Community (Anthropology)

The concept of community has been one of the widest and most frequently used in social science; its examination has been a focus of attention for at least the past 200 years. At the same time a precise definition of the term has proved elusive. Among the more renowned attempts remains that of Robert Redfield (1960 [1949]: 4), who identified four key qualities in community: a smallness of social scale; a homogeneity of activities and states of mind of members; a consciousness of distinctiveness; and a self-sufficiency across a broad range of needs and through time. Nevertheless, in 1955, Hillery could compile ninety-four social-scientific attempts at definition whose only substantive overlap was that ‘all dealt with people’ (1955: 117)! Often, to overcome this problem, community is further specified by a qualifying or amplifying phrase: the ‘local community’, the ‘West Indian community’, the ‘community of nations’ or ‘souls’. But this would seem only to beg the question.

Traditional anthropological approaches

In anthropology, one might usefully isolate three broad variants of traditional approach. ‘Community’ is to be characterized in terms of: (1) common interests between people; or (2) a common ecology and locality; or (3) a common social system or structure. Taking these (briefly) in turn, Frankenberg (1966) suggests that it is common interests in achievable things (economic, religious, or whatever) that give members of a community a common interest in one another. Living face-to-face, in a small group of people, with common interests in mind, eventuates in community members sharing many-stranded or multiplex relations with one another; also sharing a sentiment towards the locality and the group itself. Hence, communities come to be marked by a fair degree of social coherence.

For Minar and Greer (1969), physical concentration (living and working) in one geographical territory is the key. For this locale will throw up common problems and give rise to common perspectives, which lead to the development of organizations for joint action and activities, which in turn produce common attachments, feelings of interdependence, common commitment, loyalty and identity within a social group. Hence, communities come to exhibit homogeneity: members behaving similarly and working together, towards common aims, in one environment, whatever their familial or generational differences.

For Warner (1941), meanwhile, a community is essentially a socially functioning whole: a body of people bound to a common social structure which functions as a specific organism, and which is distinguishable from other such organisms. Consciousness of this distinction (the fact that they live with the same norms and within the same social organization) then gives community members a sense of belonging. So long as the parts of the functioning whole (families, age sets, status groups, or whatever) work properly together, the structure of the community can be expected to continue over time.

Whether it be in terms of interests, ecology or social structure, then, anthropologists have conventionally emphasized an essential commonality as the logic underlying a community’s origination and continuation. Communities have been regarded as empirical things-in-themselves (social organisms), as functioning wholes, and as things apart from other like things. This was in turn the logical basis of ‘the community study’: the tradition in anthropology of basing research on what could in some sense be treated as a bounded group of people, culturally homogeneous and resident in one locality, because this ‘community’ would provide a laboratory for the close observation of the interrelations, the continuing interfunctioning, between interests, subgroups and institutions; and also serve as a microcosm of a bigger social picture which might prevail as societies grew in size and complexity. Anthropologists conventionally studied communities (villages, tribes, islands) because these were regarded as the key structural units of social life: what the elementary structures of kinship gave onto; what the complex structures of society were composed of.

Symbolic approaches

However, as varieties of functionalism and structuralism have come to share space in the anthropological armoury with approaches which emphasize the extent to which cultural reality is negotiated and contested, its definition a matter of context and interpretation, as anthropologists have come to regard social life as turning on the use of symbolic not structural logics — so notions of ‘community’ have changed. The idea of something reifiable, essential and singular has been replaced by a focus on how ‘community’ is elicited as a feature of social life, on how membership of community is marked and attributed, on how notions of community are given cultural meaning, and how such meaning relates to others. In place of the reified notion of community as a thing-in-itself, then, comes the realization that, as Gregory Bateson put it succinctly: things are epiphenomena of the relations between them; or as Barth elaborated, social groups achieve an identity by defining themselves as different from other such groups and by erecting boundaries between them (1969). In terms of their field research, anthropologists now admit a distinction between the locus of their study and their object of study: as Clifford Geertz once put it, they may study in villages (on islands, in cities, in factories) but that does not mean studying villages per se.

Anthony Cohen has applied these ideas perhaps most fruitfully to the concept of community (1985). Community, he argues, must be seen as a symbolic construct and a contrastive one; it derives from the situational perception of a boundary which marks off one social group from another: awareness of community depends on consciousness of boundary. Hence, communities and their boundaries exist essentially not as social-structural systems and institutions but as worlds of meaning in the minds of their members. Relations between members represent not a set of mechanical linkages between working parts so much as ‘repositories of meaning’, and it is these which come to be expressed as a community’s distinctive social discourse (1985: 98). In short, membership consists not so much of particular behavioural doings as of thinking about and deliberating upon behaviour in common; here is attachment to a common body of symbols, a shared vocabulary of value. Moreover, it is the ambiguities of symbolic discourse which then allow members to unite behind this vocabulary when facing what they perceive to lie beyond their boundaries but also, when facing inward, to elaborate upon differences in its interpretation and hence affirm a variety of cherished individualities. Community is an aggregating device which both sustains diversity and expresses commonality. Thus it is that community comes to represent the social milieu to which people say they most belong; community, its members often believe, is the best arena for the nourishing of their whole selves.

