why we should care about community

As Sean reminded us in an earlier comment, one of the interesting themes of his book, Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, is “the relationship between organizations and the communities they inhabit.” I think that’s an important theme to dissect.  Once upon a time, community was a fairly important concept/phenomenon in American sociology. The Lynds classic Middletown study sought to explain the class and power dynamics of a typical American community. A lot of the early research in American sociology was case studies of specific communities. Ferdinand Tönnies created the conceptual dichotomy of Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft to describe key differences in human relationships, noting that some relationships (Gemeinschaft) are based in a sense of belonging and obligation typical of community. In the 1970s a series of studies by Joe Galaskiewicz, Ed Laumann, and Peter Marsden explored the link between community and organizational networks. In their view, communities made up of interorganizational linkages that constituted a community’s structure. Organizations both depended on their communities for resources and communities needed organizations for collective coordination.

But in the last twenty years or so community sociology experienced a real decline in popularity and centrality in the discipline. Community, it seems, is a much less important concept now than it was when the Lynds studied Muncie, Indiana. When I was an undergrad looking at potential grad schools one of my main interests was the study of communities. In fact, my first two published papers are in this area. But when I emailed a prominent professor in this area (who was a member of one of the best sociology departments in the country) he strongly discouraged me from studying community. He hinted that if I wanted a job I ought to study something else. Advice heeded.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that the study of community (especially in relation to business organizations) has waned in importance. The first seems to be that network analysis has taken its place. Community sociology was always about the study of human relationships. As the tools of network analysis became more freely available and network courses became common offerings in sociology departments, the language and methods of networks soon replaced the language and methods of community sociology. Laumann et al. ushered in this change. The second reason is more empirical. Society itself has changed as people have became less rooted geographically and organizations have become more geographically mobile. Sociological definitions of community always reflected the importance of time and place, and as relationships became less enduring and place began to matter less to human sociability, scholars lost interest in community.

Yet, in the last few years, there has been a quiet reintroduction of community to the study of economic and organizational life. Sean’s book is an example of this. He shows that community – the geographical boundedness of relationships and identity – matters to economic revival. Mario Small is also interested in the link between communities and their organizations. In 2003 Chris Marquis published a paper in ASQ about the imprinting effect of local networks on the community of organizations. He found that firms’ use of particular technologies was shaped by the local norms dominant at the time of a network’s founding. All of these studies suggest that, despite the changes that have occured in our economy (e.g., the rise of large, multinationals), locality still matters.

There are at least two reasons that community is important to the study of 0rganizations. The first, as Marquis’s paper suggests, is that organizations cannot escape the imprint of their local communities on functioning and survival. New organizations especially thrive best when nurtured in an environment where there is sufficient social capital to generate trust and information-sharing among the idea men and other resource bearers. The other reason has more to do with the community. Despite the fact that people have become more mobile and have fewer strong ties to their community than was once true, community is still a source of meaning and identity to a significant majority. A large portion of Americans are, for one reason or another, tied to their local communities. The least geographically mobile are probably the working poor. Sean’s and Mario’s studies indicate that some variation in poverty and economic development across communities can be explained by the structure of ties between organizations (for-profit and civic) in a community. Failing to account for the community hinders our ability to analyze and offer good solutions to economic inequality. Sean’s and Mario’s work also point to some key differentiators that make some communities better able to coordinate local economies. One differentiator is the prevalence of organizations that bring together community leaders and give them a planning forum that crosses class divides. As Mario points out, “brokerage organizations” may also channel resources to those who need them most. And as Sean argues, these organizations create “opportunities to create connections among communities that need to be connected” (pg. 149).

Written by brayden king

May 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent post! I’ve always been puzzled by this as well.

    Extra note: There seem to be specialties in soc that still do well with community. For example, urban studies is very community focused. So are all those studies of neighborhood effects. Rural soc (as endangered as it is these days) also does community.

    But I think you are right: among elites, the classic community study is dead, though not for any good reason.



    May 20, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  2. Mr. Fabiorojas beat me to it, but I was going to mention the rise of urban studies as the new community studies. This change might reflect the more transitory character of community today.



    May 20, 2009 at 9:10 pm

  3. Ah, well. Clearly, a topic near to my heart these days. Let me pick up on the question of why study communities now. I think there are basically three:

    (1) As you say, “society itself has changed as people have became less rooted geographically and organizations have become more geographically mobile.” While you mention this as a reason community research declined, I see it as a primary motivation. The relationship between communities and organizations changed; but there is wide variation in how it’s changed and what impact that has on people’s lives. Seems like a strong motivation to me!

    (2) Individuals living and working for these companies is a different story though. As you say, “community is still a source of meaning and identity to a significant majority.” My interests early on were also in labor and worker voice and there was a fairly substantial literature which argued that community had become a salient “axis of mobilization” around which people organized to assert their interests vis-a-vis the economy. This, I think, is still the case.

    (3) One final reason I ended up studying communities which I think makes it compelling right now: data availability. If you are paying attention to this kind of thing, it’s hard to miss the fact that a huge amountsofreadily “>accessiblegeographic data<a has become available in the last 10 years. It seemed like a no-brainer to me to exploit some of that.



    May 20, 2009 at 9:28 pm

  4. Brayden, I whole-heartedly agree with Fabio, great post! Also to pick up on the thread, I think that urban studies and sociology has carried the mantle of community studies. But, being an urban sociologist interested in neighborhoods and the effects of communities, I think that there are a couple of places where urban sociology has fallen short of truly understanding communities.

    The first is that many urban sociologists (including myself) became interested in the larger structural characteristics of communities. In part, I think that this reflected an aversion to the individualistic and “culture of poverty” explanations that became dominant through at least the 1980s. Modern urban studies, both quantitative and qualitative, owe an enormous debt to Wilson and are built on explaining structural factors that filter the availability of resources to particular communities. But, as Mario Small and Kathe Newman have highlighted, these structural studies have left out important pieces of culture which have, recently, been re-introduced into the literature. This also means that, for different outcomes and behaviors, different communities and different geographic scales might matter more than others.

    Second, as Sean points out, communities are relatively easy to study because of existing data; but, the (arguably) single biggest problem with the “neighborhood effects” or “community effects” literature is that we don’t know how much of the “community effects” we see are the result of people with similar backgrounds moving to the same neighborhood or people being affected by their surroundings. Likely it is both. But, I would argue, the next generation of urban and community studies needs to really engage with the idea that mobility is important and how that affects relationships and community.

    Last, I would really like to see a re-integration of organizational and community studies. I think that there is a lot to learn from each other. On the one hand, neighborhoods and communities act like organizations — but on others they are different in that they are not defined organizations. Studying how relationships are formed, what attachment residents have to their communities, and how they mobilize (or not) based on events seems like a really fruitful area of engagement blazed by Small and others.



    May 20, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  5. Thanks for this post — it’s a very interesting issue that I have also wondered about. While I agree that the community study seems to be dying out in sociology, over the last decade I have also read some excellent ethnographies that are also community studies. Not necessarily in the sense of defining what constitutes community in the contemporary world, but more in the sense of explaining social life in one particular community. In sociology, I’m thinking of work such as Mary Patillo-McCoy’s Black Picket Fences or Arlene Stein’s The Stranger Next Door. There are also many terrific recent anthropological studies of politics and social change in cities in the developing world — sociologists interested in community should definitely be reading them.



    May 20, 2009 at 11:10 pm

  6. On a different but stil related note — here’s a Pfeffer working paper on “whatever happened to the idea of organizations as communities:”



    May 21, 2009 at 12:42 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: