Social Contexts Of Community Research Paper

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1. From Rural Decline To Globalization

Community denotes first a local government (village, town, city). Second it conveys social integration— actual, or desired by the speaker—as in ‘the global community.’ Community sociology was shaped by Toennies, Weber, and Durkheim in the late nineteenth century over concerns for rural decline, industrialization, and urbanization. They held that small communities generated more social integration. These concerns continue today, but in the post-industrial word, globalization is reshaping the basic contours of social life, via global capitalism, worldwide migration, mass communication, and the Internet (Sassen 1991). For Weber and Durkheim the community was a strategic research site for refuting theories of pure individualism. Today as then, localities are strategic research sites for huge processes and forces—strategic first since one can observe global dynamics on a scale manageable for research. Second, because there are so many communities, they encourage comparison and thus scientific generalization.

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The massive community research by sociologists in the twentieth century was shaped more by nineteenth century concerns than by new global concerns, which emerged only near 2000. This research paper considers three major themes from past community research still vital today:

(a) individual citizens and the nation;

(b) intermediary groups, like civic associations, and;

(c) new public agendas like environment issues.

All three illustrate transformations of community processes by global forces that shift power among participants and redefine the rules of the game.

Weber’s and Durkheim’s concerns continued for decades across much of the world, sparked by rapid urbanization and industrialization, which often brought explosive numbers of migrants to large cities, escalating crime, and political and social conflicts between new and old residents.

More abstractly, Weber and Durkheim used local communities to illustrate collective processes like shared values, migration, and the division of labor. They discussed these interrelated processes to articulate a focus for sociology, complementing the methodological individualism of Adam Smith’s economics and the political contract theory of Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, and J. S. Mill.

Durkheim, Toennies, and many others contrasted a rising and seemingly unbridled individualism of the city against the socially-integrated (if perhaps idealized) small town, the Gemeinschaft. In this traditional community, they suggested, the individual was integrated via deep personal relations with family, neighbors, and strong institutions, especially churches. Such ties were broken when people migrated to cities for new jobs. For George Simmel and Louis Wirth the city could thus offer ‘Freie Luft’: freedom and cosmopolitanism in the sophisticated diversity of urban life, liberating individuals from local provincialisms. Many contemporaries, from Baudelaire’s poetry of alienation to Dreisen’s novels of despair, projected individualism to radical extremes. Durkheim wrote of anomie and suicide, and Weber of harshly ascetic Protestant individualism.

Yet these big hypotheses, which seemed almost patently obvious when first stated, were surprizingly often not supported on careful investigation. The main surprize was discovering tight and powerful social relations among families and (selected) friends and new institutions in large cities. Close ties were not necessarily nearby; they might be miles or a phone call away; but they were often found when sociologists looked closely. This ‘rediscovery of the primary group’ emerged in ethnographic studies and later systematic surveys. Further, many rural residents reported considerable isolation and distrust, when studied closely. We are still unclear how much has changed, since more precise research emerged only at the end of the twentieth century (e.g. Fischer 1982). Thus it may be that some past small towns demonstrated greater interconnectedness and value consensus. Still as the range and depth of studies expand to include rural persons in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, reports are common of deep social conflicts and manipulations paralleling those in large urban areas. I have recently analyzed citizen reported trust in 34 countries, and found almost no differences by city size for towns from 2000 up to millions of residents. In just three countries do residents in the smallest towns report more trust. (In towns under 2000 inhabitants in the UK and China and under 10,000 in India, using the World Values Survey of 80,000 respondents. Item:

‘Would you say that most people can be trusted or you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.’ Most countries, like the US in Fisher’s results, are more homogeneous. Still locations vary drastically in trust and social relations. Why, if not by community size?

Weak support for earlier hypotheses prompted new investigations. Most differ from the past by elaborating more precise intervening connections, like civic groups, but still use the community as a strategic research site to detail impacts of ‘community context’ like residents’ educational level. Stressing context, as Abbott (1999) suggests, was a key element of Chicago urban sociology that continues today. We consider three illustrations of contextual variation in the next three sections. Transition from the first to the third illustrates the principle of hierarchy leveling.

2. Citizenship And The Nation State

  1. H. Marshall identified ‘citizenship’ as a core concept linking citizens to the nation. He traced shifts in its meaning over two centuries. Every citizen of a nation has ‘rights’ which rose from minimal to extensive along with egalitarianism. The national welfare state is the agency largely responsible for implementing these rights, which extended employment guarantees, health care, retirement, and later, children and animal rights. As they grew, dependence on the locality paled.

Still national centralization varies substantially across countries. Napoleon declared it illegal for French citizens to meet publicly or to organize civic groups; Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany went further by making everyone a potential police informant, thus seeking to destroy social ties among all individuals. Some national leaders pursue such centralization to control dissent. But centralization springs from other sources: building on the social contract tradition, the philosopher John Rawls held that no thorough egalitarianism is possible unless all social ties are eliminated, including those in families.

