Expression Of Community Research Paper

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Social identities are made up of people’s overlapping, mutually reinforcing, competing, and conflicting memberships in a variety of communities. When people claim community membership they are simultaneously expressing their personal and social identities. The meanings of community membership, to both members and outsiders, take on a very intense personal weight as statements about who people are and how they should be treated. Communities are seen as the repositories of values, and the claim to com-munity itself takes on a moral force in much con-temporary discourse. In the process of expressing their identities and positions through community membership, and of expressing their judgements of others through their inclusion in or separation from com-munity, people deploy markers of community such as locality, kinship, place of origin, nation, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, language, values, or resources as ways to express their position in a moral and social universe. Not all social categories or groups are communities, but when people use what they have in common with others to say who they are, they are expressing community.

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Utopian communities have always been explicit and self-conscious expressions of a vision of human nature and potential. Descriptions from Plato to Rousseau and Huxley and practical attempts from the Diggers to the Spanish Anarchists and contemporary communes, have all been occasions for expressing a vision of what people are and should be, and for individuals to express their own potential and aspirations (Kanter 1972). The new communitarians within academia continue this tradition with their call for community formation as a counter to the fragmentation of postmodern life (Etzioni 1993).

1. Moral Expression And The Imagined Community

At least since the Enlightenment, there has been a concern among social philosophers with demographic, cultural, and economic change and the consequent demise of community. Durkheim, Marx, Tonnies, and Weber disagreed about the nature of the transition from community to mass society (Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft), and they disagreed about the inevitability and desirability of rending traditional bonds and patterns to replace them with rational calculation and contract. But these classic social theorists all agreed that a profound transformation of social relationships was taking place before their eyes, replacing the ascribed statuses of communities regulated by custom with the statuses achieved by individuals.

In his preface to the second edition of The Division of Labor, Durkheim argued that as increasing division of labor expands the scale of society and diminishes the centrality of territorial social organization, new social groups must take the place of territorial units. ‘A society composed of an infinite number of un-organized individuals … constitutes a veritable sociological monstrosity’—not only undesirable but impossible. There must be ‘a whole series of secondary groups’ that can ‘drag’ individuals into ‘the general torrent of social life’ (1964, p. 28) and that have ‘a moral power capable of containing individual egos’ (1964, p. 10). What must be added to Durkheim’s formulation is the way that the moral power of communities is not only constraining of individuals but also expresses their identities, fears, and ambitions.

Anderson’s (1983) influential concept of the ‘imagined community,’ with its paradigmatic representation in the newspaper reader who reads alone but is assured of a community of fellow readers, illuminates the ways that community membership expresses identity, to both oneself and to others. Imagined communities share features of reference groups in distinction to interaction groups or face-to- face communities. As Anderson’s example of the newspaper reader suggests, developments in technology have undermined whatever geographical basis communities have ever had. Telephone, radio, television, and the Internet have made a commonplace of expressive communities without face-to-face inter- action or geographic closeness and have made possible a huge variety of meaningful identities expressed through community with others. However, the impact of technology on community has not been determinative, but rather has been mediated by culture and by individuals.

Though technology has been important in the proliferation of these communities, it is important to remember that dispersed religious and political communities are ancient social forms. The medieval Christian church, the Jewish diaspora, and the com- munity of scholars are familiar examples. Islam has, for over a millennium, been a community that both provides and expresses identity to millions. Mecca has been an orienting location for all practicing Muslims, and for many it has been a place of pilgrimage, but Mecca has been overwhelmingly a symbolic and expressive location. Mecca is the center of the Islamic world not because the Islamic community lives there in face-to-face interaction but because it is the symbolic focus of a community of faith.

When the poet Rupert Brooke wrote: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England’ or when the Psalmist sings of Jerusalem and members of three faiths claim Jerusalem as a sacred city, or when millions of Muslims face Mecca to pray, they are all addressing places that are physical localities, but also deeply elaborated symbols of national or religious communities.

2. Community And Individualism

One proposed alternative to physical locality as the basis for community is the ego-centered network. Wellman (1999), for example, argues that the re-searcher should begin with an individual and work outward, documenting the network of ‘personal com-munities’ and mapping the interconnections. Personal communities are ‘loosely bounded, sparsely knit net-works of specialized ties’ (Wellman 1999, p. xiii). Where individuals act as agents constructing these networks, which vary from person to person, quantitative net-work analysis has become an effective, specialized way of studying them (Fischer 1982).

These personal communities, by definition, have neither the existence independent of a particular individual nor the moral force of the communities envisioned by Durkheim. Ego-centered networks are indisputably central elements of society, but they differ from expressive communities in important ways. In particular, looking at society as made up of networks or communities implies a different emphasis on the relationship between individuals and society (Gans 1988). While network analysis proceeds from individuals whose identity is not problematic, depictions of community stress the ways in which individual identities are constituted by membership and exclusion. It is the morally coercive or normative community expressing a vision of the common good that transcends individual interest that is mourned by those who feel that modern society, particularly in the United States, has lost a sense of community (Bellah et al. 1991).

