Developing a sense of community

Sometimes it’s hard to see what makes a community a community. For example, it can be hard to distinguish a random crowd of people from a group of people that considers itself to belong together. If we see a group of individuals standing together, how do we know if it’s coincidence or if it’s community? Quite simply, the distinction is internal; it is felt. This is what ‘sense of community’ refers to.

Seymour Sarason, in his work in community psychology, argued that a founding characteristic of a healthy community was “an extra-individual quality of emotional interconnectedness of individuals played out in their collective lives” (Bess et al, 6). We may parse this statement out into components: 1) extra-individuality; 2) emotional interconnectedness; and 3) collective living. The components are, of course, overlapping ideas; however, if we take each component individually, we get a sense for the multi-faceted nature of sense-of-community. First, extra-individuality suggests an externalization of inward processes; e.g., cognition, self-identification. In other words, the basis of concepts like ‘collective memory’ are found in extra-individuality. We may think of this as an individual’s acute receptivity to the social environment. Emotional interconnectedness, too, is a receptivity, but also, a dependency: that one person’s well-being is related to that of another person. Well-being is, of course, a broad term; however, Sarason’s conception would seem to refer to emotional well-being.

Finally, the element of collective living is in great part responsible for the dominance of the older, locational model of community. As Bess et al point out, the idea of community often “evokes images of the small town or close neighborhood” with long-term residents who are closely related to one another (3). Bess et al refers to this as the older model of community — the newer model being the one that emphasizes relationality, i.e. shared interests and/or characteristics (4). There is a sense that community members must live in close physical proximity. On the other hand, ‘collective living’ merely implies the sharing of space and time, an idea which basic technologies (e.g. phones, the Internet) have recently forced us to re-evaluate. Physical space, in light of virtual space, is no longer the only space in which it is possible for individuals to meet. The development of these basic technologies has also made the other two traits of healthy communities, extra-individuality and emotional interconnectedness, possible online. Though they were not referring to the advent of digital technology, Bess at al (2002) make a particularly relevant point in saying, “The challenge for those studying [sense of community] is to come to terms with a more fluid concept of community and people’s relation to it” (6). At present, a more fluid concept will have to account for instances of virtual sense of community.

Rheingold: Virtual community defined from FreedomLab on Vimeo.

Whether we are interested exclusively in virtual community or not, McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) model of community is descriptively useful in thinking toward a definition of community itself. The model consists of four factors: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection (McMillan 9). Bess et al provide an apt description of the membership factor:

a series of interacting factors of boundaries (who is in and who is out), shared history, common symbols, emotional safety, and personal investment. Membership confers upon people a set of rights and responsibilities that are always characterized by the belonging to a community. One draws identity by being a member of the community, has emotional support, and is reinforced for the behaviors that are beneficial to the functioning of the community itself   (7)

The second level, influence, dictates the amount of control an individual has over the actions of the community, and conversely, the amount of control the community has over the individual. Thirdly, McMillan and Chavis refer to the needs of community members that are met by virtue of membership, e.g. status and shared interest. Note that shared interest appears both as a foundation of community — a defining characteristic in Bess at al’s relational model of community — as well as as a benefit of community membership. In the latter sense, we can understand shared interest in terms of validation: one’s interests are externally validated to the extent that they are shared by others. As McMillan and Chavis suggest, “people possess an inherent need to know that the things they see, feel, and understand are experienced in the same way by others” (11).

Fourthly, McMillan and Chavis stress emotional interconnectedness, just as Sarason does. However, the former describes this factor, not in terms of interdependent well-being, but rather in terms of members’ attendance to significant community-wide events. “The number of events, the salience of these events, and the importance of them in conferring merit or status to the community and its members all influence the development of a shared emotional connection between community members” (Bess 7). Nonetheless, emotional interconnectedness, as the sense of well-being, is described as ‘emotional security,’ which is itself a factor of the membership criterion. “Boundaries established by membership criteria provide the structure and security that protect group intimacy” (McMillan 10).

The implication is, of course, that the membership criterion — though beneficial to those within the community — inherently excludes non-members. In order for communities to exist, there must also exist those who do not belong to the community. It is on the basis of this principle that the community is then able to be both influential and influenceable. In other words, what validates the power of the community over its members, and vice versa, is the finite scope of the community’s membership. No power can rule over all uniformly. Power is partial, and only thusly, powerful. The ability of the community to attend to the needs of its members is similarly constrained. Because the community has finite resources, boundaries of membership ensure that community resources are delivered to valid members of the community. Community resources are, by definition, not enjoyed by non-members.

Bess, Kimberly D., Adrian T. Fisher, Christopher C. Sonn, and Brian J. Bishop. “Psychological Sense of Community: Theory, Research, and Application.” Psychological Sense of Community: Research, Applications, and Implications. N.p.: Springer US, 2002. 3-22. 

McMillan, D. W., and D. M. Chavis. “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory.” Journal of Community Psychology 14.1 (1986): 6-23.

Where do you see communities on WordPress? Are bloggers emotionally interconnected? What are the finite resources that members of blog communities enjoy?

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