«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
Certainly, any attempt to define community is likely to be messy, and as Sennett pointed out, difficult. The word community holds different meanings for different people; generalizing about communities ―in ways that might seem to be universally applicable,‖ is therefore, impossible (Brydon, 2008). Selznick (1992) argued that definitions of community do not allow us to empirically study one;
rather, we should be forming a ―normative and descriptive‖ theory of community which is at once affirmative and critical—affirmative in that it explores, identifies, and embraces the positive contributions of community to human
what ways, and with what effects it deviates from the standard‖ (pp. 360A theory, rather than a definition, provides analytical power in that it incorporates the criteria that are necessary for an ideal community to exist. But, as Warren (1986) pointed out, ―there is no one good community. Rather there is a whole series of good communities, depending on what weight you‘ve given to each of a whole spectrum of different values‖ (p. 35). Therefore, if there is no ideal community that exists in reality, devising an ideal ―type‖ by which to describe or classify a community is not a useful exercise, as Selznick suggested.
Toward a theory of community Devising an ―affirmative and critical‖ theory of community requires a critical look at existing ideas about the nature and essence of community. Rather than create a new typology for community, which is polemic in nature, defining certain conditions that promote a sense of community provides more explanatory and evaluative criteria against which communities can be judged.
A discussion of community conditions requires acknowledgment of the ways the word community can be used. When preceded by ‗a‘ or ‗the,‘ the word community seems to denote something physical or tangible, if not at least perceptible. A community can be a place or, it can represent a group of people;
sometimes it represents both simultaneously. Community can also be intangible—a feeling of which we can only get a sense (Stacey, 1974). Gusfield (1975) acknowledged these two basic uses of the word community, one being
character of human relationship, without reference to location‖ (p. xvi). But community is not synonymous with the words city, town, or neighborhood.
Community isn‘t always organic or found within a given location. Surely, people often live among one another and do not meaningfully interact, forming positive and nourishing relationships. For instance, the apartment building (located in Laurel, Maryland, the ―community‖ in question for this present research) in which I lived for one year had seven other residents, only three of whom I actually knew by first name. Nor do people with similar interests necessarily form such relationships.
In other words, community is never automatic; it requires work to both form and sustain it. Community, first and foremost, is the result of the work of people. But there are certain conditions that, when present, create an opportunity for a sense of community to be felt among members as well as sustained by those members. These conditions include (1) place, (2) sharing, and (3) relationships.
For community to be found or felt, all three need not be present simultaneously;
however, the strongest communities will take advantage of all three conditions.
Though place is becoming less central to sense of community because of new communication technologies, it remains a foundational condition under which many communities form. For even people meeting online do so in some cyberspace—even though it may not be physical. Therefore, the discussion of the three community conditions will begin with place.
The Chicago School, whose notable scholars included Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, Louis Wirth, and Morris Janowitz, used physical places—such as towns, cities, even the ghettos—to study human interactions and societal changes via localized communities. These places served as laboratories for their ethnographic fieldwork. Up until the twenty-first century, with the advent and rise in popularity of the Internet, ―community‖ was often investigated on location, in physical spaces. Goist (1977) pointed out that ―for an important segment of the American imagination, ‗the town‘ is synonymous with ‗community‘‖ (p. 3). And, for a majority of Americans, ―the small town was the basic form of social organization‖ prior to 1910 (Tarkington & Gale 1977, p. 13). But, in 1942,
Morgan saw that American communities were not living up their potential:
In modern America, the village, the neighborhood, the hamlet, or the city, often has become but an economic aggregation or only an incidental grouping, without the acquaintance, the personal relationships, and the common interests and activities, which are the essential characteristics of a
Still, several scholars saw place communities as interesting sites for social study.
Keller (2003) noted in her book Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the
Reality, about the first planned-unit development in New Jersey:
With few exceptions, community always denotes a there. The territory that encloses a community offers a proximity and density conducive to other kinds of closeness. No matter in which container—village, town,
collective life and the patterns of life created therein (p. 6).
But, in an age where new technologies have changed our relationship to physical place by allowing us to maintain connections with people and places via an Internet connection rather than being physically present for conversations or even special events, one might wonder why ―place‖ would remain the starting point for a discussion on requirements of community. Clearly, place, or physical proximity, is no longer necessary for people to interact, form relationships and stay connected; the Internet affords opportunities for meeting new people and sharing experiences more easily and across virtual space (Evans, 2004). But while it might not be necessary, place still holds importance in an understanding of community insofar as it grounds people and provides them with a sense of identity and rootedness, which serves as an important foundation on which to build community. After all, all people do live in some ―place.‖ Because people‘s need to connect with others is so strong, when meeting new acquaintances one of the first questions they tend to ask is ―so, where are you from?‖ (Frantz, 2003, p.
