The Decline of “Community”: from Generalized Reciprocity to Extended Personality

The concept ‘Community’ is difficult to define because any attempt to give an adequate descriptive account for the phenomena remains invariably mired in a moral debate about the relative value of different styles of inter-subjective relationships. The best way to resolve the ambiguity inherent in attempting to resolve a moral issue on technical grounds is to take self-consciously moralizing position on the nature of community. In this short paper, I will argue that an adequate definition of community must must include a generalized, non-specific expectation of reciprocity. One implication of this definition will a moralizing condemnation of the trends of electronic, networked communication and the increasing prevalence of individual-centric networks in the place of non individual centric communal arrangements.

Theodori’s definition of community draws on the interactionist theories of Kaufman and Wilkonson, and defines community as process that bridges together different social fields inside a local society around locality-oriented actions. (Theodori 2005) In other words, when different groupings of people who don’t normally interact with each other, but live in the same place, get together to solve shared problems – that’s community. Unfortunately, Theodori hasn’t defined community – he’s defined a process which he believes will lead to community. He even hints at this when he says the generalized actions will give “structure to the whole of community as an interactional field by linking and organizing the common interests of the various social fields”. Theodori avoids saying anything about the manner in which the interactional field becomes structured other than to say it must give rise to some feeling of “shared identity” – and crucially he does not specify how significant this identity must be in relation to any pre-existent identities carried by specific social fields. People who disagree in many significant ways about the nature of community could find themselves agreeing with this definition, as since the structure of the community field is not specified, it can be filled in by their own beliefs as to what makes a community good.

While relying on the framework provided by Theodori, I will offer in response a more specific, and explicitly moral definition of community: community occurs when an increase in generalized reciprocity erodes the barriers that prevent the flow of social capital between social fields, corroding barriers to access to social capital across a locality. It is not enough merely for members of different social fields to collaborate on projects of common interest if those collaborations do not break down the barriers to accessing social capital that divide them. The development of a “community field” must increase the amount of access members of the community have to each other’s social capital. Community must be a practical form of local solidarity. 1 To speak of a “community” of coordination between social groups which do not intermix or share social capital, is not to speak of “community” but of alliance, in the militaristic, or even machiavellian sense. And to speak of a “bad community” is say something oxymoronic – a bad community is simply no community at all.

Extending Theodori’s framework into an explicitly moral definition for community helps make sense of the most contentious part of his definition: the insistence on place as a necessary condition for community. If community means generalized reciprocity across a number of different fields of interest, that generalization must happen somewhere. This isn’t to say that generalized reciprocity can’t emerge on a forum, or in a social media group, but generally speaking those increases in shared social capital happen within a specific field of interest, or a pre-existent shared sense of identity. If there are cases where different social fields find themselves in the same locality on a web server, and out of a need to face common problems, build up a shared sense of identity and share social capital across the previously existing social fields, then the web server could be properly called a locality – it would simply have the characteristics of a “real place”. However, none of the “online communities” discussed by Kendall (2011) meet this criteria, and while I am sympathetic with her desire to move away from the question whether “online communities are “real” communities”, the use of the term “community” in the place of “social group”, here and elsewhere.

We shouldn’t blame researchers for the confusion arising around the concept of “community”. The confusion is ontological: it is taking place at the level of the real structure of the bulk of our social relationships. Increasingly, we don’t see community as something out there that we belong to and participate in, but rather as something that emerges outwards from our being at the centre – what Wellman (2009) calls “personal communities”, or “networked individualism”. Barry Wellman believes that the decreased cost of travel and communication has led to a situation where our personal communities are no longer spatially restricted, but restricted only by the strength of the tie itself. Our personal communities grow in importance to us in comparison to spatial community as we can meet more of our needs through them. However, personal communities are not communities because they are segregated into “distinct clusters of activity and interest” (Wellman 2009). Unlike a locality-centered community centred in which access to social capital between social fields is facilitated by the working on common problems, the person at the centre of personal community tends to compartmentalize. According to Wellman a kind of division of labour emerges: “different community members supplying different kinds of social support….the guiding principle is “tit for tit” and not “tit for tat” – meaning the social obligations created are specific and not general” (Wellman 2009). In other words, where community builds solidarity, networked individualism builds and institutes disconnect. While Wellman may be correct to believe that “the personal community approach accurately reflects the habits of modern people who are profoundly and individually mobile and networked”, he ought be less enthusiastic about a future in which an increasing proportion of our social relationships are nodal rather than communal.

Robert Putnam’s essay “Bowling alone” isn’t concerned with defining community, but by focussing on “social capital” it helps clarify a key aspect of why we value community in the first place. Although I have included the concept in my definition of community, it doesn’t figure prominently in Theodori’s or Green’s or Dreier’s discussions, and this to me seems a significant oversight. Social capital is the social availability of human capital to the other people who have access to it, and the ways in which that access is organized. Communities with strong social trust, good “networks of civic engagement”, and “sturdy norms for generalized reciprocity” have more social capital, and if you live in one of them, “life is easier” (Putnam 1995). The trend Putnam has tracked showing the decrease in all forms of civic participation, organizational membership, and even informal schmoozing is therefore concerning. But me what is truly chilling is the counter-trend, the exception that proves the rule: Support groups. As of 1994, 40% of Americans belonged to a support group (Putnam 1995). However, according to Wuthnow, support groups are far less effective sources of social connectedness than traditional organizations:

Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. (Wuthnow, cited in Putnam 1995)

The lack of generalized social obligations between members of a support group is indicative of this larger trend away from involvement in communities which we become part of and which we come to define ourselves through, and towards groupings which we retain control over. Wellman is probably right that the reduced cost of transportation and communication has created a situation where we can meet an increasing proportion of our relational needs through our social networks. Unfortunately, these social networks are a poor replacement for actual communities that build and have the potential to equitably distribute social capital. Worse, this increasing reliance on social networks is unhealthy for us because it doesn’t actually meet the visceral needs we have to human contact – we text more than ever, yet feel more lonely than ever. In order to deal with this problem we can not afford any mystification, but need to be absolutely honest about human needs – and in relation to human needs the problem of community can not be posed in any way other than as a moral problem.

1The advantage of an explicitly moral (some might say moralizing) definition of community is that it makes explicit what lies between the visceral salience of the concept. Because community is a way of conceptualizing a plurality of social relationships which we depend on continually, it is extremely difficult or impossible to take an “unbiased” look at community. It would make as much sense to ask someone who had never left the confines of their family to analyze their family without employing moral categories. We are always-already inside the communities whose moral status we are evaluating when try to decide what is and what isn’t a community. In other words, every definition of “community” from the perspective of the author contains an aspect of auto-critique.


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