Community – Dr. Sylvia Collins-Mayo

1982 TV series Cheers started. Might remember some of the characters and the theme tune, which was a good opening to the show but also to the sociological debates happening around community and what it means.

In some ways it captures the nature of community in the bar, and the nostalgia and yearning that is evident from politicians, pundits, media and marketers mourning the loss of community – whatever it is that we conceive it to be. It contrasts the bar place wherever knows you with the problems of the world and dislocation in identity and finances etc.

Anxiety of community was a key point of concern for early sociologists watching the aftermath of industrial revolution, e.g. Emile Durkheim in the Division of Labour (1893) moving from social community to interdependence characteristic of the urban life where home and work specialised, and labour separated into specialised groups. Mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity.

This paved the way for a very individualised society. Writing just before Ferdinand Tonnies wrote Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1897) with groups connected around emotional ties, e.g. the rural village seen as community. Community has value for its own sake, it has meaning and value for those who belong to it. Other groups have been consciously formed by individuals to help meet particular goals – these are known as society or associations – it doesn’t necessarily have value of itself but by what they can achieve, based through rational will.

What is community
Definitions of communities have been really hard to pin down, and at times sociologists felt it was too dangerous to pin down in an empirical way. Digital technology has renewed interest in community.

Technically together, Michelle Wilson, considers how community shifts as notions of time and geography shift due to technology. Outlines some non-defining characteristics but present and overlapping in all communities:
Bonding – Emotional Attachment: in community people are connected together which has an emotional aspect. “People know your name and are glad you came”. An experience of membership which is socially and personally valued – people belong to a community. Sense of belonging is most present in face-to-face interaction but Anderson says even when everyone doesn’t know your name as the community is too large you can still feel a part of it, e.g. London 2012 Olympics. We can welcome strangers when we feel they are part of one of us – a Christian from abroad on holiday is welcomed as part of the church family.
Reciprocity – Participation and Obligation – to be in community is to communicate (a reciprocal act) and have responsibilities to one another – helping each other out in difficult times. The notion of helping goes beyond one-to-one scratching each others back, instead a reasonable expectation that the community cares for each other with trust and loyalty. The promise of safety and security in the face of difficulties, e.g. discussion in social capital highlights the discussion of reciprocality.
Commonality – characteristics and events, shared values and norms: shared characteristics allowing us to experience empathy – race, language, place, religion, gender, class etc. are all characteristics that can be held in value. Times of shared crisis can also realise commonality with the community coming together after the 2011 riots, and the Woolwich murder recently coming together – sometimes different types of communities coming together. One thing we all share in common is that we are all born and all die – in society where death is pushed back we lose the sense of our common vulnerability. More broadly commonality suggests shared values and norms – e.g. hard work, punctuality – these often don’t need thinking about. Values and norms are articulated and tested through events. Social chat, gossip, every day actions as well as formal rules and discipline maintain a way of being together.
Identity – we belong to a community and community identity informs our own personal identity. It helps us to understand where we do and don’t fit. It is where some of the less desirable aspects of community can be felt – community can be a place of exclusion as well as inclusion, individuals can be shunned, and communities can be pitted against each other – e.g. the political discourse of immigration with the foreigner being pitted against the home person. It places a framework to see our own identity. We can be marginalised if we have the wrong sexuality, gender, ethnicity etc. if it goes against the community norms. This is particularly important for young people who din’t fit into their community.

We belong to many small communities in their own right. Cheers is one such small community with the patrons going off to different communities beyond the bar. Diversity in communities is facilitated by technology allowing us to condense space and time. This allows us to create new communities that weren’t possible a few years ago.

Networks and Digital Communities
Networks focus on choice and individual choice, radiating out from the individual, whereas community embraces the individual. Day notes that dense networks are similar to communities, but networks are more flexible and require less commitment. We can choose to be a part of community and choose to leave them. We can choose to belong to more than one church and have less bonding with one particular community.

The jury is out on whether or not networks constitute communities – digital community is testing community definitions. Some people see greater egalitarianism and democracy through the digital communities. “Electronic networks tend to be almost exclusively from the standpoint of the individual, the emphasis naturally falls on what it feels like to take part, rather than on what it achieves” (Day, 2006, p 228).

Young People
Day in Believing in Belonging asked what people believed in – they believed in their friends, partners and relationships. That echoes the results of Making Sense of Generation Y and The Faith of Generation Y with the views of family and friends. Friends and families are disembodied from community especially with blended families.

Technology extended networks, but what is more interesting is that it intensifies relationships. Young people can hold multiple relationships at once, e.g. sitting at meal table but still texting. What is more dangerous is that young people are expected to be digital. Relationships are held up to the public gaze and judgement digitally.

Young people recognise the need for others but also to provide support for friends and families. 2011 census data says 170k children and young people are carers for parents, siblings and family members. The Children’s Society put the figure to be closer to 700k. There is a broader element, e.g. Street Pastors of older generation engaging clubbing generation, it is noticeable that young people ensure drunk friends gets home, friends would wrap other drunk and abusive friends home to prevent trouble etc., but also if they see a vulnerable stranger they would stay and hep them until expert help arrives.

Young people’s neighbourly activities is not seen by community or themselves and yet Smith et al in 2010 saw many random Acts of Kindness, volunteering etc., but not necessarily registering it. But on the other hand many young people feel isolated, Princes Trust show 1 in 5 young people feel isolated most of the time and 1 in 10 feel like an outcast and a third feel that they don’t have a future in their area, and rarely spoke to people over the age of 40, and two-thirds never speak to someone over the age of 60, and half felt ignored by older people and as though the older people were scared of them.

There can be less perceived hostility e.g. through seeing Steer Pastors as grandparents. The Street Pastors get respect as they are perceived and known for helping, for being on the young people’s side.

Young people perceive community as friends and family but also organisational settings – schools, clubs, churches. Moral communities where young people see it as an important place to be. Some young people wouldn’t allow their friends to join and muck up the community for them and their other friends. Pilgrimage has been examined in France with World Youth Day where young people found the journey in community being the highlight not the mass with the Pope.

The idea of networks takes us into lifestyle communities. We used to speak about sub-cultures, now focus on lifestyle networks. Environment groups, protest groups – people coming together around shared values and purpose. Is church a lifestyle group – opting in a more associational and consumeristic way? Social media sites reinforce these lifestyle networks.

Unlike network friendships, gang membership is more like pre-modern communities very geographically located cultures, with demarcated community, and have rules that are often in conflict with wider society. Young people join because of the perceived need to protect themselves, giving them a sense of safety whilst demanding loyalty etc.

In many respects young people’s experience of community is based on neo-kingship groups and structures. That is up against network groups and affiliations which take second place for the communities. Technology can extend community but more importantly intensify it. In the face-to-face it is understood and therefore valued by young people.

We focus too much on programme instead of creating community and enabling them to feel that they belong and are part of it. We will find community somewhere as we are social beings. What communities do we want young people to find? How long does clean up from riots help us to form community or does it finish straight after? Residential does this in a sense creating bonds for young people.

When asking young people about community perceptions they reflect on each other. They don’t see themselves doing things wrong as that isn’t their community? The community of which you are a part defines your norms, values and expectations.

The church can be containing the dark-side of community – encouraging young people to dialogue around what does God want community to become?

Married to the amazing Sarah and raising Jakey, Daniel, Amelia, Josh & Jonah in our blended family. Passionate for Jesus, social work & sport.

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