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Community

The sociology of community has been a dominant source of sociological inquiry since the earliest days of the discipline. Each of the three most influential nineteenth century sociologists (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) regarded the social transformation of community in its various forms to be a fundamental problem of sociology and sociological theory. Thomas Bender (1978) suggests that as early social thinkers observed the disruption of the traditional social order and traditional patterns of social life associated with industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of capitalism, significant attention was focused on the social transformation of community and communal life. It should be emphasized that contemporary sociology remains, at its core, a discipline largely concerned with the definition and persistence of community as a form of social organization, social existence, and social experience.

The definition of community in sociology has been problematic for several reasons, not the least of which has been nostalgic attachment to the idealized notion that community is embodied in the village or small town where human associations are characterized as Gemeinschaft: that is, associations that are intimate, familiar, sympathetic, mutually interdependent, and reflective of a shared social consciousness (in contrast to relationships that are Gesellschaft—casual, transitory, without emotional investment, and based on selfinterest). According to this traditional concept of community, the requirements of community or communal existence can be met only in the context of a certain quality of human association occurring within the confines of limited, shared physical territory.

The classic perspective on community offered by Carle Zimmerman (1938) is consistent with this theme, in that the basic four characteristics argued by Zimmerman to define community (social fact, specification, association, and limited area) require a territorial context. George Hillary (1955), in a content analysis of ninety-four definitions of community advanced in sociological literature, discovered basic consensus on only three definitional elements: social interaction between people, one or more shared ties, and an area context. However, Hillary noted that area context was the least required of these three definitional elements. Others (e.g., Lindeman 1930; Bender 1978; McMillan and Chavis 1986) argue that community can be achieved independently of territorial context where social networks exist sufficiently to sustain a Gemeinschaft quality of interaction and association. According to this point of view, territory is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to define the existence of community. In this vein, David McMillan and David Chavis suggest a state of community exists when four elements co-exist: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connections. They argue that communities can be defined either in relational terms or territorial terms as long as these four elements are present together.

Major Questions in the Sociology of Community

The major questions that concern the sociology of community include the distinguishing characteristics and definition of community, the bases of communal experience and integration, the unique functions and tasks of community, the units of social structure within the community and the relationships and interactions between structural units, the economic and social bases of the community social structure, the relationship and distinction between internal community social structure and macrosocial structures external to the community, the relationship between individual experience and behavior and communal experience and behavior, the causes and processes of transformation from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft states of social existence, and processes of community persistence and adaptation in the face of social change.

Community Studies

Community studies undertaken by sociologists over the past sixty years have to a large extent sought to address some if not all of these issues. The most famous and controversial include Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies (1929, 1937) and the Yankee City series by W. Lloyd Warner and his associates (1963). The more wellknown studies that have focused on the problem of community within large cities have included William Whyte’s Street Corner Society and Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum, which themselves are aligned with earlier Robert Park and Ernest Burgess conceptions of the ‘‘natural community’’ arising within the confines of a seemingly faceless, anonymous, large city (Suttles 1972, pp. 7–9). Descriptive studies that emphasize field work and examine social structure as a spatial phenomenon are the hallmark of the highly influential Chicago School that arose and flourished under Robert Park and Ernest Burgess of the University of Chicago Department of Sociology during the 1920s and 1930s.

Robert and Helen Lynd carried out two studies (1929, 1937) involving extensive personal field work on the town of Muncie, Indiana: Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). In the first Middletown study, the Lynds spent the years 1924–1925 participating in and observing the community life of Middletown (population 36,500), and performing extensive survey work. Their objective was to address all aspects of social life and social structure of the community. A fundamental focus of the Lynds’ earlier analysis concerned the consequences of technological change (industrialization) on the social structure of Middletown, in particular the emergence of social class conflicts subsequent to turn-of-the-century industrialization.

