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communityAny set of social relationships operating within certain boundaries, locations or territories. The term (as used by both sociologists and geographers) has descriptive and prescriptive connotations in both popular and academic usage. It may refer to social relationships which take place within geographically defined areas or neighbourhoods, or to relationships which are not locally operative but exist at a more abstract, ideological level. For example, the term ‘lesbian community’ may refer to an actual settlement of women (e.g. ‘lesbian ghetto’, see E. Ettore, 1978), or it may refer to a collective of women sharing ideas and life styles, but not necessarily residing together in the same spatial area.
It has been suggested that the concept is one of the most difficult and controversial in modern society. Lowe (1986) suggests that it ‘ranks only with the notion of class in this respect’. It is certainly a term which has attracted many different interpretations and has been subjected to wide use and abuse.
In popular usage, the term has often been associated with positive connotations, as in the phrases ‘a sense of community’ or ‘community spirit’. It is clear that the term is not only descriptive, but also normative and ideological. Sociological discourse has often reinforced prescriptive usages of the term. Influenced by a tradition of 19th-century romanticism, some sociologists have regarded community as necessarily beneficial to human needs and social interaction. This tradition was particularly strong in the 19th century, but is by no means absent in 20th-century sociological thought.
In the 19th century, the German sociologist TÖNNIES drew a distinction between what he called GEMEINSCHAFT and GESELLSCHAFT. The former denoted community relationships which were characterized by their intimacy and durability: status was ascribed rather than achieved; and kin relationships took place within a shared territory and were made meaningful by a shared culture. Conversely, Gesellschaft gave rise to relationships which were impersonal, fleeting and contractual. Such relationships were both rational and calculative rather than affective: status was based on merit and was therefore achieved; and gesellschaftlich relationships were competitive and often characterized by anonymity and alienation. Tönnies believed that the processes of industrialization and urbanization would give rise to the destruction of gemeinschaftlich relationships and that gesellschaftlich relationships would consequently flourish. He was concerned by what he took to be the breakdown of traditional society, authority and the loss of community. In Tönnies’ work we can see the high value he implicitly placed on the old social order and his ambivalence towards industrialization and urbanization (compare SIMMEL). It is this romanticized view of traditional society’ that has given rise to the association of the concept of community’ with ideas of social support, intimacy and security Thus traditional communities have often been portrayed as close-knit and as facilitating cooperation and mutual aid between members. In contrast, the URBANIZATION process has been identified as destructive of both ‘community’ and communities. Research by Young and Willmott (1960) and Gans (1962) has, however, raised serious doubts about any such simple association between urbanization and ‘loss of community’.
Sociologists have usually been less concerned with categorizing and identifying the physical and geographical characteristics of communities than with examining the nature and quality of the social relationships sustained by them. Recent sociology has also been concerned with the analysis of community action and collective resistance to social problems (Castells, 1976).
Whatever the definitional difficulties, all communities, both real and symbolic, exist and operate within boundaries or territories. Boundaries serve to demarcate social membership from nonmembership. Communities may be seen to be inclusive of some people and social groups, but exclusive of others. In some cases, community boundaries are rigidly maintained (e.g. some religious communities), in others the boundaries are more fluid and open.
Worsley (1987) has suggested that, despite the difficulties involved in theorizing about ‘community’ and communities’, three broad meanings can be identified within sociological literature. The first he describes as ‘community as locality’. Here the interpretation of the term comes closest to its geographical meaning of a ‘human settlement within a fixed and bounded local territory’. Secondly, he suggests that ‘community’ has been used to denote a ‘network of interrelationships’ (Stacey, 1969). In this usage, community relationships can be characterized by conflict as well as by mutuality and reciprocity In the third usage, community can be seen to refer to a particular type of social relationship; one that possesses certain qualities. It infers the existence of a ‘community spirit’ or ‘community feeling’. This usage comes closest to a common-sense usage and does not necessarily imply the existence of a local geographical area or neighbourhood.