Sociology of Community Research Paper

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As a sociological concept, community has been used to refer to a range of social phenomena. In a critical analysis of the concept, Joseph Gusfield (1975:xv–xvi) contended that there are two major usages of community. First, the concept is used to refer to a physical territory, or geographic area, where human beings reside and/or work. Second, community is used to refer to the quality or character of human relationships that bind persons to each other to form a social group. Many sociological studies of community focus on one of these definitions, while others have combined both usages. As will be described below, other studies have used a different definition of community altogether. Because of the diversity of definitions of community that have been developed, there has never been extensive agreement within the discipline of sociology on the precise meaning of the concept.

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The Conception of Community in Classical Social Theory

The origins of community as a sociological concept extend back to the birth of sociology as a discipline. In the nineteenth century, the ongoing development and spread of industrial capitalism in the European continent was prompting extensive social change. Gaining an understanding of the changes being wrought by this revolutionary economic system provided an important focus for the inquiries and writings of what are now known as the “classical” social theorists (see, e.g., Kumar 1978). Arguably the most important early social theorist in advancing the concept of community was the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. A key observation of Tönnies ([1893] 1957) was that the development of industrial capitalism was associated with a change in the basis of social cohesion in society—that is, “the sentiments and motives which draw people to each other, keep them together, and induce them to joint action. . . . which resulting therefrom, make possible and sustain a common existence” (p. 237). The classic statement of these ideas was Tönnies’s book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, first published in 1887. In English, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft was literally translated as Community and Society.

For Tönnies ([1893] 1957), the basis of social cohesion was termed the collective will (analogous to group norms), which sets behavioral expectations and governs social relationships among individuals forming a social group. Tönnies contended that the basis of social cohesion was undergoing a transition from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society). These concepts were developed as ideal types. Community represented the traditional basis of social cohesion, characterized by what Tönnies termed the “natural will.” Simply put, social relationships guided by the natural will were characterized by emotional attachment, sentiment, intimacy, and shared characteristics such as kinship or religious beliefs. In contrast, society was viewed by Tönnies as the emergent basis of social cohesion characterized by the “rational will.” Social relationships guided by the rational will were characterized by indifference, rational calculation, competition, and selfinterest. Tönnies contended that with the development and advance of capitalism, social relationships based on community were declining and becoming subordinate to the rational will as the primary basis of social cohesion.

This dimension of Tönnies’s ([1893] 1957) work reflects two important themes that would shape later developments in community sociology. The first was the view of community as representing a particular quality of social relationships among members of a social group involving emotional attachment, intimacy, and sentiment. Later theorists equated social relationships in community, or “communal relations” (see, e.g., Fischer 1977:8; Nisbet 1966:47), as being consistent with Charles Horton Cooley’s (1909) concept of a primary group characterized by close, intimate, face-to-face interaction or Mark Granovetter’s (1973) concept of strong interpersonal ties among a group of social actors. A second theme was that community was declining, or in the process of being “lost” (see, e.g., Nisbet 1966; Fischer 1977; Wellman 1979)— that is, the decline of community represented an important dimension of social change in industrial nations that had developed capitalist market economies.

Given that the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft dichotomy was developed as an ideal type, Tönnies ([1893] 1957) also discussed ideal prototypes of social forms that were “Gemeinschaft-like” or “Gesellschaft-like.” In his discussion of social organizations and corporate bodies (pp. 257–259), Tönnies stated that the ideal Gemeinschaft prototype was the rural, agrarian village. In contrast, the ideal Gesellschaft prototype was the city. This dimension of Tönnies’s work helped set the precedent for viewing community as a location, or geographic area of human settlement. However, it simultaneously advanced the view that communities must be small in size with members living in close geographic proximity to one another. Whether or not these represent necessary conditions for community later became a point of debate in community sociology (see, e.g., Wellman 1979).

In large part, the conceptions of community developed by other classical theorists were consistent with that of Tönnies ([1893] 1957). For example, Max Weber (1978:40–43) defined communal relationships as being based on tradition, or the affectual and emotional feelings of the parties involved. In his discussion of “political communities,” Weber (1978:901–904) also recognized the territorial or geographic dimension of community. Building on the early conceptions of community, Georg Simmel ([1902–1903] 1950) examined the impersonal and calculative nature of social relationships found in the metropolis, which contrasted deeply with those found in small-town and rural life. The classical conceptions of community framed much of the debate in community sociology over the course of the twentieth century.

