Community | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Community is one of those concepts that carry several meanings in everyday usage.


Community is one of those concepts that carry several meanings in everyday usage. Circulating around the fundamental idea of sharing are a range of related meanings including 1) the quality of holding something in common such as values, goals or interests; 2) a social bonding and an accompanying shared sense of self or identity; 3) simply the people of a certain district, neighbourhood or town. It is the first, and to some extent the second, meaning that gives rise to such references as "the medical community," "the arts community," "the law enforcement community," "the anglophone community of Québec" or "the black community." Note that the first 2 meanings refer to qualities of social relations (sharing) and a shared identity. The third meaning is strictly limited to locale, to a shared space. This form of sharing may or may not include the first and second meanings. Whether or not the population of a particular town or neighbourhood shares values and goals and possesses a common identity is something to be established through inquiry; it does not automatically follow.

In 1979 the second report of the federal Task Force on CANADIAN UNITY stated that "a community is a group of persons joined together by a consciousness of the characteristics they have in common ... and by a consciousness of the interests they share." This is similar to the first 2 meanings mentioned above. It is a generic rather than a specific use of the term, which is to say that any given human group will exhibit such a consciousness to one degree or another, be it a local sports club, a group of scientists with a special interest, an ethnic group or an age group. In contrast, community studies, as a designated research area in anthropology and sociology, usually focuses on locale - hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Everett Hughes's French Canada in Transition (1943) and its sequel, a doctoral dissertation by Marc Lessage, "Les derniers modernes: enquête sur une petite ville d'Occident" (1995), John Bennett's Northern Plainsmen (1969) and David Rayside's A Small Town in Modern Times: Alexandria, Ontario (1991), to name a few of the many studies of local settings in Canada, all deal with a particular locale.

An American sociologist, Jessie Bernard, referred to these 2 concepts of community as "community" and "the community" respectively. The first denotes shared values and interests and a common sense of identity; the second denotes places and the activities therein, or locale. In a recent essay by Bernard Yack, it is noted that Aristotle referred to all social groups composed of members who differ from each other in some important ways but who, at the same time, share something in common and interact on the basis of this sharing as communities.

There would probably be a lot less room for confusion if places were simply referred to as settlements, reserving the term "community" to refer to forms of social relations.

Community and Conflict

Aristotle's definition of community included "political communities" as a special kind of community characterized by the things people share as citizens of a polis. This allowed for the simultaneous presence of pleasures and conflicts within communal life.

Any given community is as likely as not to exhibit within its boundaries harmony and disharmony, conflict and consensus, order and disorder, as various members and factions struggle over objectives, tactics, strategies and resources. Studies of internal conflict as a feature of community life are not uncommon. John Jackson's Community and Conflict: French-English Relations in Ontario (rev 1988) examines linguistics and religious conflicts in education and local politics. Claire Helman's The Milton Park Affair (1987) and Graham Fraser's Fighting Back (1972) look at conflict arising out of urban renewal projects in Montréal and Toronto neighbourhoods. Likewise, Don Clairmont and Dennis Magill investigate the intersection of racism, poverty and development interests in a Halifax community in Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community (1987). More recently, Steven Dandeneau's study of deindustrialization in Flint, Michigan (1996) illustrates community conflict emerging from massive economic change (see URBAN REFORM).

Community Membership

Any one person is likely to belong simultaneously to several communities, moving in and out according to circumstances. A person might consider himself or herself to be a member of a particular ethnic community, a community based in a neighbourhood, a community composed of fellow students in a particular school and so on. From this point of view, people construct their own communities, their sense of community captured by their perception of community boundaries. Anthropologist Anthony Cohen refers to the meanings people give to community boundaries as the "symbolic construction of community." We use geographic features of the landscape, LANGUAGE differences, differences in ETHNIC IDENTITY, differences in SOCIAL CLASS or combinations of these and other characteristics of social and cultural life that symbolically denote our community. In this sense a community is an emotive quality of human relationships and not an objective entity like a house or a street.

