What is community? by Barney Leith
‘Words have meanings: some words, however, also have a ‘feel’. The word ‘community’ is one of them. It feels good: whatever the word ‘community’ may mean, it is good ‘to have a community’, ‘to be in a community… What that word evokes is everything we miss and we lack to be secure, confident and trusting. In short, ‘community’ stands for the kind of world which is not, regrettably, available to us — but which we would dearly wish to inhabit and which we hope to repossess….‘Community’ is nowadays another name for paradise lost — but one to which we dearly hope to return, and so we feverishly seek the roads that may bring us there.
Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Community’
We need both freedom and security but, as Bauman says, there is an inevitable and permanent tension between our two needs. As individuals we trade our security for freedom, but as members of communities we trade our freedom for security.
However, ‘the really existing community’ is not the same as the community of our dreams. It demands our obedience in return for its promise of security. In these ‘fluid times’, when many aspects of our lives are marked by impermanence and our fantasy of individual autonomy is founded around ‘choice’ — dangled in front of us by politicians in order to win our votes — we are tempted by the mirage of security that ‘community’ offers us.
Can we find the balance between security and freedom? Probably not, according to Bauman. Any balance is likely to be dynamic rather than static: ‘The argument between security and freedom, and so the argument between community and individuality, is unlikely ever to be resolved and so likely to go on for a long time to come; not finding the right solution and being frustrated by the one that has been tried will not prompt us to abandon the search — but to go on trying. Being human, we can neither fulfil the hope nor cease hoping.’
So what makes a group of people a community?
A community can be defined, amongst other things, by geography, by culture by common interests, by practice. Many decades ago I lived in Shetland, which was unarguably a geographical community. But Shetlanders also had (and may well still have) a strong sense of community, of mutual support, of their identity as Shetlanders, and of a shared culture, sometimes seen as being over against ‘the mainland’ or ‘south’ — i.e. Scotland, England, the rest of the UK. This sense of community arose in part from dense kin and friendship networks and a history of reciprocity.
There was, in Shetland, a lot of positive social capital, to use the term made popular by American sociologist Robert Putnam. In his major work, Bowling Alone, he characterises social capital as referring to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.
Putnam did not invent the term, but it is his work that has propelled the social capital framework into public policy debates about the nature of community and what needs to be done to build community. He distinguishes bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital is exclusive, ‘a kind of sociological superglue’, whereas bridging social capital arises when social networks are outward looking, inclusive of people across various social divides; it provides ‘a sociological WD-40’, says Putnam. Putnam also highlights the risk that bonding social capital may, by creating strong in-group loyalty, contribute to strong out-group antagonism, whereas bridging social capital ‘can generate broader identities and reciprocity’.
Communities of practice
Another useful concept is that of ‘communities of practice’ was introduced by Swiss educational theorist and practitioner Etienne Wenger:
‘Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour … In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.’
To be effective in their community-building work, faith-based organisations must surely strive to be communities of practice, sharing ‘a concern or a passion for something they do’ and learning ‘how to do it better’. This is becoming a conscious focus of the Bahá’í community of which I am a part's practice in many areas of its collective life, particularly in relation to social action.
Bahá’í work on community building
The Bahá’í community and its coordinating institutions around the world currently focus on activities that have been described by the community’s world governing council as contributing to a process that seeks to raise capacity within a population to take charge of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development. The open-to-all activities that drive this process are meetings that strengthen the devotional character of the community; classes that nurture the hearts and minds of children; groups that channel the surging energies of junior youth [11-14 year olds]; circles of study, open to all, that enable people of varied backgrounds to advance on an equal footing and explore the application of the teachings to their individual and collective lives.
Evidence is emerging in many parts of the world that this process of empowerment is transforming lives and communities in diverse settings, including rural villages and challenging urban neighbourhoods. It builds trust as people come to understand the importance of trustworthiness. It demolishes age-old boundaries of class, culture and religion and builds positive and inclusive social capital as it engages people of diverse backgrounds in shaping the lives of their communities.