Significant Developments in Community Sociology During the 20th Century

1920 to 1950

During the first several decades of the twentieth century in the United States, the classical conceptions of community developed by European sociologists influenced the early development of what eventually became more broadly construed as urban and community sociology. Highly influential in this process were the theoretical conceptions of and empirical research conducted by sociologists at the University of Chicago, which were primarily focused on understanding the causes, processes, and consequences of urbanization. This was highly significant at this time because America had undergone several decades of rapid urbanization and had evolved into an urban society.

Human Ecology and the Chicago School

Adapting concepts from plant and animal ecology, members of the Chicago School of urban sociology developed the theoretical framework of human ecology. Within this framework, the human community was conceived as a response by human beings to their need to secure resources from the environment and ensure their survival. As described by Roderick McKenzie ([1925] 1967),

The human community has its inception in the traits of human nature and the needs of human beings. Man is a gregarious animal: he cannot live alone; he is relatively weak and needs not only the company of other human associates but shelter and protection from the elements as well. (P. 65)

Of particular concern was how the human community was organized and structured across geographic space. A key proposition of human ecology was that the human community was characterized by the ecological processes of competition, dominance, and succession (Park 1936). It was contended that human beings compete to determine how space in the community will be used. Through competition, a community is divided into a mosaic of “natural areas” characterized, or dominated, by particular population groups and/or land use patterns. This conception not only placed emphasis on the community as a physical territory but also extended it to encompass a system of social units (e.g., organizations, groups) through which specific human populations secure the resources needed to sustain their survival.

While members of the Chicago School extended further the theoretical ideas about the differences in human relationships in the context of a city versus a rural village (see, e.g., Wirth 1938), the ecological conception of the human community shifted emphasis away from community as a particular quality of social relationships involving emotional attachment, intimacy, and sentiment. Moreover, in regard to the territorial dimension, the human community was not limited to small villages with members living in close propinquity. Nor was it necessarily circumscribed by the defined geopolitical boundaries of a village or even a city. Rather, the geographic size of the ecological community was based on how the structure of organizations and institutions used by a specific population for sustenance was distributed across geographic space. In subsequent work, proponents of human ecology contended that the geographic scope of the human community was evolving beyond the city to encompass metropolitan areas or regions (see, e.g., McKenzie 1933; Bogue [1949] 1961).

Community Studies

While human ecology was rising to prominence as an approach to analyzing the human community, another important research tradition was being developed that became known as the community study (Bell and Newby 1971). At a basic level, community studies have typically employed a conception of community as a geographic territory, although other conceptual dimensions of community may be analyzed as well. Simply put, in conducting a community study, a particular town, village, neighborhood, city, or suburb is selected as a site for case study. A combination of research methods is then used to perform an in-depth analysis of social life within the community. These methods typically include field research and ethnography. Aspects of social life within the territory of the community that are studied may include (a) the nature of social relations among community members; (b) local organizations, institutions, and aspects of culture that are important for sustaining community members; (c) the local stratification system or class structure, including the distribution of wealth and power, race or ethnicity; (d) community boundaries; and (e) the psychosocial characteristics of community members, among others.

Credit for the community study has been given to

Robert and Helen Lynd (1929) in their pioneering study of Muncie, Indiana, which was conducted in the 1920s and published under the pseudonym Middletown (Bell and Newby 1971:82–83). However, members of the Chicago School of urban sociology also contributed to this approach through a series of in-depth studies of “natural areas” (Zorbaugh [1926] 1961) within the city of Chicago (see, e.g., Thrasher 1927; Wirth 1928; Shaw et al. 1929; Zorbaugh 1929). These studies have been followed by an ongoing series of community studies that have focused on analyzing social life in cities, smaller subareas of cities such as neighborhoods, and small towns and rural villages (for an overview, see Bell and Newby 1971). The community study approach also became prominent in the subdiscipline of rural sociology, which placed more emphasis on finding applied solutions to problems faced by rural towns and villages in the United States and abroad (Wilkinson 1991:41–51). Over the long term, the community study became an institutionalized method within the sociological study of community that continues to be used in the contemporary era (see, e.g., Anderson 1990; Duncan 1999; Salamon 2003; Small 2004).

1951 to 1990

By the middle of the twentieth century, the composite knowledge base of classical social theory, human ecology, community studies, and community research in rural sociology provided a plethora of different definitions of the concept of community. The lack of consensus over the meaning of the concept prompted George Hillery (1955) to conduct a content analysis of community definitions that had been used in 94 previous studies to determine if there were areas of agreement. Hillery found that 90 of the 94 studies agreed that community consisted of a group of persons engaging in social interaction, 73 of the 94 studies agreed that community consisted of a group of persons engaging in social interaction who have a “common tie or ties,” and 70 of the 94 studies agreed that community consisted of a geographic area.

