P. Diaz

April 2, 2000


Most of the definitions and arguments presented in these notes are from Colin Bell and Howard Newby, Community Studies. An Introduction to the Sociology of the Local Community, George Allen and Unwin Ltd: London, 1975. This is perhaps one of the best empirical and theoretical discussion about community.


“Community” is a concept with a messy history. It emerges in classical sociology as a product of the ideological conflict between tradition and modernity (or between conservatism and liberalism) that took place in the 19th century. In the context created by the democratic political revolutions of France and North America and the process of industrialization, the concept of community was a way of praising the past in order to blame the present. Rather than an objective, analytic concept --what community “is”--, it became a normative concept --what it “should be”. .


Perhaps the best expression of this tendency is the work of Ferdinand Tonnies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (roughly translated as Community and Society). Community in this case is characterized by a “natural will”. Relations between people are governed by natural ties of kinship and friendship, by familiarity, and by age-old habit and customary ways of doing things. Social community, for Tonnies, is akin to the natural community of a living organism. It involves an underlying consensus based on kinship, on residence in a common locality, and on friendship. Social position in the community is clearly defined by birth, so personal achievements, education, property, and so, are irrelevant compared with status ascribed by birth. Thus, community is homogeneous, and socially and geographically immobile and characterized by values such as the centrality of kinship ties, solidarity as a community and attachment to the locality. Society, or rather modern society in the perspective of Tonnies, is characterized by “rational will”. Relations between people are governed by deliberation and evaluation of means and ends, or the advantages that people expect to gain from others. Thus, society is an association of people based on principles of contract and exchange.


The idea of community as a polar type in this duality informed the development of other dualities that are also ideologically charged. This is the case of the distinction created by Simmel regarding rural versus urban settings, a distinction in which the weakening of communal solidarity in urban areas would lead to the collapse of a stable social order. The same approach is observed in the differences between urban and rural settings suggested by Sorokin and Zimmerman. These authors argue that social interactions in rural settings are permanent, strong and durable, while in urban settings they are casual, superficial and short-lived. The same ideas are found in Redfield’s distinction between folk society –the folk communities—and urban society. Folk communities, in opposition to urban society, are familial, and involve intimate face-to-face relationships, minimal specialization or division of labor, intense cohesion (people united by strong bonds of local identity and loyalties and mutual obligations), and a deep commitment to shared values.


Modern definitions of community are strongly influenced by many of these untested assumptions.


G. Hillery, in an article published in 1955, found no fewer than 94 definitions of community with only one common element: all the definitions deal with people. Bell and Newby summarize these definitions in the attached table.


Generic community refers to the use of the word community as a conceptual term. Rural community refers to a particular type of community (which is interesting because conjoining community with rural community is obviously a product of the classical heritage). Under “Social Interaction” we could see two emphasis, one on the idea of place –or “geographical area”—and the other on the idea of “involvement of human beings” (or community of interests, such as the Black community or the virtual community).  The ecological approach is not clearly explained. On one side, it seems to refer to the physical nature of community, which defines the solidarity and shared interests of its members. On the other side, community is perceived as a more or less self-sufficient entity, having inherent in it the principle of its own life process. In other words, community is seen as a structure different from the sum of all its parts, possessing powers and potentialities not present in any of its components.


In any case, three elements are clear in this table: social interaction, common ties, and area. In these terms, it is not strange that sociology has developed the idea of community in two directions. First, as a type of relationship, a sense of identity, commonality, or spirit among a group of people; a meaning that is clearly in line with some of the ideological arguments in classical sociology. The second broadens the simple geographic sense of community, that of a particular territory, to refer to a local social system or a set of social relations in a particular bounded area (see D. Lee and H. Newby, The Problem of Sociology, Hutchinson: London, 1983).


The first meaning of community is rather complicated, mainly because it does not properly addresses the issues of conflict, social stratification, and unequal relations of power.   The second meaning, on the other side, is usually too abstract, which creates problems in terms of the empirical application of the concept. As one of my colleagues noted in another document, working with the concept of community is like “picking up jello with your fingers – you get some but a lots falls trough”. In these terms, it is not surprising that many social scientists have decided to dismiss the concept as ideological mystification. 