Throughout history, people have expressed them-selves through community. In the nineteenth century United States, a time of great economic and political change, working men and women practiced com-munity with little regard to the ideological implications of their behavior. In their everyday lives, they transcended the tension between the group and the individual by acting in consort—to make bedding for each other at quilting parties, to care for a sick person in their midst while acutely aware they might later demand services in kind, and to create actively a community of accountability and mutuality (Hansen 1994). The gendered division of labor in these com-munities meant that women exercised a great deal of influence in an arena where power was not denied them, as it was in the public realm. Their actions became self-conscious only when they intentionally mobilized people to become political, as in the abolitionist and temperance movements, or religious, as when they felt God called them to a higher cause and they sought to convert others to Christianity. Through their everyday practices they constructed community and molded the expressive dimensions of their culture. The social sphere created through daily practices was both a source of secure identity and an expression of values capable of exerting discipline and excluding ‘outsiders’ or ‘deviants.’

Seeing community as simultaneously expressive of identities and as something to be expressed reorients discussion away from an easy opposition between individualism and community. Symbolic communities connect people together through a common cause or identity, as in the African-American community (Bruggemann 1995), the community of people with disabilities, or the people listed in the Social Register. Symbolic communities, so far from requiring face-to- face interaction, frequently include the dead, as in lineage groups, ancestral lines, the community of martyrs, or communities of scholars who share intellectual ‘ancestors.’ Shared values or beliefs, expressed or manifested through ethnicity or nationality, or the symbolism of a shared history or a common cause, have also proven effective bases for community expression and as rhetorical levers in political actions. The symbolism invoked in using the term ‘community’ may be as much a rallying cry as a description of a social entity.

3. Methodological Implications

The opposition between ‘community’ and ‘individualism’ seen in much social theory has received a perverse reinforcement from the pervasive individualism of a great deal of social science research, especially in the United States. If ‘street corner ethnography’ does not capture the spatially dispersed communities of modern societies, research using random samples of isolated individuals also misses important elements of community. By starting with individuals and asking about their attributes, survey research necessarily misses the connections between individuals and the supraindividual social elements that are defined by the nonindependence of their members. Communities of orientation, reference, and memory have normative force and behavioral implications, but do not take obvious physical forms. They may, therefore, be invisible to both observers and participants. The same is true of the negotiated and directive, not entirely voluntary, communities facilitated by rapid transportation and easy communication in which people are embedded and that constitute such central features of modern social organization.

For many people in the United States, their high school graduating class provides an example of a community that is neither localized and face-to-face nor entirely voluntary but that still expresses important aspects of their identity. The public school has been the pre-eminent expressive institution of the secular democratic republic, transmitting the moral ideals and ideology of the society. The time children spend in high school is a period of intense face-to-face interaction with a community larger and more diverse than they have known before at an age characterized by identity formation and role confusion.

After the rite of passage of graduation, the face-to-face community becomes spatially dispersed and socially fragmented, but the graduating class endures as a reference group and expression of identity to self and to others. Interviews with Americans who have graduated from high school are studded with comparative references to former classmates who had or had not done well and to those who served as the concrete manifestation of ‘people like me’ (Townsend 2002). Classmates share histories and normative judgments, and make of themselves, and of each other, characters in morality tales they tell themselves. The meanings of belonging and exclusion are subject to revision and negotiation, but the community has an existence independent of any one of its members. Individuals may attempt to opt out, but the remaining members continue to hold them up to evaluation, and use them to symbolize their own sense of who they are and who they are not.

The salience of high school graduation as an expression of identity in later life is clearly class-specific. Professionals with advanced degrees, for whom high school graduation was a first step rather than a culmination, frequently dismiss the importance of an event which is for many others a significant achievement and the realization of an aspiration. For them, others who graduated from the same professional training institution may constitute a more important community of reference than their peers in high school. The specific features of expressive com-munities differ between situations and over time, but the social processes underlying them are general.

4. Contradictions Of Community—Gender, Race, And Unequal Access

While the notion of community necessarily expresses what the members have in common, the concept and rhetoric of community is frequently used to divide, to exclude, and to justify differential treatment and access. British colonialists in Africa, for example, invented traditions, communities, and expressive forms for themselves in order to symbolize their own cohesion in spite of spatial dispersion and to lay claim to a higher social status than they would have been entitled to in Britain itself (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Ngugi wa Thiongo 1981). At the same time, Britain’s policy of indirect rule imposed tribal structure on complex indigenous social formations. The language of the tribal community was then used to control Africans’ political and economic lives. In the period since the end of colonialism in Africa, ethnicity has replaced tribalism as the dominant expressive language about community, although Africans continue to inhabit a variety of identities. The language of ethnic communities is used to advance, and to conceal, a range of interests and identities based on generation, class, gender, nation, and continued external domination of the continent (Werbner and Ranger 1996).

The dynamic between an inclusive expression of identity and a concealment of internal divisions— ‘belonging’ as a source of community solidarity and as a device to silence dissident expression—is played out in many social movements based in expressive com-munities. The Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s are powerful examples of the potential for mobilization on the basis of commonality and shared identity. They selected for people who shared political perspectives and ethnic and gender identities, but the inclusiveness that was their source of strength required that internal difference be obscured by expressions of unity.