Taken together, 69 of the 94 studies agreed that community consisted of a group of persons (a) engaging in social interaction, (b) within a geographic area, and (c) having a common tie or ties. Hillery (1955) used the term common tie to refer to a wide range of phenomena, including a common lifestyle, culture, work, and beliefs; kinship; “consciousness of kind” (as elaborated below, a common psychological identification with a group); shared norms, values, or goals; and the use of shared institutions. Among the set of studies examined, the definitions of community employed by the human ecologists were found to differ the most (p. 119).

Taken together, the areas of agreement identified by Hillery (1955) represented a much less restrictive conception of community than that advanced by Tönnies ([1893] 1957) about half a century earlier. First, the relationships among the group of persons engaged in interaction did not have to consist of strong, primary ties based on emotional attachment, intimacy, and sentiment as specified by Tönnies. Rather, community members could be more loosely attached through sharing common lifestyles, beliefs, work, goals, or institutions, for example. Second, the size of the geographic territory of a community was unrestricted. Communities were not limited to a small agrarian village with persons living in close proximity to one another as specified by Tönnies. Over the next several decades, several important theoretical paradigms in sociology provided the basis for the development of new applications to the sociological study of community.

Structural Functionalism

Twentieth-century developments in structural-functionalist theory contributed to the development of several important theoretical approaches to the analysis of community. The first of these was a reformulation of human ecology theory by Amos Hawley. The initial statement of Hawley’s (1950) reformulation was first published under the title Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. After several decades of research and critique, interest in the human ecology framework developed by the Chicago School had waned (Schwab 1982:23–25). Hawley resolved problematic aspects of the original theory by employing a structural-functionalist approach and helped regenerate interest in using human ecology as a framework for community and urban research. In his restatement of the theory, Hawley (1950) defined community as “the structure of relationships through which a localized population provides its daily requirements” (p. 180). The community was conceived as a structure of functionally differentiated strata, comprised of connected communal units that perform functions contributing toward the sustenance of a localized population and its adaptation to the environment. Functional interdependence was viewed as providing the integrative force and basis for social cohesion in the community (p. 209).

Like the traditional ecological theory developed by members of the Chicago School, Hawley’s (1950) restatement of the theory viewed community as consisting of a structured system of social units through which a human population adapts to the environment and secures the resources required for its survival. However, one key difference was that he de-emphasized the role of competition in influencing the structure of the community, choosing instead to focus on the functional interdependencies that developed among social units comprising the community (Berry and Kasarda 1977:12). Later termed contemporary ecology (see, e.g., Berry and Kasarda 1977), Hawley’s reformulation contributed toward the maintenance of human ecology as a central theoretical paradigm in urban sociology.

A second important development related to structural functionalism was the application of Talcott Parsons’s (1951) social systems theory to the analysis of community. Parsons defined a social system as

a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the “optimization of gratification” and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols. (Pp. 5–6)

In applying this to a community, the notion of interaction among a plurality of “actors” was extended to include interaction among organizations and other social groups. The community was defined as a geographic territory that contained a social system. As conceived by Charles P. Loomis and J.Allan Beegle (1957), “The community may be defined as a social system encompassing a territorial unit within which members carry on most of the day-to-day activities necessary in meeting common needs” (p. 22).

Within the social systems framework, the community was conceived as a constituent system of the larger inclusive macrosystems of society. Roland L. Warren was one of the key proponents of this approach. Warren’s ([1963] 1978) seminal work The Community in America defined a community as “that combination of social units and systems that perform the major social functions having locality relevance” (p. 9). Stated more clearly, the community system serves to provide people with “daily local access to those broad areas of activity (i.e. functions) that are necessary in day-to-day living” (p. 9).

Warren ([1963] 1978:163) used the term “vertical pattern” of the community to refer to the structural and functional relations of its various social units and subsystems to social systems exogenous to the territorial boundaries of the community. In contrast, he used the term “horizontal pattern” to refer to the structural and functional relations of the social units and subsystems comprising the community to each other (p. 164). Reflecting a different variant on the “community lost” thesis first posited by Tönnies ([1893] 1957), Warren ([1963] 1978) contended that as a result of a set of social change processes he termed “The Great Change,” U.S. communities were losing their local autonomy in controlling the key functions that sustain the lives of their members and becoming increasingly dependent on the vertical pattern of the community to sustain the local population (pp. 52–95).

