Many join “communities of interest.” Indeed, it is highly likely that (at least in Western nations) people have a greater sense of participation in a community of interest rather than a community of place.1
As Community Development workers we must be wary of how we think of community. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of community in terms of place, location or neighbourhood. It can be. But that is not where our thinking should stop. Rather, it’s just somewhere to start thinking about community.
Let’s take a step back and look at the roots of the word community. Before arriving in the English language it passed through French and Old French, and before that, Latin. It’s Latin source is revealing.
The word derives from two Latin words: com meaning “with” or “together” and munus meaning “gift.” Thus, at it’s root community suggests “with gift” or “gifting together.”
With this understanding it is possible to find two interconnected features of community that allow individuals to feel a sense of belonging to a community. First, as individuals we obtain benefits from belonging to communities. Second, we are able to contribute to communities thus enabling them to develop and flourish. For us as individuals communities provide us with gifts and we gift back to our communities.2
Two further words often get mentioned when academics and others talk about community: Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft. Ferdinand Tönnies coined the terms in 1887. Gemeinschaft he thought of as community with a cohesive “unity of will”, whereas Gesselschaft was society of self-interest.
It is our role as Community Development workers to think widely about what constitutes community and to facilitate community development so that:
- communities benefit members as well as providing space within which members can contribute,
- communities recognise the unique gift that all members have and allow those gifts to be shared,
- society might move from self-interest (Gesselschaft) to a “unity of will” (Gemeinschaft).
1. In the city in which I last worked as a Community Development Adviser the annual residents survey asked exactly this question. Consistently, over 80% of respondents indicated that “community of interest” was of greater importance in their lives than “community of place.”
2. Recognising that within communities are individuals with gifts is a key ingredient of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).