Furthermore, to say that any understanding of ‘community’ must be relativistic, that the concept is a matter of contingent symbolic definition, is also to talk about ‘community’ in relation to other types or levels of sociation. Here, Cohen continues, community can be understood to represent that social milieu — broader than notions of family and kinship, more inclusive, but narrower, more immediate, than notions of society and state — where the taken-for-granted relations of kinship are to be put aside and yet where the non-relations of stranger-ness or the anti-relations of alien-ness need not be assumed; community encompasses something in between the closest and the furthest reaches of sociation in a particular context. Hence, the notion of community encapsulates both closeness and sameness, and distance and difference; and it is here that gradations of sociality, more and less close social associations, have their abiding effects. For members of a community are related by their perception of commonalities (but not tied by them or ineluctably defined by them as are kin), and equally, differentiated from other communities and their members by these relations and the sociation they amount to. In short, ‘community’ describes the arena in which one learns and largely continues to practise being social. It serves as a symbolic resource, repository and referent for a variety of identities, and its ‘triumph’ (Cohen 1985: 20) is to continue to encompass these by a common symbolic boundary.

Evolutionary approaches

Nevertheless, for many social scientists, the problem of defining community is to be explained not by its relativistic qualities but its anachronistic ones. Community is said to characterize a stage in social evolution which has now been superseded, and the problems of definition arise from the fact that what is seen as ‘community’ now is a residue and a throwback to a mode of relating and interacting which was once the norm but has now all but been eclipsed by more modern notions of contractual relations in complex society (cf. Stein 1964). Such ideas are by no means new. They can be seen to imbue the evolutionary schemas of such nineteenth-century visionaries as Maine, Durkheim and Marx. In particular they are associated with the work of German sociologist Ferdinand Ton-nies who, in 1887, posited the transcendence of ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) by ‘society’ (Gesell-schaft). What he hypothesized (1957 [1887]) was that the traditional, static, ‘naturally’ developed forms of social organization (such as kinship, friendship, neighbourhood and ‘folk’) would everywhere be superseded (in zero-sum fashion) by associations expressly invented for the rational achievement of mutual goals (economic corporations, political parties, trades unions). This was not an unmixed blessing, for while community relations may be moral, sentimental, localized, particular, intimate, ascribed, enduring, conventional, consistent, and based on intrinsic attachments (to blood, soil, heritage and language), societal relations were artificial, contractual, interested, partial, ego-focused, specialized, superficial, inconsistent, fluid, short-term and impersonal. And yet community was inevitably (and absolutely) losing out to the advancing society of capitalism.

‘Community’ in current usage

Whatever the evolutionary prognosis, needless to say (whatever ‘advances’ capitalism may have made over the past century) ‘communities’ have continued to flourish; as an idea, community has continued to possess both practical and ideological significance for people. Indeed, recent decades have seen an upsurge in ‘community consciousness’, ‘community development and rebuilding’ and ‘community values and works’. Whether that community is defined in terms of locality, ethnicity, religion, occupation, recreation, special interest, even humanity, people maintain the idea that it is this milieu which is most essentially ‘theirs’, and that they are prepared to assert their ownership and membership, vocally and aggressively, in the face of opposing ideas and groups (cf. Anderson 1983). Thus, anthropologists have continued to be interested in this idea in use; and Robert Redfield’s counsel remains pertinent:

As soon as our attention turns from a community as a body of houses and tools and institutions to the states of mind of particular people, we are turning to the exploration of something immensely complex and difficult to know. But it is humanity, in its inner and more private form; it is, in the most demanding sense, the stuff of community.

Anthropologists, in short, continue studying ‘community’ (cf. Pitt-Rivers 1954; Meillassoux 1981; Cohen 1987) because this is what their subjects inform them that they live in and cherish. Most notably, Vered Amit and Nigel Rapport (2002) have reoriented anthropological consideration of community both theoretically and empirically, particularly with reference to efforts to decouple understanding of sociality from place (e.g. Appadurai 1996). Acknowledging the political dimensions of community, they argue for continuing anthropological attention to how subjects create and sustain actual, emplaced social relationships. Their intervention has inspired anthropologists producing recent fine-grained studies of community (e.g. Gray 2002, Degnen 2005, Curtis 2008).

In sum, perhaps it is sufficient to say that, however diverse its definition, community ubiquitously represents an ‘hurray’ term (Cranston 1953: 16). Whether ‘community’ represents a togetherness of the past (Tonnies), contemporary behavioural commonality (Frankenberg, Minar and Greer, Warner), political solidarity (ethnic, local, religious), or a utopian future (a rural idyll, a world order), here, notwithstanding, is a concept of always positive evaluation and evocation, whose usage expresses and elicits a social group and a social environment to which people would expect, advocate or wish to belong.

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