This is an extreme form of the common criticism that community institutions preserve tradition, and should thus be weakened. In societies with authoritarian leaders and institutions, opposition groups often seek to level hierarchies through radical egalitarian programs. Many left, social democratic-type parties thus favored national control to level hierarchy and implement egalitarian citizenship in much of the twentieth century. Parallel arguments led most northern and eastern European countries to consolidate their small towns into ‘metropolitan governments,’ consciously eliminating traditional ‘parish-based’ loyalties. Following these and other centralizing policies, nation states generally rose in power, social responsibility, and budgets for the past two centuries, undermining local communities.

The strong nation legacy came under criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century, as people grew more affluent, educated, and sophisticated: they criticized national agencies for high costs, inefficiency, and non-responsiveness to citizens. Support for local autonomy thus rose. Globalization presses in the same direction: with more cross-national travel, communication, investment, and trade, the nation declines in its abilities to deliver ‘egalitarian’ welfare benefits, since ideal standards are less national and increasingly international ‘Human rights’ rises as a new standard. Yet the world is too large, as are regional entities like the European Union, to implement specifics. The net effect is thus to bolster regional and local entities. Still, why should they work?

3. Searching For Democracy And Trust In Active Civic Groups

An early critic of Napoleonic state centralization was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America in the 1830s contrasted the French state-dependency of citizens with the rich array of American community associations. Local civic groups, linked to small and autonomous local governments, gave (ideally) all citizens the ability to participate meaningfully in decisions affecting them. Such experiences built net-works of social relations and taught the values of participation, democracy, and trust in fellow citizens. Parallel ideas have been advanced in research on organizations, small groups, families, and socialization: more participation by all generates more social interaction among peers, and more social skills and trust. This is achieved better in small units, encouraging more focused exchange and meaningful social contacts. This has similarly led to analyzing specific types of intermediary groupings, from social classes to political parties, churches, and business groups.

Large literatures document these basic ideas in studies of different types of associations, causes and consequences of greater participation, citizen trust, and confidence in leaders. Over the twentieth century, many organizations shifted from the hierarchical and centralized to the smaller and more participatory. The community power literature from Floyd Hunter (1953) to Robert Dahl (1961) and beyond suggests a decline in the ‘monolithic’ city governance pattern which Hunter described in Atlanta. In contrast, Dahl documented a more participatory, ‘pluralistic’ decision-making process, where multiple participants combine and ‘pyramid’ their ‘resources’ which affects decisions in different ‘issue areas’ Dahl’s quoted concepts highlighted freedom of choice and openness of leader-ship to popular initiatives. Some 160 studies were completed seeking to explore implications for Hunter vs. Dahl’s concepts. Peter Rossi, Robert Crain and Terry Clark started national comparative research in 1967 with the Permanent Community Sample at the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago. The same US municipalities were resurveyed periodically to monitor change. These studies continue in the Fiscal Austerity and Urban Innovation (FAUI) Project, which by 2000 included surveys of over 10,000 communities in some 30 countries.

These comparative studies document support among citizens and leaders for more decentralized, egalitarian, participation by citizens the world over. The New Political Culture (Clark and Hoffmann-Martinot 1998) uses the FAUI data to chart the rise of new rules of the game for public decisions and building more active citizen-leader contacts via mechanisms like focused groups, block clubs, cable-TV coverage of local associations, and Internet groups. Putnam’s (1993) related work documents clear differences across Italian communities, from hierarchical, state control in the South to Tocquevillian participation in the North. Fukukyama shows national differences in citizen trust to follow the pattern Tocqueville pro-posed: least in counties with national states that destroyed civic groups (France, Italy, former Soviet areas), more in countries with active civic groups (USA, Scandinavia).

Globalization forces have opened more hierarchically-organized societies to permit civic and political associations to emerge even if they oppose the national government. Ethnic separatist groups in Mexico, Yugoslavia, and former Soviet areas grew more active via intervention from international human rights associations, global media coverage of scandals, and international organizations like the UN and NATO. The global trend is toward the more decentralized, participatory patterns of culture, which rekindle local democracy and civic life.

4. New Movements, Agendas, And Policies: Greening The World

New Social Movements (NSMs) emerged in the 1970s to push new agendas: they championed ecology, feminism, peace, gay rights and other issues that ‘old’ groups and political parties ignored. The NSMs were initially less formally organized and often used confrontational tactics, sometimes even terrorism, generating the findings that those more organized and ready to use violence had more impact (Gamson 1975, 1990). More recent work stresses the ‘political opportunity structure’ accessible to social movements (McAdam D, McCarthy J D, Zald M N 1996) or the more general ‘hierarchical leveling’ propositions in Clark and Hoffmann-Martinot (1998). For instance in the 1970s in Italy even Communist and Socialist parties rejected the new issues; this encouraged radical tactics including marches and street violence. But as political parties and governments embraced many new social issues, the opportunity structure drastically shifted. Movement leaders then shifted from ‘urban guerilla warfare’ to participating in elections, lobbying, and advising governments. This expanded participation process encourages moderating demands.