Although the Lynds found distinctions between the living conditions and opportunity structures of business and working-class families that were consistent with their Marxist expectations (i.e., children of the working class were more likely to drop out of school to help support the family, working-class families labored longer hours for less pay and less financial security, and living conditions in general were more harsh for workingclass families), they failed to discover a disparate value structure or alienation among the working class. At all levels of social class, the Middletown of 1925 shared a common conservative value structure that entailed self-reliance, faith in the future, and a belief in hard work. The subsequent study, undertaken in 1935 by Robert Lynd and a staff of five assistants, addressed the effects on Muncie of certain events during the period between 1925 and 1935, some of which were economic boom times, a thirty-seven percent population increase, and the emergence of the Great Depression. The Lynds’ fundamental questions in the later study addressed the persistence of the social fabric and culture of the community in the face of the ‘‘hard times’’ and other aspects of social change, the stability of community values concerning self-reliance and faith in the future when confronted by structurally-induced poverty and dependence, whether the Depression promoted a sense of community or undermined community solidarity by introducing new social cleavages, and the outcomes of latent conflicts observed in the mid-1920s (Lynd and Lynd 1937, p. 4).

The conclusion reached by the Lynds was that the years of depression did little to diminish or otherwise change the essentially bourgeois value structure and way of life in Middletown, and that in almost all fundamental respects the community culture of Middletown remained much as it did a tumultuous decade earlier: ‘‘In the main, a Rip Van Winkle, fallen asleep in 1925 while addressing Rotary or the Central Labor Union, could have awakened in 1935 and gone right on with his interrupted address to the same people with much the same ideas’’ (Lynd and Lynd 1937, p. 490). Although this remark seems to reflect some amount of disappointment on the Lynds’ part that Middletown’s bourgeois value system and class structure remained so unchanged in the face of widespread and unprecedented destitution, the Lynds still remained convinced that the Middletown family was in jeopardy, as evidenced by (among other things) an ever-widening generation gap. The Lynds’ apprehensions concerning the survival of the American family were (and are) in keeping with the popular belief concerning the decline of the American family as its socialization functions are assumed by other formal social institutions external to the family.

The Middletown III study undertaken from 1976 to 1978 by Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick, attempted to closely replicate the methodology of the Lynds. However, their findings were at odds with the more pessimistic predictions of the Lynds. In contrast to the Lynds’ foreboding in 1935 and popular sociology since that time, Caplow and his associates contend that Middletown’s families of the 1970s have ‘‘increased family solidarity, a smaller generation gap, closer marital communication, more religion, and less mobility’’ (Caplow et al. 1982, p. 323). The conclusions derived from the third Middletown studies also reject similar assumptions concerning consistent linear trends in equalization, secularization, bureaucratization, and depersonalization consistent with the relentless Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft theme (Bahr, Caplow, and Chadwick 1983).

Although many of the Lynds’ predictions concerning the social transformation of Middletown failed to pan out as history unfolded, their work and remarkable powers of observation remain unparalleled in many respects. Of equal importance, the early Middletown studies helped to inspire such other works as Street Corner Society and the Yankee City studies, and they remain the standard by which all other community studies are judged.

The largest scale community study undertaken remains W. Lloyd Warner’s Yankee City, published in a five volume series from 1941 through 1959 (W. Lloyd Warner and Paul S. Lund, The Social Life of a Modern Community 1941; W. Lloyd Warner and Paul S. Lund, The Status System of a Modern Community 1942; W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole, The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups 1945; W. Lloyd Warner and J. O. Low, The Social System of the Modern Factory 1947; and W. Lloyd Warner The Living and the Dead 1959). The Yankee City project was undertaken by Warner and his associates in Newburyport, Massachusetts during the late 1930s. Warner, an anthropologist, attempted to obtain a complete ethnographic account of a ‘‘representative’’ American small community with a population range from 10,000 to 20,000. To accomplish this task, Warner’s staff (numbering in the thirties) conducted aerial surveys of Newburyport and its surrounding communities, gathered some 17,000 ‘‘social personality’’ cards on every member of the community, gathered data on the professed and de facto reading preferences of its citizens, and even subjected plots of local plays to content analysis (Thernstrom 1964).