Historically, women in the west were excluded from politics and the public sphere, though they found greater opportunities to exercise freedom and power in the social sphere, which was more egalitarian, but not free of gender hierarchies (Hansen 1994). White women mounted a campaign to gain access to the public sphere by focusing on women’s suffrage. They called for a united womanhood, and appealed to a common degradation and a shared circumstance. As with activists 100 years later, the suffragists simultaneously excluded those who did not fit their conception of womanhood—women of color, working class women, immigrant women. In the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, the similar rallying cry that ‘sisterhood is global’ was premised on a biased and exclusive identity. The empowerment achieved through mobilization and the increased sense of entitlement wrought discord among women because of the exclusivity that lay at the heart of the movement. Ironically, in reaction to the appeals to a universal womanhood that masked multiple and profound differences, many groups of women organized them-selves as members of new communities of women with distinctive identities.

5. Debate Over The ‘Demise Of Community’

Currently, a vocal public and a broad spectrum of policy makers lament community demise. At the same time, social researchers are finding a renewal of civic participation and vitality in communities that appear invisible from a distance. The debate itself is an important expression of how Americans want to define themselves as a culture. Political conservatives worry about losing control over local government and school districts, which they see as repositories of community values. Political progressives worry about the depleted ranks of those wanting to and willing to mobilize for social change. Policy makers and grass roots activists worry about the low density of people in neighborhoods and what that means for the crime rate. With so many people working so many hours, who has the time or inclination to contribute toward the greater good of society, or at least to those beyond the household and kin network?

Observers concerned about the decline of com-munity emphasize its moral centrality and the social values conveyed and expressed through community membership. Wilson (1996) argues that inner-city majority-Black neighborhoods suffer a crisis in com-munity most acutely. With the removal of jobs that pay a living wage, the exit of middle-and working-class workers decreases the cultural and social capital those inner-city neighborhoods need to build and express a sense of community. An economically diverse neighborhood has citizens who model behavior that conforms to the values of the dominant culture and who work within the community to fight crime and cultural malaise and improve services, including public education.

Arguing that the decline of community is a major problem for Americans as a whole, Putnam (2000) provocatively characterizes the crisis in community life as a problem of ‘bowling alone.’ Putnam’s analysis of civic participation, volunteering, sports leagues, and church-going shows a consistent decline over the past half-century. Putnam is also concerned about the loss of the social capital that is generated by invigorating community involvement. On the other hand, Sirianni and Friedland (2001) find an increase in citizen activism at the local level in battles over the environment, healthcare, and the media. They argue that looking only at engagement in ‘traditional institutions of civic integration’ such as the PTA, the NAACP, and the Elks, misses new forms of civic renewal that are dedicated to problem solving on the local and state levels, that are national in scope, and that express the new communities brought into being by new circumstances.

Concern about the loss of community is not new, but Wellman (1999) asserts that whenever researchers have set out to study communities, they have found them to exist and to be thriving. Perceptive observers have consistently found people expressing their identities through community membership, and asserting their places in communities, in situations where conventional wisdom has pointed to a lack of com-munity—in locations such as suburbs, street corners, homeless shelters, and old people’s homes where the physical situation was alleged to make community impossible, or among stigmatized groups who were alleged to lack the cultural resources to express community identity.

All participants in the debate acknowledge the importance of widespread economic change, capital mobility, international movements of people, urbanization, and the increasing entry of women into the paid labor force in transforming the shape of communities. Philipson (2002), for example, asks whether an in-creasing commitment to corporate workplaces might be colonizing not just workers’ time, but their emotional loyalties, eroding independent community life by trying to meet employees’ extracurricular needs while absorbing all their waking time. The question remains, however, whether community is declining or transforming.

6. Continued Vitality Of Communities

The importance of expressive communities increases as locality recedes as the basis for social organization. Since community is essential for human existence, the task is to observe not the ‘decline’ but the trans-formation of the foundation of communities. In the global movements for the independence of East Timor or the end of apartheid in South Africa, for instance, we see several ways in which communities are both expressed and expressive. In the face of exile, apartheid divisions into ‘tribes’ or ‘peoples,’ and forced prevention of assembly and movement, Black South Africans expressed themselves as a community. The expression of this community helped to forge a united movement. At the same time, international opponents of apartheid expressed moral outrage, and this expression became the basis for a global community. In South Africa and internationally, expression was vital to the creation of other aspects of community such as organizing efforts, congresses, publications, fund raising, and political action. The expression of com-munity, of common interests and identities transcending differences and separations, was one of the most powerful rhetorical weapons of the movement.

Similar mutual reinforcements of symbolic expression and community action occur in a wide variety of situations where the basis for community is the expression of values and identities, and in which, once expressed, the community takes on a life of its own and becomes a potent symbol in its own right. Expressive communities, whether they are long standing or new, confront individuals as already existing, though amen-able to change. By their allegiances to these com-munities, people take on and express a social identity.


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