by Phil Bartle, PhD
For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people's love and concern for each other. –– Millard Fuller
If sociology is to remain a science, it does not have the mandate to make theological decisions, such as the existence or not of spirits.
For those questions you need to see your religious advisor. The phrase "Community Spirit" here does not have a theological interpretation. There is nothing supernatural about community or any of the social institutions in society.
What, then, is Community Spirit?
Community spirit refers to the ideas that community members have about themselves and their community. They are usually positive attitudes, optimistic about its future, and which encourage altruism and the contribution of members to the welfare of the community.
Loyalty is among these attitudes.
So is optimism.
Those attitudes are then reflected in the behaviour of those members, and therefore contribute to the good future of that community.
When community members are "spirited" they are not possessed by supernatural beings; they are active and upbeat.
They are animated.
An important characteristic of a community is that the people are conscious of belonging to it. Their loyalty can be called their community spirit.
The concept "community spirit" is not a technical sociological term here, but I mention it as a way of introducing an important, perhaps defining, characteristic in the nature of community –– which sociologists call "gemeinschaft."
In the German language, the word "gemeinschaft" simply means "community."
But because of a German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, we use the same word, in English, in Sociology, to mean some things which can be called essential characteristics of communities.
This concept takes community spirit a few steps forward.
GEMEINSCHAFT and GESELLSCHAFT
Tönnies contrasted "gemeinschaft" with "gesellschaft."
In German, "gesellschaft" is a noun meaning "society." In sociology in English, it is used as an adjective to characterize contrasts with "gemeinschaft," implying "cold," formal, associated more with urban than with rural life.
What Tönnies was explaining, is the shift in time, as societies became more complex, from an informal, personal and "village like" social organisation to a more formal, rules based, "cold" (impersonal) social organisation.
Where there were "gemeinschaft characteristics," most people knew each other, and people interacted with each other as whole people, rather than as mere roles in a social vacuum.
It is an interesting linguistic shift.
Where community once meant a group of people, with its own culture and social organisation, within a society as a whole, the German word for community came to mean the characteristics of communities, informal and personal.
It is a shift rather like from a noun to an adjective. To maintain that distinction, sociologists have tended to retain the German word (gemeinschaft) for the adjective, and the English word (community) for the noun.
We look at gemeinschaft as something that is not "either or" but something that different communities have in varying degrees.
BEWARE OF ROMANTICIZING COMMUNITY
Some people like life in the city.
Others like to live in small rural communities. We will omit hermits, prospectors and trappers for now.
We all make choices and they are based on our values and attitudes.
Because we already have ideas about characteristics of different communities, we are susceptible to idealizing those with more gemeinschaft or those with more gesellschaft.
Let us remember that, as social scientists, we are more concerned with "what is" than with "what should be."
Where a community has more gemeinschaft, it can be miserable to live in when everybody knows your business, where gossip is a strong force for keeping people in order, and where there is little freedom to act or dress in eccentric ways.
For others, they feel the security of being known by everybody they meet, prefer the absence of having to make decisions about religious beliefs and political choices, and enjoy the comfort of many shared values and experiences.
In contrast, where a community has more gesellschaft, it can be miserable being anonymous and without friends, where you are ignored most of the day, where you fear strangers who may hurt or steal from you, and where you are not sure what the laws are or if you might be arrested.
For others it may be a joy to have the freedom to have fewer controls over their life styles, freedom to have any religious beliefs without someone trying to correct that, freedom to support any minority political view available, and do not have to put up with gossip.
We have to beware when people speak or write as if the community, in itself, is ideal.
Some advocates of community participation write as if there is something intrinsic in a community which justifies its participation. Many authors, in both fiction and non fiction, write as if rural or small town life is intrinsically good, while a few others do the same for city life.
Let us concentrate on "What is" rather than "What should be."
COMMUNITY SPIRIT CAN BE MEAN SPIRITED
A small community depends upon informal means of social control, which in turn relies on gossip. Sometimes that gossip can be vicious and dysfunctional. Sometimes its victims are accused, judged and punished when they are innocent, because gossip does not have the same set of checks and balances as a formal court of law.
If you have had the misfortune to be the object of such gossip, used as negative sanctions, whether you are guilty or not, you will know how much punishment it is, and might well wish for a quiet jail cell.
