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What is community?

Dan Grimm

What is community? People use the word when talking about their neighbors, their friends, entire racial groups, international politics, national identity groups, you name it. It's an everyday word. But have we have stopped to think about what community really is and what it means to us personally?

The first step in understanding community is to understand how people use the word community. From my own experience, there seem to be three different 'types' of communities. There are the small 'c' communities (some examples would be neighborhoods, individual religious congregations, etc.).

Then there are the large 'C' communities: the Black Community, the Gay Community, the worldwide Hindu Community. Finally, there is the non-communal community. This is using the word 'community' to describe something that isn't really a community at all, such as 'the International Community' or when it's in a title, such as the European Community. So, since the last group is really just a misuse of the word, I won't deal with that.

What is the difference between the first two groups, though? Is there a difference between the 'c'ommunity you're a member of through the Rotary club and the White, English-speaking South African 'C'ommunity? Yes and no.

Both communities involve joining with other people. But, in the small 'c' community, you are personally acquainted with close to everyone else in the community. With the big 'C' community, you're usually not. The other important difference between the two types of community is the role of choosing your membership. Small 'c' communities are almost always voluntary, while large 'C' communities almost always have obligatory membership.

Big 'C' and little 'c' communities

There is one other difference. Usually, the small 'c' communities are limited to specific geographic areas. Obviously, this is changing with the increasing number of 'virtual communities' through the Internet. At the same time, these virtual communities are different enough from regular 'c'ommunites that actually they should make up their own sub-field.

Now we understand the different types of communities. But why do we form communities in the first place? Like I said earlier, 'c'ommunities are voluntary and personal. I believe that we form communities for exactly these things. A community provides us with the chance to have meaningful relationships with other individuals outside of our immediate families. Since they are voluntary, we have the option of joining communities with other people who share similar interests, desires or goals. This means that communities are affirming. By sharing similar interests and all, our personal values are reaffirmed by each and every member of the group. Also, in a community, everyone has similar goals, so people work together towards these ends.
So, communities are empowering, voluntary groups of people working towards similar goals, right? Again, yes and no. The 'no' comes the voluntary part. Community membership is voluntary, but it's not necessarily freely open. Obviously, membership within a community is restricted to people who share the same values as the other members of the community. At the same time, there are still limits on who is allowed into the group.

Neighbourhood example

Take a neighborhood, for example. Everyone shares the goal of 'living in a quiet, enjoyable neighborhood'. Many of the people talk to their neighbors; oftentimes there is even a neighborhood association. There are limits on this community though. First, there are the geographic boundaries of the neighborhood, either set by the city or set by the residents themselves. Second, there are those neighbors who are not part of the community. Some of the residents may have chosen not to join in the community. They're just as happy staying at home and not knowing their neighbors. Others may have arrived too recently to have become fully functioning members.

Then there are those who have been forced out of the community, either directly, by the other members, or indirectly, by the attitudes or actions of the other members. So, here we can see that communities can have boundaries.

Actually, communities need to have boundaries to remain communities.  Why do they need boundaries? They need boundaries to define themselves and for their members to define themselves. This is another function of communities. By providing opportunities to form meaningful relationships with others, communities play a major role in creating identity.

A necessity of identity formation is setting up the dichotomy between in-group and out-group. By being a member of a community, you become a member of the in-group. Anyone on the outside of the boundary is in the out-group. A community without boundaries wouldn't be able to perform this function of identity building. In the same way, a community without boundaries couldn't be identified as a community, as there would be no way of knowing who belonged and who did not belong.

Ok. So, as I see it, a community is a group of people, linked together by geography and similar ideas who have voluntarily joined with one another to provide each other with support for their shared values. Their forming together creates the community, but the community helps form and shapes the members as well.

Sense of belonging

The community provides the members with a sense of belonging and access to meaningful relationships with others. At the same time, each member of the community brings with them their own personal background experiences that they lend to the group. These experiences help diversify the group and provide new methods for attaining the goals of the group.

Also, communities don't exist in a vacuum and don't require exclusive loyalties. This means that members of one community are often members of 3, 4, 8, 20 other communities. And the skills and experiences learned in each of these communal groups are normally shared into the other groups that an individual is a member of. Plus, if an individual were striving towards the same goals in more then one community, then it would only make sense to use your membership in both communities to have the two groups work together. So, say this congregation wanted to publicly address Gender Discrimination in Wage Distribution.

Obviously, if any of you were members of a Feminist organization, then it would only make sense to pool our resources with that organization/community to further our cause. At the same time, this would build bridges between this congregation and the other relevant communities, and may even lead more of the members here to all join this other community. Or, even some of you might meet someone who invites you to join a third community entirely, based on similar interests.

You can see, though, how this can be empowering. By working through the community of our congregation, a goal gets developed further, everyone experiences personal development, a number of people develop new, meaningful relationships, and we all live happily ever after.

 That's how I see communities, as vehicles for personal and group development. So what do y'all think? What is a community for you, and what role do they play in your life?

Copyright: Dan Grimm 2002

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