What is community?

Most people seem to agree that community is a good thing—something to ‘build,’ ‘strengthen,’ or ‘support.’  But, what is it exactly?  Is it just a group of people?  Do they have to have some common interest?  Do they have to live near each other?  When is a group of people not a community?  Is community the same as society?

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (1855 -1936) made a significant contribution to our understanding of community when he distinguished Gemeinschaft (“The relationship itself, and the social bond that stems from it…is the essence of Community”) from Gesellschaft (“a purely mechanical construction, existing in the mind, and that is what we think of as Society”).  According to Tonnies,

We have a community of language, custom, belief; but a society for purposes of business, travel, or scientific knowledge….Community means genuine, enduring life together, whereas Society is a transient and superficial thing. Thus Gemeinschaft must be understood as a living organism in its own right, while Gesellschaft is a mechanical aggregate and artefact

While this view of differentiating “community” from “society” may be useful for academic purposes, in common usage, it may be harder to see a difference.  For example, the first entry for “community” in The Concise Oxford English Dictionary is:

n. 1 a group of people living together in one place, especially one practicing common ownership. <a place considered together with its inhabitants: a rural community > (the community) the people of an area or country considered collectively; society.

So, even a dictionary definition muddles the difference between the two words.  Unfortunately, we’re not much better off asking contemporary experts and academics for a definitive answer—one study of almost a hundred academic papers on the topic of community found that none of them used the same definition!

While sociologists are still a long way from agreeing on a universal definition of community, most working definitions seem to somehow include the idea of a group of people who share some common interest.  One aspect of community that has not been settled among academics is whether a community must involve a physical location (though the surge in use of social media may soon put that issue to rest).

So, if we accept the part of the definition that sociologists mostly agree upon, we’re left with the fairly common-sense working definition of ‘a group of people who share some common interest,’ and this will probably suffice for most of our day-to-day uses.  After all, it’s this aspect of ‘common interest’ that makes the idea of community so alluring.  What could be better that advancing the common interest of a group?  Where is the downside to that?  Well, there are a few hazards we should keep in mind.

First, we should remember that just because we label a group as a community, that doesn’t at all mean that all the people in that group think of themselves as a community.  Further, even if they did, each member of the “community” might have a different idea of what the community is, or what it represents.  Just because we talk about “the homeless community,” that in no way commits all of the people in this group to share some sort of mutually beneficial objective (they may just be in a similar situation).

Second, the assumption that a group of people has some mutual interest may lead to efforts to “strengthen” that community by focusing on this interest.  While this can be beneficial in building solidarity, it may be harmful if it tends to suppress legitimate differences of opinion and individualism or if it leads to unfair exclusion of outsiders.  In fact, it may be naïve to imagine that a community might be, or even should be, entirely harmonious and free of conflict and division.

Finally, communities can be stifling.  Some people would rather be left alone, at least sometimes.  It may be better for neighbourhood (or other place-based) communities to remain somewhat impersonal, as members are less able to fully escape future interactions with other members who cause them stress.  In fact, efforts to strengthen communities by forcing people to interact with each other more may have an opposite effect.

Cities are made up of many communities.  Some are communities of place (like neighbourhoods) and some are communities of interest.  For most of us, strong communities are an important part of our happiness and quality of life.  As we strengthen our own communities, it is useful to keep in mind, not just what communities are, but what we can realistically expect them to be.


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.