Warner’s conception of Yankee City was that of a stable, rather closed community with a social structure being transformed in very negative ways by the latter stages of industrialization. According to Warner’s vision of Yankee City, the loss of local economic control over its industries through a factory system controlled by ‘‘outsiders’’ disrupted traditional management—labor relations and communal identification with local leadership. Moreover, the factory system was seen by Warner as promoting an increasingly rigid class structure and decreased opportunities for social mobility. In particular, Warner’s discussion of the loss of local economic control through horizontal and vertical affiliation, orientation, and delegation of authority seems to have offered a prophetic glimpse into the future for many American communities.

Although the Yankee City study produced a voluminous ethnographic record of an American city that has remained untouched in scale, Warner found little support for his contention that the ethnographic portrait of Newburyport produced by the Yankee City series could be generalized to other small American communities. Moreover, Warner’s contention that social mobility is reduced by industrial change was not supported by the quality of his data and was less true in Warner’s time than it probably is today. Other critiques of Warner’s Yankee City study primarily concern his nearly exclusive reliance on ethnographic information as the basis for all measures of social structure and his disdain for historical data (Thernstrom 1964).

Both Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum (1968) and William Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943) provide sociology with unparalleled ethnographic accounts of neighborhood social structure and communal life in urban environs. Suttles’s work focuses on the territorial relationships, neighborhood social structure, and communal life among Italian, Latino, and African American inhabitants of the slums of Chicago’s Near West Side in the 1960s. Whyte’s Street Corner Society, based on Whyte’s residence in a Chicago Italian slum district a generation earlier, provides sociology with an understanding of the complex and stable social organization that existed within slum neighborhoods conventionally believed to have epitomized social disorganization. Whyte’s observations and keen insights concerning small group behavior are pioneering contributions to that area of sociology. Both studies, in method, theory, and substance are classic examples of Chicago School sociology. More contemporary community studies, while they draw heavily on Chicago School sociological traditions in theory and method, have as their primary concern aspects of community that relate to poverty, juvenile delinquency, and violence. For example, Robert Sampson and his colleagues conducted a large-scale study of Chicago neighborhoods that linked subjective definitions of neighborhood with social cohesion and violence inhibiting actions on the part of neighbors (Sampson 1997a, 1997b). Theoretically, Sampson’s work draws heavily on Robert Park’s conception of the social cohesion that exists within the ‘‘natural areas’’ of the city that are defined by both physical and sentimental boundaries (Park 1925), while methodologically Sampson and his colleagues employed the classic Chicago School preference for field observation—albeit with the modern advantages of a video camera located within a slowly moving van in place of the shoe leather sociology of their predecessors.

Community in the Context of Social Reforms

Efforts to enhance the social context of human existence continuously take place at all levels of social organization, from the microcontext of the nuclear family to the macrocontext of relationships between nation-states. No unit of social organization has received more attention in theories and activities linked to social reform than the human community, however it is defined and measured. Community in the context of social reform is typically viewed or employed in one of the following four ways: as a unit of analysis for the purpose of broad generalization, as a critical mediating influence between the organization of mass society and individual outcomes, as a specific target of social reform efforts, or as a symbolic conception of whatever is ‘‘right’’ or ‘‘wrong’’ with society at large.

The use of rural and urban communities as the basis for reform-motivated generalization emerged in the United States during the Progressive era, when social activists affiliated with Chicago’s famous settlement house, Hull House, and the newly formed Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago shared a common geographically- rooted conception of social science and concern for the living conditions of Chicago’s urban poor (Sklar 1998). Hull House Maps and Papers, published in 1895, provides a remarkably detailed description of the lives and living conditions within Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods based on the field research of university students and full-time residents of Hull House. In fact, the beginnings of Chicago School sociology were clearly rooted in the methods if not the concerns of Hull House social reformers, despite the fact that as women they were excluded from holding academic appointments until the creation of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in 1907 (Muncy 1991).