In addition to having a foundation in structural functionalism, a common thread between contemporary human ecology and the social systems approach to community is the view of community as consisting of a structured system of systemically linked social units that perform interdependent functions required to sustain the lives of people within a bounded geographic territory. In contrasting Hawley’s (1950) reformulation of human ecology with Loomis and Beegle’s (1957) or Warren’s ([1963] 1978) social systems perspective, one difference is that social systems theorists appear to accept Tönnies’s ([1893] 1957) restrictive view that community must consist of a small territorial settlement with necessary external resources being acquired through vertical systemic linkages. In contrast, Hawley’s conception appears to place less restriction on the geographic scope of the community, which is viewed as capable of expanding to incorporate the social units to which the community became vertically linked.

Symbolic Interactionism

The twentieth-century development of symbolic interactionism as an important theoretical paradigm in sociology (for a collection of central works, see Manis and Meltzer 1967) also found application in the analysis of community. In general, studies of community employing concepts drawn from symbolic interactionism contend that a community is socially constructed by a group of individuals who identify themselves as members of a group with which they share common characteristics and have specific rights and obligations. This approach is exemplified by Joseph Gusfield (1975:44, 51), who contended that the classical theorists treated a community as a fixed social object that automatically impinged on the individual. Gusfield contended that community must instead be viewed as a process by which individuals symbolically construct identities as members of a group.

Drawing on the notion of “consciousness of kind” developed by Franklin Giddings (1922) and later referenced by Hillery (1955) (also termed community sentiment or community attachment—for a review, see Poplin 1979:18–22), community represents a psychosocial entity that is symbolically constructed and reconstructed over time by a group of individuals who define themselves as group members. Identification with the community group is facilitated by the emergence of group symbols such as a group name, a particular appearance or mode of dress, or other distinguishing characteristics. The symbolic construction of a community promotes a sense of participating in a shared history among members and creates awareness that members have particular rights and obligations in how they act in relation to other members compared to nonmembers (Gusfield 1975:23–52).

Symbolic identification of an individual with a community group aligns with the less restrictive definition of community deduced from Hillery’s (1955) analysis discussed above. Gusfield (1975:32, 43) notes that although residing in proximity within a small territory can help promote the development of symbolically constructed communities, such communities also exist at broader geographic scales (e.g., national identities). Furthermore, symbolically constructed communities do not necessarily require face-to-face interaction and close, primary ties among members. Rather, such a community requires only that individuals identify themselves as group members. Even in the absence of strong primary ties with other members, attachment to symbolically constructed communities by the individual may become “primordial” (Geertz 1963; Fischer 1977), where the needs and the will of the individual become subordinate to the needs and the will of the collective (Gusfield 1975:49). This represents one way in which community can impose social order and control over the pursuit of individual self-interest.

Marxism and Political Economy

During the 1970s, a movement to examine community through a broadly Marxian and/or institutional politicaleconomy framework began to gather momentum. Analyses of community taking this approach have typically employed the definition of community as a geographic territory. The focus is then placed on how the growth of the community and the spatial configuration of the community are influenced by the process of capital accumulation. As part of this process, special emphasis is typically given to the role of the state, class relations, and business cycles in the capitalist market economy.

Exemplifying this approach, Gordon (1977) illustrated the role of industrialists in drawing central city and suburban city boundaries in such a manner as to escape the social costs of production (pollution, etc.) and, crucially, operate to reduce possible worker resistance via a repertoire of spatial-political strategies. Castells (1977, 1983) emphasized the differential dynamics at work in the consumption norms of elites and the working class in cities. Additionally, Castells posited a structural contradiction between the need to increase profits for capital and the need to reproduce labor within cities. In highlighting this contradiction, Castells brought attention to the role of the welfare state, urban planning, subsidized housing, public education, and recreation as efforts to reconcile this inherent contradiction at work in the fabric of urban places under capitalism.

David Harvey provides an important exemplar of what could be called “classical” Marxian community studies. Working within a political-economy-of-place model, Harvey (1982, 1985, 1990) identifies the interactions between the multiple circuits of capital accumulation and the specific geographic-spatial features in the built environment of urban places. For Harvey, the built environment experiences waves of growth and decline as capital investment shifts between the productive, built environment, and state/tertiary circuits of capital. Harvey deploys a fairly traditional Marxist political-economy model to explain the circulation of capital between production, consumption, and the state. Then, Harvey adds a spatialgeographic component and theorizes the movement of capital across places in response to the fluctuations in the rate of profit. In essence, cities, towns, and neighborhoods rise and fall as capital moves from place to place seeking out a geographic innovation or “spatial fix” that operates alongside technological innovations and financial innovations of capitalist restructuring of spatial and social relations in the pursuit of profit (Harvey 1982, 1985).

