Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Community
From Encyclopedia of Urban Studies

The concept of community has appeared regularly throughout urban studies and is generally employed in reference to all aspects of the social life of cities, including population size, demographic distribution, and neighborhood composition. Traditionally used by anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and urban planners to signify a set of social relationships operating within a specific boundary, location, or territory, community is arguably one of the most contested concepts used in the study of the city and society. Many of these usages are either actual or ideal in description, and it is often difficult to separate analytical from normative usages of the term.

Although conventionally evoked to describe the characteristics of a specific locality or area, the idea of community has also been used in far more ideological terms as a means by which to substantiate a particular identity (e.g., lesbian community) or to further a specific political project (e.g., community-based grassroots activism). Recent definitions of community have tended to depict it more in social and political terms rather than as a distinctly spatial structure.

Defining Community

Notwithstanding the fact that community has been notoriously difficult to define in any concise and uncontested manner, four broad approaches can be identified. The first approach conceives of community as a set of social relations occurring within a distinctly spatialized and geographical setting. Within the disciplinary fields of anthropology, sociology, geography, rural studies, and community studies more generally, there exists a rich body of work that has focused upon the form and function of specific communities in this sense of the term.

A second approach conceptualizes community as the outcome of a particular mode of social interaction among individuals or social groups. Premised upon varying degrees of consensus and conflict, this more sociological approach essentially views community to be the product of ongoing negotiation between social actors.

Community has been used in a third sense to describe a particular type of social relationship between the individual and society. This perspective is perhaps closest to a commonsense interpretation of community, as it evokes the notion of community as a search for belonging and desire for group membership.

The fourth approach looks at how the founda-tional nature of community has been decisively altered by innovations in the use of communications and computer technology. According to this view, developments in communicative and virtual technology have fundamentally undermined more traditional conceptualizations of community and radically altered the means by which individuals and social groups generate bonds of attachment. Rather than defining community in terms of geographical or spatial proximity, communities in this sense are virtual and cyber-based.

Classical Formulations of Community

Variously conceptualized throughout classical social theory as threatened with dissolution by the advent of modernity, the concept of community has proven to be a resilient and recurrent trope in both theoretical and practical analysis. Writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European classical sociologists such as Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim expressed concern regarding the breakdown of traditional social bonds and sources of moral cohesion. The dynamic effects of industrialism, demographic growth, immigration, and rapid urbanization were seen as combining to produce a fundamental rupture between the traditional social formations of folk society and those of modern urban society. In this view, the obligatory ties of duty and responsibility toward the community that were characteristic of premodern society were being replaced by social formations based on mutual differentiation and contractually based social relations.

Tönnies suggested that forms of communal association based upon family, kinship group, and spatial proximity (Gemeinschaft) were yielding to forms of societal association premised upon impersonal and contractual relationships (Gesellschaft). This view essentially suggested the realization of community to be incompatible within the institutional complexity of modern society. According to Tönnies, the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft entailed a fundamental sociopsychological shift in human consciousness. Whereas traditional forms of human association had produced organic communities of social and moral cohesion, the sheer complexity of modern society has led to the irreparable fragmentation of communal and social bonds. The transition from relatively close-knit and proximal spatial configurations to the large-scale dispersal of population aggregates within urban settings was seen by Tönnies to fundamentally challenge the very existence of community as traditionally conceived.

Although sharing a concern with Tönnies regarding the disintegrative effects of social change, Durkheim argued that the type of group solidarity produced in complex urbanized societies could also form the basis for the emergence of new forms of communal life. A key question in this regard was how a sense of collective morality could be maintained amid the increasing differentiation and complexity of modern society. The answer proposed by Durkheim initially seems contradictory. On the one hand, an increase in occupational specialization and the development of complex social arrangements has meant that traditional ways of life have declined, thereby creating pervasive feelings of social and moral disintegration. Durkheim referred to this condition of social discord as “ano-mie.” Conditions of anomie arise when sudden and disruptive changes occur in social structure. Rather than lament this state of affairs, however, Durkheim suggested that new forms of solidarity and community could grow from the institutional bases of modern society. Although Durkheim remains vague as to what precise shape these communal forms may take, his emphasis upon the nature of collective morality, social cohesion, and the differentiation of modern life was to exercise a significant influence upon subsequent theories of community.