In later years, small towns and neighborhoods within larger towns became a common unit of analysis as community studies conducted by the federal Children’s Bureau tried to assess the incidence and causes of infant mortality. The first of these studies, conducted in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1913, was the earliest scientific study of the incidence of infant mortality by social class, education, occupation, and specific living conditions conducted in the United States (Duke 1915). Reform- driven community studies since then have addressed such social issues as child labor, juvenile delinquency, education, industrial working conditions, and adequate housing. Although single communities are still used by social reformers as a basis for broad generalization, such studies are enormously expensive to conduct, often of limited use for generalization, and altogether less frequent with the availability of national survey data.

Despite the conceptual ambiguities involved, the geographically-bounded community (e.g., census tract, city ward, resident defined neighborhood) is generally viewed by liberal and conservative social reformers alike as the critical mediating social context between the well-being of individuals, the effective functioning and stability of families, and society at large. Robert Hauser and his associates identify such factors as the physical infrastructure, the quality and quantity of neighborhood institutions, the demographic composition, and the degree of ‘‘social capital’’ present as measurable aspects of neighborhoods that are critical to the well-being of children and families (Hauser, Brown, and Prosser 1997). The concept of social capital, introduced by James Coleman, refers to the beneficial normative context that arises in some neighborhoods based on the social ties among neighboring households and local institutions (Coleman 1988). In this vein, Robert Sampson demonstrates that neighborhoods with evidence of more social capital are more effective in inhibiting adolescent delinquency (Sampson, 1997b). Speaking from the opposite perspective of social disorganization, William Julius Wilson (1987, 1996), and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993) emphasize the deleterious effects on the normative context within communities created by such macrolevel exogenous factors as economic restructuring, concentrated poverty, and racial segregation. A related concern is the extent to which increased spatial stratification by social class may be promoting neighborhoods and larger communities, which function as distinct social worlds with ever more divergent values and opportunity structures (Massey 1996).

Efforts to effect social reform at the community level have a long tradition of sentiment, failure, and mixed success. There are a variety of reasons for failure, not the least of which is that communities, like individuals, both mirror and are shaped by complex exogenous social processes. Contemporary issues include conceptual differences in the measures used for community, the fact that community effects on individual outcomes are difficult to isolate and often weaker than popular theory would suggest (Plotnick and Hoffman 1999; Brooks- Gunn, Duncan, and Aber 1997), and the limiting effect of macrolevel processes on community-level reform efforts (Wallace and Wallace 1990; Halpern 1991). Recent efforts at community-level social reform have placed more emphasis on understanding the unique social context within a target community before applying social prescriptions that appear logically appealing or may have worked elsewhere. For example, David Hawkins and Richard Catalano, in their work on juvenile drug and alcohol abuse, focus on a community assessment process that considers the risk and protective factors that are unique to each community before deciding upon specific community-level interventions (Hawkins and Catalano 1992).

Social Theory and the Transformation of Community

Every generation of sociologists since the time of Durkheim have concerned themselves with the social transformation and meaning of community in the face of industrial change and urbanization. Roland Warren (1978) describes the modern social transformation of community as a change of orientation by the local community units toward the extracommunity systems of which they are a part, with a corresponding decrease in community cohesion and autonomy (Warren 1978, pp. 52– 53). Warren identifies seven areas through which social transformation can be analyzed: division of labor, differentiation of interests and association, increasing systemic relationships to the larger society, bureaucratization and impersonalization, transfer of functions to profit enterprise and government, urbanization and suburbanization, and changing value.

Bender (1978) proposes that the observations by various community scholars at different points in historical time, each suggesting that theirs is the historical tipping point from community to mass society, contradict linear decline or an interpretation of history that stresses the collapse of community. He suggests that a ‘‘bifurcation of social experience’’ or sharpening of the distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft realms of social interaction is a more accurate interpretation of the historical transformation of community than that provided by the linear Gemeinschaft-to-gesellschaft framework.