Operating under a more ecumenical framework that built on human ecology and neo-Marxian approaches to place, Molotch (1976) and Logan and Molotch (1987) focus on the strategies of different social actors as they variously organize, cooperate, and compete in the social construction of places. For example, residents and workers tend to see place in terms of concrete, heterogeneous, use value as homes, parks, places of work, and places of worship. In contrast, developers, realtors, business owners, and finance capitalists tend to see place in terms of abstract, homogeneous exchange value as real estate, as property, and as places in which to capture profits. The dominant form of place-based, political-economic organization in urban communities are growth machines, which Logan and Molotch define as “an apparatus of interlocking pro-growth associations and governmental units” (p. 37).

The specific composition of actual growth machines varies from case to case but usually includes local government, real estate developers, local media, bankers, construction firms, and, occasionally, industrial capitalists. Most often, growth machines are united behind an ideological doctrine of free-market land use. As such, growth machines operate to legitimate and facilitate profitable real estate investment, which in turn will have secondary cumulative effects in the local real estate market, corporate investment, and labor markets. Growth machines work to secure rents from changing land use patterns and, in doing so, have the effect of spatially (re)organizing urban communities in such a way that place entrepreneurs are able to internalize the benefits of urban growth while externalizing the social, cultural, and political costs of that same growth to ordinary residents of the wider community. Recent studies in growth machine research have investigated the applicability of the model to more contemporary situations, suburban communities, and urban communities in the United Kingdom; Orange County, California; and Israel (Jonas and Wilson 1999; Logan and Crowder 2002).

Contemporary Trends and Developments in Community Sociology

Over the past several decades, community research has continued to represent an important focus within sociology and related fields. As such, empirical and theoretical work engaging the various forms of community has both contributed to and reflected many of the important developments within the discipline. Key areas of interest in contemporary community sociology include the Internet and online communities; the communitarian movement; race-ethnicity-gender and community; and the relationship(s) between culture, consumption, and the development of urban communities.

Liberated and Online Communities

Over the past several decades, the theory and methods of social network analysis have been applied to the study of community. With this approach, community is viewed as a social network of primary relationships among a set of social actors. An important proponent of this approach has been Barry Wellman (1979), who employed a social network approach to examine what he termed “the community question.” In essence, the community question seeks to understand how industrialization, urbanization, and bureaucratization have affected the structure and organization of communal networks (pp. 1201–1202).

The conception of community first advanced by Tönnies ([1893] 1957) implied that communal social relations were predominant only in small, agrarian villages. His description of these villages suggested that they were characterized by densely knit, solidary networks of communal social relations among residents who were connected on the basis of kinship, religion, and work. Simultaneously, Tönnies advanced the “community lost” argument (Wellman 1979:1204) that such communities were declining with the growth of industrial capitalism and urbanization. In contradiction to this thesis, community research conducted during the twentieth century found that dense, solidary networks of communal relationships persisted within small, territorial areas (e.g., neighborhoods) of large cities (see, e.g., Gans 1962; Liebow 1967; Suttles 1968). In effect, this presented the “community saved” argument (Wellman 1979:1205–206) in that such communal networks persisted with capitalist development and could be found in large cities as well as small towns and villages. In either case, close geographic proximity was assumed to be essential to the maintenance and formation of communal networks.

In contrast to these perspectives, Wellman (1979:1206–208) advanced the “community liberated” argument, which contended that as a result of the spatial separation of residence, workplace, and kinship; the increasing scale of urban communities; high rates of residential mobility; and low-cost, proficient communications and transportation technologies, communal networks are increasingly characterized by sparsely knit, interconnected networks of primary ties that are dispersed across geographic space. Thus, community has been liberated because close geographic proximity is no longer essential to the formation and maintenance of communal relationships.

If the automobile, airplane, and telephone facilitated the emergence of the liberated community, then the development of the Internet during the 1990s has accelerated the development of this social form and prompted the transition from group-based to networked societies (Castells 1996). Wellman and others (see, e.g., Wellman et al. 1996; Wellman 2001; Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002) have documented the growth and maturation of the Internet. Hampton and Wellman (2002) contend that Internet communities are important social networks but not particularly special or separate from other aspects of social life. Rather, group-based solidarities are progressively being replaced by an Internet- (and other information technology) mediated matrix of networked individualism. Shared community, neighborhoods, and face-to-face interactions are being subsumed by multiple, partially personalized, geographically dispersed, and computer-mediated networks.