In our case we cannot ignore the concept. I propose:


-         to work with “community” as a sensitizing concept that indicates only the general direction of our theoretical and empirical work. In these terms, the definition of Bell and Newby could be appropriate.

-         to accept the idea that community is not a universal category that could be described according to given criteria. Community is a historic product and, accordingly, it comes in many shapes and flavors. In this way, community could exists in a range that goes from the idea of “community as communion” (a place characterized by trust, friendship, reciprocity, and loyalty) to the idea of “community as commodity” (a place where exchange, calculation, and competition are predominant), being then an empirical problem to define the conditions that characterize this or that community. This assumption is important since it forces us to abandon any idea that community must be only characterized by ideal variables such as self-sufficiency and value consensus.

-         To accept the idea that rural communities have some unique features: (a) resource based (in our case agriculture); (b) relatively homogeneous occupational structure, a (c) small and low-density population. In the case of the Canadian Prairies, the pattern of settlement created a particular spatial situation for the existence of the rural community: a town surrounded by farms. Moreover, given the peculiarities of Prairies agriculture, issues of production and household should also be integrated into the analysis of community. 

-         To accept the idea that place (the space-temporal location) and collective life are relevant issues in working with rural communities. This must be done, however, by recognizing (a) that the members of the community are not defined only by their locale but also by their participation in regional and national contexts, and (b) that collective life does not mean necessarily active consensus.

-         Finally, that one of the main objectives of the project should be to understand how the members of the community define those dimensions that are central to our theoretical framework: community and social cohesion.     





“A set of interrelationships among social institutions in a locality” (Bell and Newby, p.19).


“A community is said to exist when interaction between individuals has the purpose of meeting individual needs and obtaining group goals…a limited geographical area is another feature…the features of social interaction, structures for the gratification of physical, social and physical needs, and limited geographical area are basic to the definitions of community.” (Sussman, in Bell and Newby, pp. 29 and 30).


“Community is, first, a place, and second, a configuration as a way of life, both as to how people do things and what they want, to say, their institutions and goals” (Kaufman in Bell and Newby, p. 30).


“Community is a number of families residing in a relatively small area within which they have developed a more or less complete socio-cultural definitions imbued with collective identifications and by means of which they resolve problems arising from the sharing of an area” (Sutton and Kolaja, in Bell and Newby, p. 31).


“Community refers to a structure of relationships through which a localized population provides its daily requirements” (Hawley in Bell and Newby, p. 34).


“Community is a collection of people who share a common territory and meet their basic physical and social needs through daily interaction with one another” (in Allan Johnson, Human Arrangements, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1986, p. 692).


“Community is a social group with a common territorial base; those in the group share interests and have a sense of belonging to the group” (Robert Stebbins, Sociology. The Study of Society,  Harper and Row: New York, 1987, p. 534).


“Community is a body of people living in the same locality…Alternatively, a sense of identity and belonging shared among people living in the same locality…, Also, the set of social relations found in a particular bounded area” (Sylvia Dale, Controversies in Sociology. A Canadian Introduction, Copp, Clark and Pitman: Toronto, 1990, p. 562).


A Classification of Selected Definitions of Community      


Distinguishing ideas or elements                                                                       Number of

mentioned in the definitions                                                                            definitions


1.      Generic Community

  1. Social Interaction

I.                    Geographic area

a. Self sufficiency 8

b. Common Life 9

Kinship 2

c. consciousness of kind 7

d. possession of common ends, norms, means 20

e. collection of institutions 2

f. locality groups 5

g. individuality 2


II.                 Presence of some common characteristic,

a. self-sufficiency 1

b. common life 3

c. consciousness of kind 5

d. possession of common ends, norms, means 5


III.               Social system 1


IV.              Individuality 3


V.                 Totality of Attitudes 1


VI.              Process 2


  1. Ecological Relationships                                                                           3


1.      Rural Community

  1. Social Interaction

I.                    Geographic area

a. self-sufficiency 1

b. common life 3

c. consciousness of kind 3

d. possession of common ends, norms, means. 3

e. locality group 5