commitment and identification. And, notwithstanding escalating patterns of technologically mediated social networks, a notable proportion of face-to-face and online communications are “local” in nature (Wellman, 2005).

Communities and their members are embedded within highly complex arrangements of interrelated social relations that affect identities, solidarities, and agential capabilities. The idea of place intersects with symbolic and interactional facets of community life. Residents can have personal and collective attachments to place stemming from a multitude of experiences associated with the community’s built or natural environment and the people with whom they share their lives. Ethno-cultural and linguistic factors are among the many defining attributes of place-based communities, as well as particular features of the physical landscape, local resources, historical events, and other attributes. As Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1985) point out, communities are constituted by and embedded in the past, and it is because of their history that they can be termed “communities of memory” (pp. 152–153).

Through prolonged situated interaction, a community of place can become an important signifier of geopolitical, economic, symbolic, and historical distinctiveness. The sense of identification stemming from material, sociocultural, and relational aspects of community can contribute significantly to feelings of belonging (see May, 2011).

Furthermore, community can be defined in social–psychological and socio-spatial terms, as distinct from treating it narrowly as an areal or geographically bounded “container” of social life. Interaction is perhaps the most essential component of community, regardless of whether it takes the form of a territorially localized context of solidary social relationships or a spatially dispersed network of relations. The relational fabric of community can assume diverse modes or forms, including social interaction, social networks, social bonds, social ties, and intra- or inter-systemic linkages, among others. Interactional dynamics play an important role in the coconstitution of all dimensions of community life. The community concept is quite commonly linked to social interactions that can, over time, assume structural patterns. Indeed, “micro-to-macro” processes are intimately involved in the social construction of organized social life.

Whatever else may be said about community, it is a direct expression of intersecting types and levels of social relation. According to Wellman (2005), the “neighborhood-centered” understanding of community prevailed for a good portion of the twentieth century (p. 53). Place-based communities remain important geopolitical reference points for the sake of service provision, state funding mechanisms, and development initiatives. Localized communities have taken on increased political-economic relevance in light of neoliberal policies of deregulation, fiscal retrenchment, downloading, and reduced service provision (Kelly & Caputo, 2011). Also, people continue to develop place attachments despite new modes of electronic communication and mediated relations (Hoggett, 1997, p. 15).

For these and many other reasons, geospatial representations of community life persist within contemporary discussions of theory and development practice (see Matarrita-Cascante & Brennan, 2012)

Common Interest(s)

The interest-based conception of community broadly refers to individuals coming together around a common concern or sentiment with which they identify personally and collectively. Interaction can assume different forms and intensities, ranging from highly durable, localized interpersonal relationships to sporadic, technologically mediated social ties. In some instances, there may be little if any direct contact.

The term “community of interest” can be used to describe everything from a loosely connected collection of online “gamers” to a highly integrated, territorially localized action group. Communities of practice constitute a variant form of interest community insofar as members are collectively involved in exchanging experiences, knowledge, and information about a particular issue. A community of interest can also exist in a legal sense, such as a class action lawsuit among individuals who share a claim typical of the “class” or “group.” The members may never have any tangible connection with each other but, in the eyes of the law, they are unified in their joint action.

The latter situation differs sharply from a context in which individuals engage in extensive interpersonal interaction and, thereby, experience significant affective relations stemming from a mutual concern. Therefore, the degree of integration or cohesiveness among members of an interest community can vary markedly based on the mode, frequency, and intensity of interaction; levels of personal commitment; and perceptions of relative closeness (i.e., physical or psychological). With respect to spatially focused communities of interest, Keller (1992) discusses the mobilization of grassroots political action in response to environmental disaster.

She introduces the idea of an emergent interest community among inhabitants living within an area of contamination. The newly defined socio-spatial boundaries of such a community can be tied to the interests or goals of those defining the situation. This illustrates the potential for a sense of collective identification to develop around both a common issue and a particular place or locale. A mutually held value can become a key binding factor that draws individuals together in thought and action.