Within this model, Hampton and Wellman (2002) suggest an emerging spatial configuration that mixes global and local factors, a kind of “glocalization.” Castells suggests that businesses (1996), organized crime syndicates (1998), and social movements of both the left and the right (1997) have used information technology and the dynamics of networked relationships to go global in both the scale and the scope of their activities.

The Communitarian Movement

The concept of community was central to a political movement that gathered momentum in the United States during the 1990s. Called the “communitarian movement,” an important focus was to address the decline in civility in American social life. A key voice in the movement was Amitai Etzioni, who founded the Communitarian Network in 1993. In his 1995 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Etzioni (1996) outlined his communitarian perspective. Community was defined as a network of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals that is characterized by a high density of acquaintanceship (Freudenburg 1986) and a commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings and a shared history and identity (i.e., consciousness of kind or communal attachment) (Etzioni (1996:5).

One of Etzioni’s (1996) key propositions was that community is defined by a third criterion, “responsiveness”— that is, to be “authentic,” a community must be highly responsive in meeting the “true” needs of all community members, both in the substance of its core values and in its social formation (pp. 1–5). In contrast, a community that responds to and meets the true needs of some members or groups but not others is termed a “partial” community. The partial community, therefore, represents an imposed social order on those members whose true needs are not met.

Etzioni (1996:5–9) contended that communities command centripetal forces that seek to induce members to act on behalf of the community (e.g., perform community service). In contradiction to such forces are centrifugal forces that seek to induce members to act on behalf of their self-interest. Both these forces vie with one another for dominance and are inversely related. If centripetal forces become too dominant, then the order imposed by the community will become too restrictive and will not allow the true needs of individual community members to be met, thereby resulting in unhappiness and misery. If centrifugal forces become too dominant, then the community will decline, and anarchy and conflict will reign as individuals attempt to benefit their self-interest at the expense of the interests of other individuals. Etzioni contended that in meeting the true needs of all community members, the authentic community balances the two forces, thereby providing for a more civil society.

In attempting to influence public policy and political beliefs, the communitarian movement has not been strongly embraced by either side of the political spectrum. On the one hand, the communitarian platform has been excoriated by the left, in part because it de-emphasizes the important role of the state in redressing inequality and injustice and other social problems created by a capitalist market economy. Instead, this responsibility is shifted to the community level and aligns with the principle of “devolution” favored by the conservative right. On the other hand, the communitarian platform has also been criticized by the right because of its emphasis on inhibiting and subordinating the pursuit of individual self-interest to the needs of the community. The notion that individuals have a social responsibility to the community that may take precedence over their own wants and desires aligns with the ideology of liberalism. Because of its discordance with both sides of the political spectrum, the platform of the communitarian movement has thus far not achieved a strong degree of influence in guiding political discourse and policy making in the United States.

Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Community

Although interest in the interface between race, ethnicity, and community can be traced back to both the Chicago School and community study scholars, recent efforts in the area have been especially fruitful in examining the combined vectors of identity, interaction, institutions, and place-based territorial communities. Duneier (1999) uses the interaction codes of identity that social actors deploy in face-to-face encounters on the street to illuminate the micro-macro linkages at work in the environs of urban communities. He examines the lives of “unhoused” street vendors working in Lower Manhattan, New York. Key themes that emerge from Duneier’s research include the role of local government in shaping regulation and repression; the emergent norms that shape vendor-to-vendor relations; and the layering of race, class, and gender in anonymous street interactions. Duneier describes how homeless panhandlers are able to engage in public harassment and “interactional vandalism” of women as women irrespective of the woman’s class position.

Operating at a more macro and cross-cultural level, Spain (1992) shows how community spaces are gendered (and most often segregated), resulting in male privilege and lowered status for women. The dichotomies of public/private, work/home, market/family, and masculine/ feminine intersect and overlap in a web of spatial power relations. In an engaging longitudinal ethnography, Naples (1998) has examined the experiences of women community workers in New York and Philadelphia from 1964 to 1974. Naples’s study found that women involved in community-based antipoverty programs provided important paid and unpaid work for their communities. Additionally, Naples suggests that this work constituted a kind of “activist-mothering” that broadens and links the concepts of family and community together in a continuum of relations that include family, neighbors, neighborhood, and local schools.

Anderson (1990) describes how black-white interactions in public settings involve a variety of symbolic exchanges involving racial stereotyping and symbolic border work. Anderson (1990, 2000) also traces the vectors of racism, poverty, drugs, violence, and gentrification that plague poor urban African American communities. Logan and Stearns (1981), Logan and Schneider (1984), and Logan and Crowder (2002) have examined racial segregation, racial change, and ethnic enclaves in American suburbs from the 1960s until the present. In a similar vein, Massey and Denton (1993) argue that high and persistent levels of residential racial segregation play a crucial role in keeping disproportionate numbers of people of color mired in communities characterized by unemployment, poverty, and generalized social exclusion. Portes and Stepik (1993) and Bobo (2000) examined the specific racial-ethnic configurations at work in Miami and Los Angeles, respectively. In both cases, the development of these communities has been crucially shaped by immigrant groups from Asia, the Caribbean region, and Central and South America, with multidimensional ramifications that affect the economy, culture, and polity of these cities. However, immigrant groups have been more successful in capturing political and economic power in Miami than they have been in Los Angeles (cf. Portes and Stepik 1993; Bobo 2000).

Culture, Consumption, and the Development of Communities

An important line of contemporary community research has focused on the role of culture and cultural industries in economic development at the community level and in determining where development takes place. Sharon Zukin (1982, 1991, 1995) has examined how cultural industries have become increasingly important in the economies of U.S. urban communities, reflecting a shift of urban landscapes away from processes of production to an emphasis on the organization of consumption. As a consequence of new innovations in technology, finance, and business organization, Zukin argues that the relationship of market and place has become delinked. Capital now flows and circulates from place to place with increasing velocity. Cities emphasizing production (such as Detroit and Pittsburgh) have declined, while other cities oriented toward culture and consumption (e.g., Los Angeles and Miami) have risen to become leading exemplars of contemporary urbanism.

Change in the urban landscape is now driven by the appropriation of vernacular cultural forms by market forces. Urban factories are being replaced by trendy lofts, gentrification, as well as bohemian, new-wave, and niche consumer subcultures. At the same time, Disneyland (and by extension, Los Angeles) has appropriated the folklore, fantasy, and archetypes of mythic Americana and has transformed them from popular vernacular discourses into symbolic facades for power (Zukin 1991). Furthermore, the changing modalities of ludic consumption also reflect these same dynamics. Zukin contrasts the now defunct social-compact populism of Fordist or Keynesian Coney Island in the mid-twentieth century with the more recent growth of Las Vegas as a freewheeling artifice of spectacle under the logic of a more flexible and privatized freemarket moment in the development of capitalism.

Research by Terry Nichols Clark contends that cultural amenities are the driving force of how and where people work, invest, accumulate, and aggregate, resulting in urban communities becoming entertainment machines (Lloyd and Clark 2001; Clark 2004). For Clark (2004) and Richard Florida (2002, 2005), cultural amenities such as coffee shops and pubs, bookstores and music venues, film houses and theater districts, ethnic diversity and queer communities act as magnets for highly skilled, autonomous, and creative people. In turn, the availability of creative people (termed the creative class by Florida) influences where economic growth takes place and drives urban and regional growth. The research by Florida (2002, 2003, 2005) suggests that the creative class values a conception of community that is moving away from the more traditional notion of community characterized by strong primary ties of family, kin, and neighborhood. In its place, the creative class is seeking out places where community relationships are characterized by weaker ties and quasianonymous inclusiveness, openness, diversity, tolerance, and individuality (Florida 2005:30–31, 43–44).

The Relevance of Community in 21st Century Social Life

As a central topic during the nascent stages of the development of sociology, community has been a topic of research and discourse for over two centuries (Bell and Newby 1971:21). In addition to sociology, and the related subdiscipline of rural sociology, concern with the concept of community has extended across disciplinary boundaries to include specialized fields such as community planning, social work, community health, and community development. As illustrated in this essay, there has been a lack of precision in how the concept has been defined by sociologists because it has been used to reference a range of different behavioral phenomena. As sociology enters the twenty-first century, it is useful to assess whether the concept of community remains relevant to the study of contemporary social life.

Defined as a geographic territory, community is clearly relevant to social life in the twenty-first century because humans still predominantly tend to settle in politically bounded, geographic spaces. At issue is whether communities must be limited to small territories as initially specified by Tönnies ([1893] 1957) in his identification of an empirical prototype of the concept. If so, then community truly is declining. While small agrarian villages broadly similar to those found in Tönnies’s time are more prevalent in underdeveloped nations, they continue to disappear in number as urbanization progresses, either growing into larger towns and cities or stagnating and declining in population and size. Twentieth-century sociologists adapted the notion of the territorial community to include cities, subsections of cities such as neighborhoods, extensions of cities such as suburbs, and entire metropolitan areas. Assuming that these larger territorial settlements are indeed communities, it would appear that territorial communities are thriving in the early years of the twenty-first century.

