Sodium Haze: What is Community #1

Thursday, 26 May 2011

What is Community #1

The first in a long series:

What is community?

This most interesting analysis comes from an article in something called CyberSociology.

Is the sum of the word 'community' reasonably defined by how many disperate groups toss around the same meaning? A numbers game?

"From it's inception as a discipline", writes Dennis Poplin, "sociology has been plagued by inconsistency and ambiguity in some of its basic terminology... the word community falls into this category.

As an element in the sociological vocabulary, this term has been used in so many ways that it has been described as an omnibus word." (Poplin, 3) Indeed the term "community" has dozens if not hundreds of distinct definitions in the social sciences.

It seems that many of these definitions are based upon value judgments and political viewpoints rather than social scientific reasoning, making consensus upon one sociological definition for the term impossible to reach thus far. Even the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology states that "the ambiguities of the term community make any wholly coherent sociological definition of communities, and hence the scope and limits for their empirical study, impossible to achieve." (p.75)

Hence, we must move towards an agreed upon definition if we are to talk about something in a meaningful way. Freilich instructs us that, "since a requisite of science is specificity of terminology, we must conclude... that at this time `community' is a non-scientific term unless separately defined in every paper which uses it." (Freilich, "Toward an Operational Definition of Community," Rural Sociology, 29 (June, 1963 ), 118.)

For this reason, it is important that I present a clear sociological definition of the term community here before proceeding.

In what may be the best attempt yet to assess agreement amongst definitions of community, George Hillery, Jr. subjected 94 sociological definitions of the term "community" to qualitative and quantitative analysis. ( Hillery, 1955, 111 )

He was able to identify 16 different definitional concepts within this sample. (Ibid. 115) Hillery found only one concept that was common amongst these 94 definitions: they all deal with people. (Ibid. 117)

Despite this, there are other areas where the majority of studies analysed by Hillery are in agreement. Hillery states that "of the 94 definitions, 69 are in accord that social interaction, area, and a common tie or ties are commonly found in community life." (Ibid. 118)1 Poplin notes that in a more recent empirical study2 of 125 sociological definitions of the term community, the above definitional aspects were still present in the majority despite some changes in the usage of the term over the years. (Poplin, 1979, 8)

In the interests of keeping this piece brief, I have used Hillery's analysis of definitions of community to come to a single concise definition rather than to present dozens of different definitions. The sociological term community should be understood here as meaning (1) a group of people (2) who share social interaction (3) and some common ties between themselves and the other members of the group (4) and who share an area for at least some of the time.

or is there more to our notions of community? Is our understanding of community an ongoing emergent process (as implied by something like Spiral Dynamics) or is it an existing truth that can be nailed down and sorted out already with the right analytical tools?

I think probably both - we can make better sense of what different people with different perspectives mean when they say 'community' AND leave the door open for an entirely new and inspiring vision of human community to emerge.
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