How strong is your sense of community (and how do you know)?

How strong is your sense of community?  You might say, “Oh, pretty strong, I guess,” or, “Not very.”  But, could you be more specific?  It would be hard, wouldn’t it?

It would be even harder to tell if people in one town or one neighbourhood have a stronger sense of community than those in another.  Before we can even think about why people in one community are more attached to it than those in another, we need some way to measure this attachment, this sense of community.  So, is there a way to measure it?

Measuring sense of community is something that community psychologists have struggled with for several decades.  In 1974, Seymour Sarason (1919-2010) first proposed the concept of sense of community in his book, The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology.  While Sarason’s work has been highly regarded and widely cited, sociologists and community psychologists have struggled ever since to define and measure what it is.

After Sarason’s seminal book, another major development was a paper by McMillan & Chavis (Sense of community: A definition and theory, 1986) that provided a theoretical framework for understanding what sense of community is.  They listed four critical components:

  • membership (a feeling of belonging),
  • influence (a sense of agency within a group),
  • fulfillment (a sense that the group can help meet one’s needs), and
  • connection (a sense that one shares history and experiences with the group).

From this framework, they proposed a Sense of Community Index (SCI), which eventually consisted of the following twelve questions:

  • I think my [block] is a good place for me to live.
  • People on this [block] do not share the same values.
  • My [neighbors] and I want the same things from the [block].
  • I can recognize most of the people who live on my [block].
  • I feel at home on this [block].
  • Very few of my [neighbors] know me.
  • I care about what my [neighbors] think of my actions.
  • I have no influence over what this [block] is like.
  • If there is a problem on this [block] people who live here can get it solved.
  • It is very important to me to live on this particular [block].
  • People on this [block] generally don’t get along with each other.
  • I expect to live on this [block] for a long time.

This set of questions soon gained popularity among community psychologists as a measurement tool.  Many believed that by providing answers to these questions (say, on a scale from 1 to 5), they could create a score that would represent a person’s level of sense of community.  However, although McMillan & Chavis’ Sense of Community Index has been the most popular tool to measure sense of community, it has also had its share of criticism.  Many community psychologists have discussed its flaws and called for, or proposed, alternates.  Few recent studies have relied upon the SCI.

In looking for the best set of questions to use for its current Sense of Neighbourhood Community Study, the Great Neighbourhood Research Lab (GNRL) reviewed the SCI, along with several other tests for sense of community.  In total, these tests included over 100 questions that researchers had used.  We noticed that these questions fell into several categories of characteristics.  These characteristics included:

  • Similarity
  • Identity
  • Connection/belonging
  • Access (casual)
  • Access (emotional)
  • Access (functional)
  • Access (emergency)
  • Agency
  • Comfort

Since several researchers have called for a refined set of questions to test sense of community, the Great Neighbourhood Research Lab created the following set of questions that capture the characteristics found in previous tests, but focused on neighbourhood sense of community.  Therefore, in addition to the original SCI questions, the GNRL survey includes the following twelve questions:

  • My neighbors are a lot like me.
  • It’s easy for me to fit in with my neighbors.
  • I’m glad that I live in my neighborhood.
  • I feel a sense of connection with many of my neighbors.
  • I belong in my neighborhood.
  • I have neighbors I can chat with when I want to.
  • I have friends in my neighborhood.
  • If I need to borrow something, I don’t mind asking my neighbors for it.
  • If I have an emergency, my neighbors will help me.
  • If my neighbors and I want to improve our neighborhood, we can.
  • I feel comfortable being around my neighbors.
  • I feel comfortable walking around my neighborhood.

So, how strong is your sense of community?  It’s hard to say, isn’t it?  Community psychologists are still trying to figure out how to measure it.  Meanwhile, why not take the Great Neighbourhood Research Lab’s Sense of Neighbourhood Community Survey?  Maybe it will give you a better idea.

How would you measure sense of community?  Let us know in the comments!  Maybe together we can figure it out.

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Want to learn more?  See “Maintaining a sense of community in high-density neighborhoods” and “How does residential density relate to residents’ sense of community?” by Eric Douglas.

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