The relative degree of solidarity is often viewed as an indicator of “communityness,” which suggests that the communalization of a shared interest can facilitate social relationships, cohesiveness, and agency. Messer, Shriver, and Adams (2015) concur that community identification can influence the way in which residents respond to environmental threats, including varied aspects of participation, mobilization, and agency (pp. 317–318). Also of relevance here are “intentional communities,” which Hoggett (1997) defines as a sense of commonality other than (though not necessarily exclusive of) place, for example, shared values, beliefs, and practices (p. 8).

This points to the sociocultural and affective dimensions of the community rather than its geospatial facticity. The notion of an intentional community is commonly associated with a group of people who elect to live together in the pursuit of a shared goal, purpose, or preferred mode of collective life. Some examples include ecovillages, communes, cooperatives, and residential land trusts, to name only a few These and other communities of choice express varied themes: environmental sustainability, spirituality, economic cooperation, health, and personal development, among others. Brint (2001) notes that members of elective communities may well experience higher levels of support or mutual interest than is typical of communities defined solely on the basis of spatial proximity.

However, both forms of community are subject to the related problems of conflict and inequality stemming from differential levels of engagement and commitment. As an aside, Webber (1963) long ago observed that advances in information, communication, and transport technologies were facilitating sustained interaction patterns over greater distances. He explored the changing character of relations between people and place. Webber (1963) is perhaps best known for introducing the idea of “community without propinquity” into the larger discourse on macro-level social change dynamics (p. 23). To the extent that he focuses on connectivity more so than place, Webber draws attention to emergent communities of interest. Indeed, Silk (1999) suggests that insufficient emphasis has been placed on the ways in which advanced communication technologies have impacted the socio-spatiality or scale of relations, as for example “place-free ‘stretched-out’” forms of community (pp. 8–9).

There is a growing body of literature that deals with advances in electronic or computer-mediated communication and the emergence of varied types of specialized network communities. This has prompted questions as to whether place-free, technologically mediated networks can meaningfully approach Tönnies’ (1887/1957) sense of Gemeinschaft, the latter of which is indicative of people bound together in mutual concern, caring, and relation. Wellman (2001) addresses the issue of how “networked individualism” is influencing interpersonal interaction and, by implication, the nature of community (p. 238). He acknowledges some of the prospective deficiencies of online relations, while noting that they can complement and enhance other forms of social interaction (see Hampton & Wellman, 2003). The increasing incidence of mediated ties reflects the contemporary movement toward more personalized networks (Wellman, 2005).

Bradshaw (2008) coined the term “post-place community” to designate a spatially dispersed network of people who share a sense of solidarity and identity (p. 5). Instead of focusing on place or common residence, he emphasizes that the essential facet of community is the presence of social relations or bonds. Thus conceived, community can exist in the absence of place attachment, but not without some collective sense of belonging. This idea is loosely related to Anderson’s (1991) depiction of a nation as “an imagined political community,” given that members maintain a symbolic sense of their interconnectedness in spite of having contact with a relatively small proportion of their fellow inhabitants (p. 6). In this respect, an imagined community comprises a set of individuals who share an “identity sign” (e.g., nationality) that is experienced intersubjectively as a social object (Gleicher, 2011, p. 390).

There is a need for more research on the nature of social relations and collective identities that emerge within varied types of non-place-based communities, most notably, technologically mediated (e.g., online) cybercommunities.


In addition to spatial and interest-based dimensions, community is regularly defined in terms of emotion-laden bonds or communion. Although the concept of “communion” lacks definitive meaning, it is typically associated with affective attachments, common sentiments, or collective (symbolic) identifications. Taylor (2016), for instance, refers to communion as “relations of shared emotional bonding” (p. 55).

The general notion of a “community of communion” can be traced to Tönnies’ (1887/1957) typification of a primordial, all-encompassing way of life—a “unity of being” premised on Gemeinschaft of locality, mind, or kinship (p. 42). He makes a distinction between a community stemming from common “external” or objective characteristics (e.g., language or occupation), as compared to the relationship-affirming bonds of a more unifying “internal” or subjective nature (Tönnies, 1925/1971, pp. 67–68).