Such conceptualizations of community often held it to be synonymous with an attachment to locality. In this view, urbanization was gradually transforming the Gemeinschaft of intimate communal relations into the Gesellschaft of instrumen-tally conceived and bureaucratized mass society. If society is conceived as the locus of the lifeworld, situated between the twin institutional pillars of state and economy, community represented a bounded spatiality in which cohesive social mores could be embedded. This suggests community to be, in essence, a value term. Despite the many ways in which community has been defined, attention should be directed to the fact that many such descriptions posit a certain type of community as the normative ideal. In this sense, debates on community have been bedeviled by conceptual and methodological disagreement as to where the boundaries of community could or should be drawn. Although differing in terms of theoretical analysis, the classical theorists held the decline of community to be of the most profound consequence with regard to the effects on collective morality and social life.

More recent discussions in social theory have reformulated these dynamics in terms of the interconnections between the local and the global. Given the extent to which the forces of globalization have intruded upon the lifeworld of the local context, the study of community as a bounded entity has undoubtedly lost much of the legitimacy it once held. A prominent example of this has been the decline of community studies as a clearly recognizable field of study. Traditionally a strength of Anglo-American anthropology and sociology, the transformation of industrial and workforce relations has revealed how the study of any particular community must now by necessity take account of an encompassing context of globalization. Indeed, even to assume the existence of community is to risk the accusation of adhering to a reactionary and conservative interpretation of contemporary social and political relations.

Although classical social theory presented the decline of community as a critique of Western industrialism and urbanization, such appraisals have been of less salient concern in the global South. Indeed, if the transformative dynamism of industrialism in Western society was implicitly juxtaposed with the perceived stasis of the non-Western world, such considerations are indicative of an ethnocentric bias informing classical theories of community. Critiques of industrialism and urbanization outside of the Western tradition, thus, often eschew discussion on the decline of community in favor of critical engagement with the effects of global and economic growth. Ranging from South Africa to Manila to Sydney, community-based grassroots activism and resistance to globalization and capitalist expansion have been of more urgent concern. Typically focusing on determinants of employment, health, poverty, and demographic change, theorizations of community outside of the Anglo-American tradition have been far more applied in nature.

Community and the City

A concern with the effects of urbanization and demographic change in the city has been central to urban studies throughout the twentieth century. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology proposed a vision of urban study in which the city was revealed as a composite “mosaic of little worlds.” While inheriting from the European theorists a concern with the disintegrative effects of modern society, Chicago School research also emphasized the means by which community found expression in large urbanized settings. Ethnographic explorations of everything from particular social groups, neighborhood locales, and occupational niches (e.g., gangs, street corners, taxi-cab drivers, and many others) revealed distinct sociocultural enclaves of communal sentiment worthy of further investigation.

Central to the Chicago School analysis of urban growth and development was the employment of a human ecology perspective in which the city was seen to develop and expand organically due to ongoing waves of immigrant invasion and succession. Although much criticized by subsequent scholars for making vast generalizations regarding processes of urban development deemed specific to northeastern U.S. cities, the ecological framework nonetheless remained a dominant paradigm in U.S. urban studies of urban planning and development until the 1960s. A key insight of Chicago School scholarship was the recognition that dynamics occurring at the local and community level had significant impact upon the overall structure of the city.

Arising out of the Chicago School approach, the study of subcultures in the city challenged the prevailing determinism in urban sociology by advocating that the heterogeneity of city life, and associated dynamics of urban growth, led to the development of recognizable subcultural enclaves characterized by the presence of distinct class and ethnic communities. Emphasizing the means by which community was realized in complex urban settings, this perspective fundamentally challenged the theory of social anomie as proposed by the European social theorists. Furthermore, the emergence of such thriving ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods seemed to directly contradict the guiding thesis of Chicago School sociologists that such groups would eventually assimilate and blend with their host society.

Notwithstanding the legacy and influence of the Chicago School, urban scholars have continued to contest the form and function of community in city life. Signaling a shift from anthropologically inclined studies of urban life to political economy perspectives, many critically and Marxist oriented scholars have argued that the rise of global capitalism has proven detrimental to the realization of community in contemporary urban settings. Arguing that the hegemony of global capitalism has led to the displacement of community in city life, such perspectives suggest community to be antithetical to the logic of a capitalist and neolib-eral world order.

