Conceptualizing Community

Last Updated on July 17, 2024 by Muzammil Ijaz

Academic discussions of Conceptualizing Community commonly draw upon a primordial image of intimate social relationships, as contrasted with a more dissociative, contemporary way of life. Tönnies’ (1887/1957) quintessential view of Gemeinschaft is often cited when authors harken back to a primordial, socially embedded mode of existence that many deem to be fundamentally lost.

Delanty (2003) indicates that, from ancient Greek times to the Enlightenment, the idea of community conveyed a “lifeworld” of direct social relationships, commonality, sociality, and belonging, as distinct from the rather stark and distant state. According to Tyler (2006), one of the earliest understandings of community was that of “an organised body of people,” which shifted, in the Renaissance, to matters of relationship, shared identity, and common good (pp. 21–22).

He remarks that the notion of community did not signify the members of a particular locale until the modern era. And, so, some of the complexity of the community concept stems from the accumulation of its diverse uses, as well as ongoing efforts to reframe its meaning (Tyler, 2006). Sociological definitions of community during the mid-twentieth century typically outlined very general characteristics or inventories of dimensional criteria. Parsons (1951) refers to community as a “collectivity” of territorially situated people and their daily activities (p. 91). He treats community as a localized context comprising actors who enter into relations with one another through social role complexes (e.g., familial or occupational).

In somewhat more elaborate terms, Mercer (1956) offers a list of attributes deemed to be indicative of community: a geographical area, an agglomeration of people, a shared culture, a core set of social institutions, a structure or system, and a functionally interdependent round of existence (pp. 25–26). These and other representations of the time reflect the influence of structural-functionalist and social systemoriented thinking about community. Hillery (1955) conducted one of the earliest meta-analytic studies aimed at assessing the level of consensus across varied (i.e., 94) definitions of community. He concludes that the most oft-mentioned aspects of community include territory or place, shared social ties, and localized interaction (Hillery, 1955, p. 118).

Thus conceived, community constitutes a geospatial locale in which people meet their everyday needs, engage in sustained interaction, and act together in relation to common interests, concerns, or problems. These elements combine to form an archetypal and, for some, a largely antiquated understanding of community. Some thirty years later, Wilkinson (1986, 1991) specified similar criteria: locality, organized social life, and goal-directed collective action. He also acknowledged that contemporary change dynamics were perturbing the core elements of community in the direction of indeterminate geospatial boundaries, escalating extra-local social ties, and a reduced capacity to act together on generalized interests (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). Despite these observations, Wilkinson contends that people still live in shared spaces, experience larger society in and through localized social life and, periodically, engage in collective community action.

Contemporary theorists continue to revisit many of the same dimensions of community. Chaskin (2008), for instance, indicates that “local” community can be viewed as a unit of close association, belonging, and identification; a functionally integrated system of exchange and production; a network or confluence of relations; and an entity capable of collective agency (p. 67). Flora and Flora (2008) likewise define community in terms of place, social organization (or system), and shared identity, with the added caveat that these elements are becoming increasingly disconnected (p. 13). And, so, after more than a century of academic attention, the notion of community remains entwined with, but not limited to, a core set of attributes, albeit not in an integrated fashion. It is important to note that these are but a few of the many conceptions of community that will be discussed in this and the forthcoming chapters. The effects of shifting social conditions, along with competing and emerging analytical frameworks, have prompted continued discourse on the meaning of community.

Ongoing debate has been amplified by the postmodern emphasis on themes of difference, otherness, and diversity. And, furthermore, this expansive body of work has not yielded a coherent set of ideas or explanations (Summers, Clark, & Seiler, 1970), nor has it been adequately cumulative (Bell & Newby, 1972; Day, 1998). Definitional vagaries stem, in part, from an interest in the study of community across a wide range of social, political, and academic circles, not to mention its appropriation for quite varied and sometimes conflicting purposes. The term community is still used to describe everything from relatively isolated rural villages to larger urban centers, as well as neighborhoods, economic associations, groups, networks, online or virtual meeting places, geographical regions, entire nations, and beyond. And, so, despite longstanding attention, consensus has proven largely intractable.

Community lacks consistent meaning in everyday conversation, as well as within and across academic disciplines. In light of such variability, community is sometimes viewed simply as shared values, beliefs, or places (see Cohen, 2002). Over time, theorists have offered increasingly multifold representations of community that extend far beyond the narrowly conceived notion of a spatially localized, integrated system or social unit. Bender (1978) states that community is best understood as “a network of social relations” held together by emotional bonds and feelings of mutuality (p. 7). He believes that community involves the human experience of close self–other relationships, and, so, it cannot be reduced to locality or place. Calhoun (1980) similarly suggests that community has too often been defined as an administratively bounded or geospatially focused population, whereas it is more aptly treated as a configuration of diverse social relations. Clearly, the meaning of community is highly contested; however, as Blumer (1969) points out, academics who avoid vague or multifaceted concepts neglect to deal with critical aspects of their disciplines. It is important to consider varied perspectives on community in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of this highly complex social phenomenon, particularly with respect to its relational fabric and foundations.