And, while people may live in the same location, speak a common language, or pursue a mutual interest, a true sense of Gemeinschaft is reflected in the members’ collective and conscious sense of belonging together as a group. Tönnies further indicates that the objective attributes of community can give rise to close-knit social relations. By virtue of living, interacting, and working together, individuals can conceivably develop communalized feelings of psychosocial and emotional connectedness. In direct response to Tonnies’ (1887/1957) work, Schmalenbach (1922/1961) addresses the conceptual confusion between “community” and “communion,” the latter of which he suggests is intimately linked to emotional dynamics (p. 332).

Although he acknowledges that communal bonds possess psychic properties (albeit largely unconscious), Schmalenbach contends that communities are not based on “feelings.” He defines community as an association of people whose life experiences coalesce around matters of kinship, culture, tradition, and place, among other factors, out of which heightened feelings of belonging may emerge. These conditions can engender within individual members the psychic—and perhaps unrecognized—bases of community. By comparison, the relations of communion are far more intense, unstable, and transitory than those of everyday community life. Wild (1981) likewise defines communion as an affectively intense mode of belonging.

It is this intersection of affectivity and social relationships that accounts for some of the definitional ambiguity associated with both concepts. Buber (1947/2002) tends to use the terms “community” and “communion” interchangeably with respect to a deep sense of intersubjective closeness and intimacy. He points to the communalized elaboration of mutual relations and existential openness to others. Communion involves being drawn together in collective responsibility, affinity, and relation. For Buber (1947/2002), genuine community or communion occurs when members turn “unreservedly” to one another in true dialogue (p. 4).

This resonates with Stein’s (1917/1970) characterization of empathy as “beingturned-toward” and acquiring an understanding of the other (p. 8). Buckley (1992) discusses a related idea with respect to Edmund Husserl’s notion of “authentic community,” which emerges when individuals are able to build meaningful social relationships and social bonds with one another (pp. 214, 220).

In this sense, authentic community exists by virtue of members willing and acting together in the pursuit of a common good (see Bessant, 2011; Hart, 1992). It represents a “higher-order” communal life that is founded on and inseparable from its co-constituents. Calhoun (1980) makes the point that, at its core, the study of community is concerned with social relationships, which can give rise to social– psychological aspects of integration, belonging, and attachment. Community is held together by intricate, multiplex relations that facilitate a shared sense of belonging and collective identification. Selznick (1992) similarly suggests that community stems from the basic human inclination toward “interaction, commitment, and responsibility” (p. 359).

However, he cautions against equating community with communion insofar as he considers the latter a form of “psychic unity” (Selznick, 1996, p. 201). Selznick is adamant that community life cannot flourish in the face of communal fusion. For some, a deep sense of collective attachment, solidarity, and belonging (i.e., communion) represents the penultimate basis of community, while others view it as a foreboding condition of merged social life.

It would seem that a distinction can be drawn between a “community” of interconnected social interactions and relationships and a “communion” of more emotionally charged sentiments or bonds. In summary, the foregoing discussion presents three relatively identifiable but intersecting bases of community. The experience of community can emerge, change, and dissipate in conjunction with the vagaries of place, interest, and connectedness. In moving forward through the following chapters, it will become apparent that these and other bases of community are differentially embedded within varied analytical approaches.

The proliferation of diverse conceptions of community reflects both changing “real-world” conditions and continued theoretical innovation. Recent literature on community is replete with references to fluidity, fragmentation, and difference. The relational contexts of contemporary society expose the self and the experience of community to shifting contexts of interpersonal and collective association, affiliation, attachment, and belonging. At different points in time, individuals can become sequentially or simultaneously involved in any number of “communities.” It is for all of these reasons that theory must address the relational foundations out of which community emerges continuously.