Many such discussions have been conducted within the context of debates on gentrification and urban regeneration. Indeed, visions of urban planning and renewal often evoke the semantics of community as being of central importance to the revival and rejuvenation of dilapidated urban areas. In this regard, renewal initiatives are seen as breeding new life into stagnant and dilapidated urban areas that would otherwise fall into a state of even greater disrepair. Often described as involving the relocation of middle-class professionals from suburban neighborhoods back into central urban areas, practices of gentrification are thereby seen as displacing working-class populations, ethnic minority residents, bohemian lifestyles, and economically stagnant business enterprises from their long-standing communities. In addition, the declining analytical salience of the Chicago School approach has been further undermined by its lack of applicability to the developmental logic of cities in the global South.

The growing strength of critical perspectives on community and urban life has been paralleled by an emphasis upon the intensification of ethnoracial practices of marginalization. For example, sociologist Loïc Wacquant has argued that an institutionalized system of urban exclusion has led to the American ghetto becoming an “impossible community” within the contemporary civic order. Accordingly, racialized segregation, systemic discrimination, declining social capital networks, the withdrawal of social services, and pervasive stigmatization have all combined to prevent the emergence of community in poverty stricken areas of the city. The rise of gated communities and fortified urban enclaves (ranging from São Paulo to Los Angeles) has only served to exacerbate this discrepancy in social-economic and psychological division through the production of mere simulacra of community. Indeed, the idea of community as a gated or defensive enclosure intuitively contradicts the positive connotations that often accompany the inclusion of the notion of community in planning and policy discourse.

International migration has also fundamentally altered the constitution of community in the contemporary global city. Characterized by the maintenance of transnational personal and economic networks, contemporary immigrant communities avail of the communicative and technological innovations of globalization to forge links between homeland and host country. In a study of West African street vendors in New York, Paul Stoller and Jasmin McConatha demonstrate how religious and ethnic affiliation form the basis of the maintenance of the transnational spaces that increasingly typify community diasporas in the contemporary city. Furthermore, revitalized “ethnic enclaves” (e.g., Chinese and Korean communities) have adapted to the morphology of cultural and economic globalization to become dynamic transnational communities and catalysts of urban growth.

The Revival of Community

Three broad trends can be discerned when considering the utility of the concept of community in contemporary urban studies. A first trend is contained in communitarian debates regarding civic engagement. If identification with a particular community is dependent upon the cultivation of a sense of belonging, the revival of civic associations and local community networks are deemed essential. Such imperatives as the maintenance of social capital networks, public participation in decision making, the ongoing provision of goods and services, and the facilitation of economic activity and growth all resonate with the emphasis placed upon community in communitarian thought.

Combining an emphasis on the importance of community with a stress on citizenship, the communitarian position is most clearly understood when conceived of as a position that challenges the liberal emphasis placed upon individual autonomy and achievement of personal fulfillment. The perceived decline of a culture of volunteerism, coupled with an increasingly atomized urban order, has led many communitarian scholars to lament the passing of a strong sense of civic engagement. Influential political scientist Robert Putnam has suggested that the decline in the strength of social capital networks can be reversed by investment in community building civic initiatives and increased levels of democratic participation. Such community building imperatives, however, often posit an idealized rather than actualized model of civic cooperation and thereby fail to empower marginalized social groups. As a result, the communitarian position has been subject to considerable criticism with regard to what is perceived as a limited, nostalgic, and somewhat retrogressive interpretation of what constitutes community. It is in this sense that critics of the concept have cited its frequently ideological usage and tendency to depict the changing nature of community in modern urban life in strictly pathological terms. Notwithstanding these criticisms, communitarian thought continues to exercise significant influence upon government policy and community development initiatives.

