Community - a basic anthropological concept




The concept of community concerns to a particularly constituted set of social relationships, based on something which the participants have in common – usually a common sense of identity. It is to remember Talcott parsons, frequently used the term to indicate a wide ranging relationships of solidarity over rather undefined area of life and interests. There was a symbolism of community in the 19th century thoughts, which identified this form of social association of people with a good society and with all forms of relationships that are characterised by high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depthness, moral commitment, social cohesion and continuity in time. At the arrival of urban industrial society a fear of loss of community became central to the thought about society and culture.

Classical anthropological approaches:

One of the renowned attempts of conceptualizing community belongs to that of Robert Redfield (1960), who identified four key qualities in community:
1.      a smallness of social scale;
2.      a homogeneity of activities and states of mind of members;
3.      a self-sufficiency across a broad range of needs and through time; and
4.      a consciousness of  distinctiveness.
Nevertheless, in 1955, Hillery could compile 94 social-scientific attempts at definition whose only substantive overlap was that all dealt with people (1955:117)! To overcome this problem, community is often further specified by a qualifying or amplifying phrase: the ‘local community’, the ‘West Indian community’, the ‘community of nations’ or ‘souls’. But this would seem only to beg further questions.
In anthropology, one might usefully isolate three broad variants of traditional approach. ‘Community’ is to be characterized in terms of: (i) common interests between people; or (ii) a common ecology and locality; or (iii) a common social system or structure.
For example, Frankenberg (1966) suggests that it is common interests in achievable things (economic, religious, or whatever) that give members of a community a common interest in one another. Living face-to-face, in a small group of people, with common interests in mind, eventuates in community members’ sharing many-stranded or multiplex relations with one another; also sharing a sentiment towards the locality and the group itself. Hence, communities come to be marked by a fair degree of social coherence.
For Minar and Greer (1969), physical concentration (living and working) in one geographical territory is the key. The locale will throw up common problems and give rise to common perspectives, which lead to the development of organizations for joint action and activities, which in turn produces common attachments, feelings of inter-dependence, common commitment, loyalty and identity within a social group. Hence, communities come to exhibit homogeneity: members behaving similarly and working together, towards common aims, in one environment, whatever their familial or generational differences.
For Warner (1941), meanwhile, a community is essentially a socially functioning whole: a body of people bound to a common social structure which functions as a specific organism, and which is distinguishable from other such organisms. Consciousness of this distinction (the fact that they live with the same norms and within the same social organization) then gives community members a sense of belonging. So long as the parts of the functioning whole (families, agesets, status-groups, or whatever) work properly together, the structure of the community can be expected to continue over time.
Whether it be in terms of interests, ecology or social structure, then, anthropologists have traditionally emphasized an essential commonality as the logic underlying a community’s origination and continuation. Communities have been regarded as empirical things-in-themselves (social organisms), as functioning wholes, and as things apart from other like things. This was in turn the logical basis of ‘the community study’: the tradition in anthropology of basing research on what could in some sense be treated as a bounded group of people, culturally homogeneous and resident in one locality, because this ‘community’ would provide a laboratory for the close observation of the interrelations, the continuing interfunctioning, between interests, sub-groups and institutions; and also serve as a microcosm of a bigger social picture which might prevail as societies grew in size and complexity. Anthropologists conventionally studied communities (villages, tribes, islands) because these were regarded as the key structural units of social life: what the elementary structures of kinship gave onto; what the complex structures of society were composed of.

Evolutionary approaches:

For those social scientists looking at community as a firm of integration characterised by high degree of social cohesion, it represents a stage in social evolution. In particular they are associated with the work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies, who, in 1887 [1957], posited the transcendence of ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) by ‘society’ (Gesellschaft). What he hypothesized was that the traditional, static, ‘naturally’ developed forms of social organization (such as kinship, friendship, neighbourhood and ‘folk’) would everywhere be superseded (in zero-sum fashion) by associations expressly invented for the rational achievement of mutual goals (economic corporations, political parties, trade unions). This was not an unmixed blessing, for while community relations might be moral, sentimental, localized, particular, intimate, ascribed, enduring, conventional, consistent, and based on intrinsic attachments (to blood, soil, heritage and language), societal relations were artificial, contractual, interested, partial, ego-focused, specialized, superficial, inconsistent, fluid, short-term and impersonal. And yet, community was inevitably (and absolutely) losing out to the advancing society of capitalism and individualism.

The Personal and Moral Nature of Social Ties within a Gemeinschaft

According to Tönnies, Gemeinschaft, or community, is comprised of personal social ties and in-person interactions that are defined by traditional social rules and result in an overall cooperative social organization. The values and beliefs common to a Gemeinschaft are organized around appreciation for personal ties, and because of this, social interactions are personal in nature. Tönnies believed that these kinds of interactions and social ties were driven by emotions and sentiments (Wesenwille), by a sense of moral obligation to others, and were common to rural, peasant, small-scale, homogenous societies. When Weber wrote about these terms in Economy and Society, he suggested that a Gemeinschaft is produced by the "subjective feeling" that is tied to affect and tradition.