People create their own communities, but always within the context of specific cultural and political events over time. Thus can we speak of the Chinese community in Vancouver, as does Kay J. Anderson in her Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980 (1991); or of the Italian community in Toronto as described in Nicholas De Maria Harney's Eh Paesan! Being Italian in Toronto (1998). We may also speak of a working-class community, as does Thomas W. Dunk in his It's a Working Man's Town: Male Working-Class Culture in Northwestern Ontario (1991), or a community based around sexual orientation as in Michael Ford's The World Out There: Becoming Part of the Lesbian and Gay Community (1996). A person then is born into one or more communities but may well move out of and into other communities according to personal circumstances. The important point is that people are ascribed membership in communities as well as choose membership in communities.

Social Networks and Virtual Communities

Barry Wellman and others affiliated with the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto have developed network analysis into a highly sophisticated tool for describing and understanding human interaction through an analysis of the lines of interaction and communication that develop among people with similar interests and bonds of friendship, work or kinship. Communities as social networks are well documented in Wellman and S.D. Berkowitz's Social Structures: A Network Approach (1988). Such communities may not be composed of people in constant face-to-face interaction. Indeed, spread over wide geographic areas, as networks often are, the telephone may be the principal means of communication. In a recent paper, "Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities," (1995), the Centre discussed the formation of networks via electronic communications on the INTERNET. Intense and frequent "community" interaction is constructed around common interests where participants have never and probably never will see each other or hear each other's voices - the virtual community. Relative to other perspectives on the community, as discussed above, some scholars, such as Robert Dunn in Identity Crisis: A Social Critique of Post-Modernity (1998) for example, refer to the virtual community as an artificial community.

The Demise of Community

A large body of literature focuses on the broad historical changes that have occurred in Western societies throughout the growth of capitalism and its concomitant processes of rapid urbanization and industrialization. Modernization gradually transformed human relations into commodity relations. The change from person-centred to commodity-centred human relations is part of the transformation of human labour into a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace (see WORK). This transformation was a classic theme in 19th- and early 20th-century sociology. Exemplary among those who wrote on this theme was Ferdinand Tönnies. His 1887 essay Gemeinschaft (Community) and Gesellschaft (Association): A Treatise on Communism and Socialism as Empirical Forms of Culture drew attention to this shift in the quality of human relations. Tönnies was writing about communities in the sense of a particular quality of human relations that permeated all activities and social groups, a quality similar to meanings of community one and two, above, and one that was disintegrating in the wake of capitalism. A recent discussion of this theme may be found in Charles Taylor's The Malaise of Modernity (1991).

Continuing studies of communities as human settlements (meaning 3, above) emphasize the fate of particular settlements in relation to the political economy of regions and of Canada as a whole. Patricia Marchak's Green Gold (1983) studies the effects of decisions made by multinational corporations in BC's forest industry on the everyday lives of people in 2 resource-based settlements. Peter Carsten's The Queen's People: A Study of Hegemony, Coercion and Accommodation Among the Okanagan of Canada (1991) traces the problems encountered by FIRST NATIONS communities in the face of expanding Canadian capitalism. C. Zimmerman and G. Moneo's The Prairie Community System (1970) examines different types of western settlement in relation to the overall organization of the West to meet the interests of central Canadian capital.

Community as Resistance

While community in the sense of sharing and in the sense of settlement is always under threat to one degree or another, new communities frequently emerge in the face of adversity. It is at the local level, in the community, where most people live out their daily lives: they go to school, raise families, work, join associations, attend religious ceremonies and form networks with others based on common values and interests (communities in the first sense). In the formation of such networks, be they based on friendship, kinship or workplace, there exists a potential for collective action, for mounting resistance and opposition to the overwhelming forces of individualization. This kind of activity, which takes the form of self-determination and self-organization, is not new to Canadian life. Ralph Matthews considers this issue in his study of 3 settlements in Newfoundland, There's No Better Place Than Here (1976), where he found community-based resistance to the plans of government policymakers. This was also the case in the 2 urban renewal studies referred to above. The potential to oppose the impositions of public and private corporations on local life has been referred to as emancipatory practices by the late Marcel Rioux. The community as a base for emancipatory practices is a relatively unexplored route in the field of community studies, but one that may be pursued.


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