A second trend suggests that the nature of community has become a far more voluntaristic means of social engagement as individuals come together on the basis of similarity of ideas, taste, lifestyle, and niche interest. In this view, community is heavily circumscribed by the nature of the particular identity or interest pursuit, and characterized by relatively fluid and transient criteria of membership. Accordingly, community members come and go as levels of commitment wane and differ. The political implications of this can be seen in social movements that evoke the semantics of community as a rallying call. Although such social movements can be either liberatory or conservative in their stated aim, the sheer abstractness and complexity of contemporary society often compels individuals and groups to seek solidarity and membership in such voluntaristic collectivities. When considering that these new forms of communities are certainly not as cohesive or obligatory as those formed by kin and clan, the question remains of whether employing the term community is even applicable in these instances.

Thirdly, the dis-embedding of community from local sites of social interaction, due to developments in media and communicative technology, has decisively altered the means by which community is constituted. In this view, community has become less dependent upon face-to-face forms of social interaction and more upon virtual networks of connectivity. Accordingly, the emergence of new communicative technologies, such as the proliferation of personal and professional social networking sites on the Internet, offer immense potential with regard to the fostering of social bonds across lines of both distance and difference. Although debates continue as to the actual rather than potential degree of democratization such innovations facilitate, the growing predominance of virtual networking supports the thesis that spatial and residential proximity are no longer defining prerequisites for the constitution of community.

Undoubtedly, innovations in virtual technology have greatly facilitated the expression of new forms of community and group membership. Although care is needed to avoid the conflation of the idea of connectivity with that of community, the type of attachments formed in virtual networks can, if they are not communities in themselves, certainly provide the basis for them. In this regard, the claim that virtual communities exist in parallel expression with grounded communities is a highly plausible one. While such a claim collapses the distinction between real and imagined communities, a key point of contention involves a questioning of the degree of obligation and commitment such communities seemingly require. If face-to-face interaction and residential location are no longer the primary determinants of community belonging, the episodic nature of virtual communities is indicative of their highly personalized and compartmentalized nature.

Rather than being rendered obsolete by the transformative impact of the effects of globalization, the importance of community in urban studies today arguably lies in the achievement of newly emergent forms of belonging. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that much contemporary scholarship has demonstrated a veritable “lust” for community in this regard. As the global economy becomes increasingly dependent upon the transnational flow of people, capital, goods, and services, the changing face of international mobilities and virtual technologies continues to fundamentally reconfigure the form and function of community in everyday life.

See also

Chicago School of Urban Sociology, Community Development, Community Studies, Gated Community, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Human Ecology

Further Readings
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. (2001). Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Caldeira, Teresa P. R. “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation.” Public Culture 8 ((2)) : 303-28., 1996.
  • Calhoun, Craig. “Community without Propinquity Revisited: Communications Technology and the Transformation of the Urban Public Sphere.” Sociological Inquiry 68 ((3)) : 373-97., 1998.
  • Desai, Ashwin. (2002). We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-apartheid South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Durkheim, Émile. (1984). The Division of Labour in Society. London: Macmillan.
  • Hampton, Keith; Wellman, Barry “Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb.” City and Community 2 ((3)) : 277-311., 2003.
  • Park, Robert. (1952). Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
  • Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Shatkin, Gavin. (2007). Collective Action and Urban Poverty Alleviation: Community Organizations and the Struggle for Shelter in Manila. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
  • Stoller, Paul; McConatha, Jasmin T. “City Life: West African Communities in New York.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 30 ((6)) : 651-77., 2001.
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. (1963). Community and Society. New York: Harper.
  • Vromen, Ariadne. “Community-based Activism and Change: The Cases of Sydney and Toronto.” City and Community 2 ((1)) : 47-69., 2003.
  • Wacquant, Loïc. “Urban Outcasts: Stigma and Division in the Black American Ghetto and the French Urban Periphery.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 17 ((3)) : 366-83., 1993.
  • Bourke, Alan Gerard
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article COMMUNITY
    Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity & Culture

    (It. comunità ; Fr. communauté ; Ger. Gemeinschaft ) From the Latin communitas , a unified body of individuals, the term ‘community’ is one...

    Full text Article Community
    The Social Science Jargon-Buster

    Core definition A group of people who share a sense of belonging based on commonalities such as residential area, culture , race,...

    Full text Article Community
    International Encyclopedia of Human Geography

    This essay outlines some traditional notions of community as a form of social and spatial organization. It then traces a hunderd years of...

    See more from Credo