The Rational and Efficient Nature of Social Ties within a Gesellschaft

On the other hand, Gesellschaft, or society, is comprised of impersonal and indirect social ties and interactions that are not necessarily carried out face-to-face (they can be carried out via telegram, telephone, in written form, through a chain of command, etc.). The ties and interactions that characterize a Gesellschaft are guided by formal values and beliefs that are directed by rationality and efficiency, as well as by economic, political, and self-interests. While social interaction is guided by Wesenwille, or seemingly naturally occurring emotions in a Gemeinschaft, in a Gesellschaft, Kürwille, or rational will, guides it.
This kind of social organization is common to large-scale, modern, industrial, and cosmopolitan societies that are structured around large organizations of government and private enterprise, both of which often take the form of bureaucracies. Organizations and the social order as a whole are organized by a complex division of labor, roles, and tasks.
As Weber explained, such a form of social order is the result of "rational agreement by mutual consent," meaning members of society agree to participate and abide the given rules, norms, and practices because rationality tells them that they benefit by doing so. Tönnies observed that the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that provide the basis for social ties, values, and interactions in a Gemeinschaft are displaced by scientific rationality and self-interest in a Gesellschaft. While social relations are cooperative in a Gemeinschaft it is more common to find competition in a Gesellschaft.

Symbolic approaches:

Instead of structural-functional explanations, as anthropologists have come to regard social life as largely symbolic-cognitive in nature notions of ‘community’ have changed. Conceptions of something reifiable, essential and singular have been replaced by a focus on how ‘community’ is elicited as a feature of social life, on how membership of community is marked and attributed, on how notions of community are given meaning, and how such meaning relates to others. In place of the reified notion of community as a thing-in-itself, then, comes the realization that, as Gregory Bateson put it succinctly: things are epiphenomena of the relations between them (1951:173); or as Barth elaborated, social groups achieve an identity by defining themselves as different from other such groups and by erecting boundaries between them (1969). In terms of their field research, anthropologists have come to admit a distinction between the locus of their study and their object of study: they may study in villages (on islands, in cities, in factories) but not villages per se.
Applying these ideas fruitfully to the concept of community has been Anthony Cohen (1985). Community, he argues, should be seen as a symbolic construct and a contrastive one; it derives from the situational perception of a boundary which marks off one social group from another: awareness of community depends on consciousness of boundary. Hence, communities and their boundaries exist essentially not as socialstructural systems and institutions but as worlds of meaning in the minds of their members. Relations between members represent not a set of mechanical linkages between working parts so much as ‘repositories of meaning’ (1985:98), and it is these which come to be expressed as a community’s distinctive social discourse. In short, membership consists not so much of particular behavioural doings as of thinking about and deliberating upon behaviour in common; here is attachment   to a common body of symbols, a shared vocabulary of value. Moreover, it is the ambiguities of symbolic discourse which allow members to unite behind this vocabulary when facing what they perceive to lie beyond their boundaries but also, when facing inward, to elaborate upon differences in its interpretation and hence affirm a variety of cherished individualities. Community is an aggregating device which both sustains diversity and expresses commonality.
Furthermore, to say that any understanding of ‘community’ must be situational, that the concept is a matter of contingent symbolic definition, is also to talk about ‘community’ in relation to other types or levels of sociation. Here, Cohen continues, community can be understood to represent that social milieu—broader than notions of family and kinship, more inclusive, but narrower, more immediate, than notions of society and state—where the taken-for-granted relations of kinship are to be put aside and yet where the non-relations of strangerness or the anti-relations of alien-ness need not be assumed; community encompasses something in between the closest and the furthest reaches of sociation in a particular context. Hence, the notion of community encapsulates both closeness and sameness, and distance and difference; and it is here that gradations of sociality, more and less close social associations, have their abiding effects. For, members of a community are related by their perception of commonalities (but not tied by them or ineluctably defined by them as are kinsmen), and equally, differentiated from other communities and their members by these relations and the sociation they amount to. In short, ‘community’ describes the arena in which one learns and largely continues to practise being social. It serves as a symbolic resource, repository and referent for a variety of identities, and its ‘triumph’ (Cohen 1985:20) is to continue to encompass these by a common symbolic boundary.

Contemporary usage:

Whatever the evolutionary prognosis, needless to say, (whatever ‘advances’ capitalism may have made over the past century) ‘communities’ have continued to flourish; as an idea, community has continued to possess both practical and ideological significance for people. Indeed, recent decades have seen an upsurge in ‘community consciousness’, ‘community development and rebuilding’ and ‘community values and works’ (at the same time as there has been a vaunting of migrancy and globalization). Whether that community is defined in terms of locality, ethnicity, religion, occupation, recreation, special interest, even humanity, people maintain the idea that it is this milieu which is most essentially ‘theirs’, and that they are prepared to assert their ownership and membership, vocally and aggressively, in the face of opposing ideas and groups (cf. Anderson 1983). Thus, anthropologists have continued to be interested in this idea in use, while Robert Redfield’s counsel (1960:59) remains timely.
Anthropologists, in short, continue studying ‘community’ (Pitt-Rivers 1974; Meillassoux 1981; Cohen 1987) because this is what their subjects inform them that they live in and cherish.

This material prepared from
1.      Rapport, N. and J. Overing. (2004). Key Concepts in Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Routledge

A brief idea of community (bilingual, meant for my college students)

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