Although we sometimes use the slang term, "warm and fuzzy," to indicate the qualities of gemeinschaft, be careful to avoid thinking that it means that living in a community is necessarily soft and comfortable.
The characteristics of gemeinschaft means that the community is small enough for most members to know each other, for social control to be based on informal methods (gossip) rather than formal laws or rules, and for division of labour and roles to be less rigid and formal. For some people, that may be hard and uncomfortable. Although "unity" is a part of the word, "community," there is no guarantee that a community is harmonious or unified.
Social schisms may be long and bitter, sometimes lasting many generations. They can be based on clans, caste, class, age, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, incomes –– all the stuff of social organisation.
ESSENTIALISING: IDENTITY AND STEREOTYPING
Every community is different.
We, as humans and how we are socialised, tend to make generalizations based on a few particular observations.
That is normal, and is how we learn a language.
Sometimes when we apply this method to some aspects of life we can get ourselves into trouble.
We use the word "essentialising" to mean a process where we see the personality and characteristics of one or two members of a community, then extrapolate those to stereotype the characteristics of the whole community.
This is not always a bad thing.
Members of the community are proud of their identity, and sometimes see some of those characteristics as strengths of which to be proud. It contributes to the loyalty and pride elements of gemeinschaft.
It can be, however, a form of ethnocentrism which exaggerates some of the characteristics of the community, and is then used to lower public esteem of that community.
A note about ethnic stereotypes.
Have you noticed that when a comedian jokes about an ethnic group, or a community, it is acceptable when s/he is a member of that community or ethnic group?
If the jokes are made by members of the mainstream society, they may be treated as offensive. Laugher and what makes some things funny is an important indicator to sociologists.
It tells us much about what topics are sensitive in a community.
The traditional and orthodox notion of a community is one that is rural, with distinct geographic and population boundaries, small and based on farming, fishing or similar technologies.
Now it is time to break out of the box, and discard that model which has outlived its usefulness. New kinds of communities are now being created and developed. See: Neo Gemeinschaft.
As societies have become more urban, more formal, more complex, with division of labour, separation of roles, interdependence, they have sprouted more of the characteristics of gesellschaft.
Maybe there is a natural need, or at least a strong desire, by humans, to have much of their daily social interaction to be with known persons in contrast to strangers who interact with flat or single dimensional roles.
Sufficient here to say that urbanization and alienation have given rise to constructed communities, where they might not have geographic boundaries, might not have originated and grown in a natural and unplanned way, and may be in the cities or on the Internet (1).
Some of those new communities consist of voluntary associations of individuals who may share an interest or a passion, as in model trains, square dancing, chess, military training, international development, baseball, masons, civil liberties or fan clubs.
These are voluntary, not for profit organisations, often called NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations).
Members are not paid, but donate their time and effort to the running of the organisations.
The formation of residential communes and kibutzes is another deliberate way to create constructed communities.
An elementary manifestation of the desire for gemeinschaft can be found in such urban practices as learning the name of a letter carrier, bus driver, librarian, street person, pharmacist or sales clerk (coffee shop, deli, video rental shop, post office, restaurant, other service establishments), and greeting them by name daily.
The same practice can be found in the work place.
Perhaps there is a formal organizational structure, but people make friends and acquaintances that may cross official organizational lines.
Apart from the formal requirements of co-operating, a work team may develop relationships that go beyond what is required.
They may organize an ice skating party, a company picnic, a dance, a joint visit to a game or a barbecue.
Certainly, as Bhushan Crossman and Colleen Thompson discovered, in our Sociology 160 class, a class of students and instructor go through a process of starting out as strangers.
They learned more about each other and, by the end of the course, considerable socialization had taken place, making it resemble a family, and gemeinschaft was generated, making it resemble a community.
Many of the constructed communities are the product of urbanization, where cities can bring together people of similar interests and values.
This has been going on since the origin of cities. Long distance relationships between such groups with similar interests was an extension of each constructed community.
Now, with the advent of the Internet and email, newly constructed communities are being formed, many which may not call themselves communities, and are associations of people with similar interests, and others which are deliberately constructed and formed as on line communities.
To rephrase Forrest Gump, "Community is what community does."
1. Perhaps the Masons are among the oldest constructed communities. They claim to have their origins in the masons who built the pyramids.
See: What is Community?
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