In Europe, the national state and parties were the hierarchical ‘establishment’ opposed by NSMs. In the US, local business and political elites were more often targeted. The NSMs demanded more responsiveness to the environment and to more diverse lifestyles and ethnic concerns. From the 1970s to 2000, support grew for the new issues, but explaining why remains controversial. One interpretation in the US literature is that business elites redirect agendas toward growth (Logan and Molotch 1987). Similarly Stone (1989) held that leadership ‘regimes’ were slanted toward business. For Peterson (1981) competitive market capitalism forced all communities to pursue growth by lowering taxes and welfare-like benefits—or lose residents and jobs. Business dominance driving a ‘pro-growth agenda’ was commonly reported in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the 1990s the rise of new issues led to questioning past interpretations. Clark and Goetz (1994) showed that 26 percent of US municipalities had anti-growth movements in the 1980s, which often had major impacts: on zoning, limits on size and number of new building, environmental impact hearings, historic preservation, and sensitivity to amenities like lakes. If green NSMs won, did business lose? Logan et al. (1997) reviewed 20 years of studies and found much less business impact than the growth machine hypothesis suggested. Similarly, Clark and Goetz found zero relations between business dominance and environmental policy, although business leaders did rank as powerful in many US cities. The resolution of this apparent paradox is that many business leaders do not promote growth, but support public agendas which vary across communities, reflecting local concerns.

Behind pressures from NSMs and/organized groups lies the question of why such groups emerge? They are more common in localities with citizens more highly educated, reasonable affluent, who work in professional and technical occupations, where the media are powerful, and traditional parties, unions, and ethnic groups are weak (Clark and Hoffmann-Martinot 1998). Individuals with such characteristics similarly support new agendas, termed a new political culture or post-industrial politics, in more than 20 countries where detailed surveys are available (Clark and Rempel 1997). Inglehart (1997) has argued that such ‘post-modern’ values emerge more powerfully as income rises, since after material needs are met, then ‘post-materialist’ or post-modern concerns can be pursued, like democracy, a nicer environment, gay marriages, or abortion rights.

Note that most of these new agenda issues concern consumption and leisure more than work and jobs. Aesthetic and amenity concerns rise—like suburban sprawl, sports stadiums, and parks. These issues do not divide people into rich versus poor as did class politics and party politics for much of the twentieth century. Rather than national issues like Keynesian spending or income redistribution championed by past left versus right (national) political parties, the new agenda issues are led more by community civic groups. Indeed the largest US environmental organization, the Sierra Club, reported that its average member belonged to seven other environmental organizations, many local. Even in Japan, where NSMs and local communities are less salient, local ecology groups were nevertheless the driving force generating national air and water standards, reversing the normal centralization (Michio 1997). The agendas of com-munity civic groups (including block clubs and neighborhood associations) are set more locally through more general participation, consciously contrasting with more hierarchical parties and unions—which alienate many younger activists. Voter turnout for elections organized by the classical national parties (which still control local candidate selection in most of the world) thus declined, while new issue-specific community associations mushroomed in the late twentieth century.

What about poor and minority groups? Some have shifted from the classic welfare redistribution issues to embrace more civic and individual initiative, albeit more in the US than traditionally hierarchical societies (consistent with the leveling proposition). By 2000, Jesse Jackson, heir of Martin Luther King’s movement, continued civil rights issues through classic marches and protests, but he added more speeches advocating self-help and hard work to rise economically and socially—even publishing a book in 2000 with his politically active son entitled It’s About the Money: How You Can Get Out of Debt, Build Wealth, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams. Broadly analgous, some observers hold, are the dramatic spread of Protestant evangelism in Latin America and Asia, even China, based often on a strong self-help message.

Globalization heightens these trends, weakening traditional agendas and promoting the new issues in countries that might change slower without inter-national contact. Local affiliates of NSMs like ecology groups drew tactics and policies from their inter-national counterparts, via congresses, newsletters, and the Internet. Tourism and the media lead citizens to aspire to consumption standards based more on global than national standards. With the Cold War over, global markets increasingly replaced national states. Left political party leaders the world over often shifted from class and national issues to these new agendas. Presidents and Prime Ministers in the US, the UK, and Germany, illustrated this shift, as did many in Latin America and Asia, plus countless mayors. The new agenda thus spread globally, with slogans like ‘think globally but act locally,’ helping local communities re-emerge.


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