Barry Wellman and Barry Leighton (1979) suggest that there are three essential arguments concerning the fate of community in mass society: community ‘‘lost,’’ community ‘‘saved,’’ and community ‘‘liberated.’’ The community ‘‘lost’’ argument emerged during the Industrial Revolution, as traditional communal modes of production and interaction gave way to centralized, industrialized sources of production and dependence. According to this hypothesis and its variations, the intimate, sustained, and mutually interdependent human associations based on shared fate and shared consciousness observed in traditional communal society are relentlessly giving way to the casual, impersonal, transitory, and instrumental relationships based on self-interest that are characteristic of social existence in modern industrial society.

The classic essay in the community ‘‘lost’’ tradition is Louis Wirth’s ‘‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’’ (1938). Wirth’s eloquent essay presents a perspective of urban existence that continues to capture sociological thinking about the emergence of a heterogeneous urban mass society characterized by a breakdown of informal, communal ways of meeting human need and the rise of human relationships that are best characterized as ‘‘largely anonymous, superficial, and transitory’’ (Wirth 1938, p. 1). Another important contribution in the decline of community tradition is the ‘‘community of limited liability’’ thesis (Janowitz 1952; Greer 1962). According to this thesis, networks of human association and interdependence exist at various levels of social organization, and there are social status characteristics associated with differentiated levels of participation in community life (e.g., family life-cycle phase). The idea of ‘‘limited liability’’ poses the argument that, in a highly mobile society, the attachments to community tend to be based on rationalism rather than on sentiment and that even those ‘‘invested’’ in the community are limited in their sense of personal commitment.

In direct contrast to the community ‘‘lost’’ perspective, the community ‘‘saved’’ argument suggests that communities and communal relationships continue to exist within industrialized bureaucratic urban societies as people are increasingly motivated to seek ‘‘safe communal havens’’ (William and Lieghton 1979, p. 373). For example, Bahr, Caplow, and Chadwick (1983), forty years after the Lynds’ Middletown in Transition study, failed to find the singular trends in bureaucratization, secularization, mobility, and depersonalization that would be predicted from a linear decline of community hypothesis. Their observation of Middletown in the 1970s was more consistent with the perspective proposed by Robert Redfield (1955); that both urban ways and folkways coexist within contemporary small towns and cities: ‘‘In every isolated little community there is civilization; in every city there is the folk society’’ (Redfield 1955, p. 146).

The community ‘‘liberated’’ argument concedes and to some extent qualifies key aspects of both the community ‘‘lost’’ and community ‘‘saved’’ perspectives. While it acknowledges that neighborhood- level communal ties have been weakened in the face of urbanization, it argues that communal ties and folkways still flourish, albeit in alternative non-spatial forms. The community ‘‘liberated’’ argument suggests that the spatial dependence of communal ties have been replaced by ease of mobility and communication across boundaries of both geographic and social distance. Although the community ‘‘liberated’’ argument preceeded the development of the Internet and cyberspace‘‘chatrooms’’ by decades, it emphasizes the role of communication technology in the creation of such future manifestations of community and in that sense was strikingly prophetic.

Despite the fact that the decline of community or the community ‘‘lost’’ perspective continues to hold broad appeal (e.g., Robert Putnam’s ‘‘The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,’’ The American Prospect, Winter, 1996), the empirical evidence for a real decline in community is far from conclusive. A time trend analysis of national surveys concerning the persistence of community in American society by Avery Guest and Susan Wierzbicki (1999) suggests that while traditional intra-neighborhood forms of socializing have slowly declined over the past two decades, they have been largely replaced by communal ties outside the local neighborhood. Moreover, Guest and Wierzbicki’s findings also suggest that spatial ‘‘within neigborhood’’ communal ties continue to be important to a large segment of the population. Their findings imply that the major questions about the place of community in mass society should not be about whether communal forms of relationships will continue to exist, but rather under what conditions and in what form.

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This Aricle was Written by
GUNNAR ALMGREN

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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