1). Place serves as an important way for people to establish something in common. According to Hummon (1990), conversations about hometowns or places of residence are not merely ways to pass time, but instead they represent one way—and a distinctly important way in American culture—that people make sense of reality. Here, talk about small towns becomes a way of characterizing a way of life, and discussions of urban crime involve commonsense theories of how society works. Here, debates
values, and questions about where one lives become queries about who one is. From this interpretive stance, widespread talk about communities suggests the centrality of community ideology and identity in American
As Hummon pointed out, place is an important part of personal as well as communal identity. Meyrowitz (1985) highlighted ―the specialness of place‖ in his treatise on the impact of electronic media, like the telephone, which he believed was eroding the importance of the physicality of place. Additionally, those who value face-to-face conversation, like Dewey (1927), Carey (1997a), and even Habermas (1991), argued that place—or rather social space—is important for fostering social relationships and community. Carey‘s (1997a) notion of a ―republican community‖—one in which we recognize the interdependence of our lives—―is organized around the principle of common social space in which people mingle and become aware of one another as inhabiting a common place‖ (p. 10). These common places could include a town or neighborhood, but also what Oldenburg (1999) coined ―third places‖—or ―a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work‖ (p. 16).
Oldenburg‘s ―third spaces‖ resemble Habermas‘ (1991) bourgeois public sphere, where ―private people come together as a public‖ to debate self-governing (p. 26). Habermas‘ notion of the public sphere, however, was somewhat limiting
houses such as salons and coffee houses to discuss news and other civic and economic matters (p. 37). Oldenburg‘s ―third spaces‖ represent a modern take on Habermas‘ public sphere, though unlike the public sphere, there is no guarantee of the ―rational-critical‖ debate expected in the bourgeoisie salons and coffee houses. But, third spaces do represent places where people spend leisure time with others. So, while we may identify with the town in which we lived as a source of community, we may also identify with other places, like a particular barber shop, bowling alley, bookstore, or a local pub as a site for a sense of community.
So-called ―third places‖ act as a leveler, in that they are ―accessible to the general public and [do] not set formal criteria of membership and exclusion‖ (p.
24). Third places expand possibilities for community by allowing more informal, yet face-to-face associations with people whom people might not regularly associate—people of a different race, social or economic status (p. 24). Those places also ground our interactions with others, often becoming one of the defining conditions for the community they have fostered.
Furthermore, physical spaces allow for actual boundaries, which make it easier for members to know when they are inside or outside of their community.
Regulars at the local pub or barber shop often feel a sense of comfort and belonging upon entering, knowing that they are among others who are likeminded and accepting of them. Such boundaries, however, can also lead others— who may not be considered regulars—to feel uncomfortable, diminishing the
are no guarantees that community will be fostered in a town, neighborhood, or third space; place alone does not guarantee community.
A place does not become a community until people are willing to use that space to its fullest advantage by interacting in ways that helps them to foster and form meaningful relationships around things they share in common (place being one of them). Nonetheless, place—with its tendencies to ground people and provide roots and identity, as well as create boundaries—creates an ideal condition within which communities can develop and grow. The next two sections explore sharing and relationships as the two other defining conditions for community.
Condition 2: Sharing Community is the work of people. In order for people to be willing to do the work required to develop and sustain a community, people must have an incentive or reason for doing so—beyond the general need or desire to be social creatures. When people share one or more things in common, connections are established, making interaction more likely, if not more natural. According to Morgan (1942), who wrote on small, physical American communities, ―the existence of a community is determined, not by the amount of organization and social machinery, but by the extent to which common needs and interests are worked out by unified planning and action, in a spirit of mutual interest‖ (p. 24).
There are many things people can share which draw them together, forming community. Place, the first condition for community, is something that people
together—though it is neither necessary nor sufficient for community to exist.
But yet words like ―hermit‖ describe individuals who live in seclusion. However, even modern-day hermits have the ability to be a part of a community with the development of the Internet and online communities—more on that later.
Members may share values, beliefs, or goals, like making their town a good place to live or their children‘s school a positive learning environment.
Goals may extend from shared experiences—like fighting breast cancer or recovering from the aftermath of a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina—or beliefs—like faith, spirituality, or politics. Goals should benefit the enhancement or growth of the entire community. According to Keller (2003), organizations that have members‘ personal gains as the primary goal of the organization are not sufficient for community. ―For community to exist, individuals must not only be close to one another but moving toward collective goals as well‖ (p. 8).
Experiences that can inspire shared goals may be positive or, in many cases, negative. For instance, ―communities of crisis‖ are ―fashioned more by the times than by intellectual ideas‖ (Fowler, 1995, p. 90). Heskin‘s (1991) analysis of a group of Californians who became cooperative land owners as a result of a canceled freeway project is a fine example of people coming together as a result of a common experience and crisis. In 1975, a group of families met to fight for their homes in an area of Los Angeles, which were being potentially sold to the State of California for a freeway project (14). When the fight was over in 1980 the tenants found themselves collective owners of five ―scattered-site
and manage their collective space in what Heskin called (also the title of his book) a ―struggle for community.‖ Sennett (1970) argued that ―the most direct way to knit people‘s lives together is through necessity, by making men need to know about each other in order to survive‖ (p. 138). Sometimes, experiences that draw people together are a result of survival, such as people who fostered communities as a result of their lived experiences through tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which requires people to focus more on their broad commonalities rather than their insignificant differences.