In the developed nations, particularly the United States, a key change during the twentieth century was the ongoing growth in the size and geographic scale of territorial communities through suburban sprawl and the outward expansion of metropolitan communities. In highly urbanized areas, consolidated metropolitan areas have been formed from the outward growth of contiguous metropolitan areas with little to no undeveloped space in between. No matter what their size, human territorial settlements are virtually always overseen by some form of local, territorially bound government. The territorial community represents a key focus of public policy as local governments attempt to regulate and control local social conditions, including such issues as zoning and the construction of the built environment, education, crime, public health, and the development of the economy.

Defined as a network of intimate, primary relationships between humans involving emotional attachment and sentiment, community continues to be relevant to contemporary social life. It has been argued that the feelings of belonging and unity with one’s fellow human beings and the feelings of social support, emotional attachment, trust, and intimacy that come from a network of communal relationships are an essential human need that influences the well-being of the individual (see, e.g., Stueve and Gerson 1977:79; Keller 2003:3–11). For this reason alone, the need to form and maintain communal relationships is just as relevant in the twenty-first century as in previous historical eras. One facet of communal networks that has ostensibly changed at the end of the twentieth century is the extent to which the formation and maintenance of communal relationships is limited by geographic proximity.

The research of Wellman and his colleagues (Wellman 1979, 2001; Wellman et al. 1996; Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002) suggests that personalized communal networks that are geographically dispersed and mediated through information technology are becoming increasingly prevalent. This trend is likely to continue in the twenty-first century as the technology is further refined and becomes increasingly accepted as a mode for conducting human exchange. However, despite the growing prevalence of online relationships, propinquity and face-to-face interaction are likely to continue to be important in the formation and/or maintenance of communal relationships. This is because the degree of intimacy and familiarity allowed by online relationships is limited due to the constraints of the technology. While residing in close proximity for extended periods of time may no longer be an essential feature of communal networks, the greater intimacy and familiarity provided by face-to-face interaction, for however limited a period of time, is likely to continue to be important to communal relationships.

Defined as a structured system of social units that functions to provide necessary resources to sustain a human population or group, community also remains relevant to social life in the twenty-first century. A key change that has occurred over the past several decades is that the geographic scale of these systems has expanded and become increasingly international in scope as part of the process of “globalization.” Theoretical conceptualizations of this form of community developed by human ecologists and social systems theorists did not explicitly address the fact that within these communal systems, resources are predominantly allocated through markets within the context of a capitalist market economy (see, e.g., Logan and Molotch 1987:5). Contemporary research on global “commodity chains” or “value chains” can be viewed as empirically describing subcomponents of communal systems for populations in the United States. This research documents how these systems have become global in scale as U.S. firms have shifted manufacturing and services to China, India, and other nation states in an effort to increase profits and increase their competitive advantage (see, e.g., Gereffi 1994; Dossani and Kenney 2003; Gereffi et al. 2005).

An important implication of this process is that the success of international-scale systems in allocating resources to human populations in the United States is dependent on stable trade relationships and international political stability. The critical issue concerns how easily the capacity to produce goods and services required to sustain the U.S. populace can be re-created within the United States, particularly if large-scale political instability does ensue at some future point. In effect, while globalization may increase economic efficiency, it comes with the risk of disruption to the communal systems that sustain the U.S. population.

Defined as a process by which individuals symbolically construct identities as members of a group, community still has relevance to twenty-first-century social life. It is reasonable to assume that within the social context of the contemporary world, individuals define themselves as belonging to multiple symbolically constructed communities that may or may not be restricted in geographic scale. Furthermore, membership of these communities helps compose an individual’s self-identity. Some of these may be loose affiliations that impose few obligations on community members and are relatively benign in terms of their effect on social life (e.g., membership in the national community of Chicago Cubs fans). Others may represent stronger affiliations that involve extensive obligations and impose a strong social order on members, perhaps involving primordial attachment (Geertz 1963; Fischer 1977), where the self-interest of the individual becomes subordinate to the interests of the group (e.g., the community of fundamentalist Christians or the community of fundamentalist Muslims). These two symbolically constructed communities, in particular, have had significant impacts on social life in the United States and around the world in the initial years of the twenty-first century.

In closing, all the social phenomena that have been abstracted from social life and defined under the concept of community continue to have relevance for understanding social life at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Human beings continue to predominantly settle in politically bounded, geographic territories; they continue to need and seek to establish intimate, primary ties with others; they continue to organize systems to extract, produce, and allocate resources needed to ensure the survival of the species; and they continue to identify and affiliate themselves with social groups. Despite the lack of precision as a social-scientific concept, community, in all its forms, continues to be relevant to the study of social behavior in the twenty-first century.


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