The Enigma of Community

Last Updated on July 17, 2024 by Muzammil Ijaz

Community is one of the most heavily contested concepts in the social sciences (Bessant, 2015). It has been the subject of relentless debate, in part, because it is entwined with multifold themes of discourse on individual freedom, human (self) development, associational life, and collective action. Community evokes an expansive range of meanings and affective responses, alternately embraced as something intrinsically good or even utopic and, at other times, challenged in light of its potentially totalizing character. Concerns continue to resurface over the prospective emphasis on commonality and unity at the expense of diversity and difference. Hiddleston (2005) points to the mistrust and subsequent deconstruction of community proffered by authors such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Maurice Blanchot. As Selznick (2002) remarks, the notion of community is “frustratingly vague, elusive, even dangerous” (p. 16).

Much has been written about the impact of wide-scale transformative processes (e.g., urbanization and industrialization) on the nature of social relations. Some time ago, Warren (1978) argued that escalating extracommunity institutional linkages were contributing to reduced autonomy and cohesion, otherwise known as “the great change” (p. 53). Berger (1988) similarly suggests that modernism brought about a notable decline in close-knit community relations in favor of more diffuse or partial involvements in diverse collectivities.

The traditional view of localized, self-contained communities has become increasingly outmoded in light of the growing interpenetration of all sectors of organized social life. However, the claimed disintegration or loss of community has not completely eradicated the search for some deeper sense of association, relationship, or belonging (see Bauman, 2001). The convergence of contemporary change dynamics, such as social acceleration, individualization, and hypermobility, calls for a more flexible understanding of community.

The study of community languished somewhat within mainstream sociology during the 1960s and 1970s, but it continues to attract considerable attention (Day & Murdoch, 1993). Day (1998) contends that the rise of communitarianism—during the 1990s—prompted a renewed interest in community. Also, the decoupling of community from place has energized new avenues of thought and inquiry.

The expansive body of social science literature on community testifies to its ubiquitous and multifaceted presence throughout the world. Notwithstanding its many meanings, community remains an important signifier of collective social life (Clark, 1973; Liepins, 2000). One of the most compelling aspects of this work concerns the “beingness” of community, most notably its treatment as an emergent entity or a collectively felt sense of “We-ness” (see Buber, 1947/2002; Husserl, 1950/1999). The purpose of this chapter is threefold: (a) to outline some basic attributes and ambiguities associated with the community concept, (b) to contextualize the ongoing debate over the meaning of community within the broader discourse on its “loss” or “decline,” and (c) to comment on the role that theory has played in nuancing the interpretation of community