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The world is in dramatic flux and so are the relationships between individuals and their social groups. The nature of these groups, sometimes called communities, are also changing. Changes wrought by global capitalism have much to do with this period of societal transformation, and while communication and information technologies have not caused the social upheaval, they have certainly accelerated the pace (1,2). Huge changes in macro relations among governments and the international economy have left individuals at the micro level not only economically vulnerable but socially exhausted as well (3). Feeding the social fatigue is the increasing disappearance of precisely those features which distinguish populations as unique - language, traditional values, a local cultural identity, etc. Many traditional guideposts have been lost, perhaps including that of community. Taylor (4) notes, community affiliations are no longer dictated by external authorities such as natural law or divine rule. This "loosening of the ties that bind" have transformed social groups (communities) based on geography, shared identity, and local culture, into communities of choice. We are destined to succumb, according to Taylor, to one global culture and an unending cycle of chosen identities that are discarded when their usefulness is outlived.

This depiction of the social changes overcoming global society may seem rather dramatic. But numerous authors believe that the conditions exist to elicit such radical change (5,6,7,8). Such transformation is not only possible, but probable, because the late 20th century is thought to be the most individualist society in human history. Describing the contemporary individual, Walzer (9) writes, 'We are free to plot our own course, plan our own lives, choose a career, a partner (or succession of partners), a religion (or no religion), a politics (or an antipolitics), a life-style (any style) -- free to "do our own thing"'. An unfortunate outcome of rampant individualism is the erosion of collective concern. As Walzer states, individuals who choose their identities tend to be unreliable and unpredictable members of society: 'These identities are mostly unearned, without depth. Footloose individuals are not reliable members. There are no borders around our cultural groups and, of course, no border police. Men and women are free to participate or not as they please, to come and go, withdraw entirely, or simply fade away into the peripheral distances. This freedom, again, is one of the advantages of an individualistic society; at the same time, however, it doesn't make for strong or cohesive associations.'

This contemporary condition, perfused as it is with images of multiple identities, selfish individualism, and crumbling collective commitments has been labelled postmodernism (10). And if the social changes predicted by postmodernism are actually realised, then this particular period in history will not be an especially positive one for collective efforts of most any sort. In her book Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich (3) suggests that the relentless economic and social changes associated with postmodernism have given rise to a new kind of global citizen - a reconstructed, more disciplined individual. And while the presence of more disciplined individuals seems rather benign if not actually helpful, Ehrenreich in fact suggests quite the contrary. To survive in contemporary society requires a particularly selfish frame of mind; personal needs will be the priority, and only where time and energy are surplus (and most often they are not) does concern for others exist. Pilisuk, McAllister and Rothman (11) agree. Their research into social movements suggest that individuals across the globe are scrutinising their community affiliations, participating only where they calculate maximum benefit.


If we accept the argument that contemporary society is undergoing a rather radical social shift, what does this mean for our understanding of contemporary groups calling themselves communities? One of the most significant implications of this shift appears to be in the character of contemporary community members. Contemporary individuals belong to multiple communities which function in overlapping spatial and temporal ways. They move in and out of these communities for specific reasons and to accomplish specific goals (2,11,12). Their allegiance or loyalty to the group is therefore transitory.

That people are capable of living in many different kinds of communities simultaneously is due, in part, to the wide variety of groups which are recognised as or assert community status. Sometimes the word community is used so broadly that it is difficult to know where the boundaries of the community are or who is excluded such as in "the international community." At other times, it is unclear whether those identified as belonging to a certain community could have a consciousness of such belonging as in "the mentally disabled community." Mostly however, we observe that group leaders, and perhaps group adherents too, self-consciously choose the label community with a view to imbuing their particular group with the positive attributes thought connected to the idea of community, thus achieving societal legitimacy or at least securing for itself some specific social benefits. Significantly, in the new global society, community is largely self-defined; that is, we are a community if we say we are. Many communities formed with specific purposes in mind have as those purposes increased claims on societal resources on the grounds that they are or have been oppressed or disadvantaged in some way. This is not a feature of what we might call traditional community. Contemporary individuals choose to belong to a particular community for personal reasons, although the community may be seen as an empowering vehicle. The individual in contemporary community has few bonds to other individuals apart from their common goals, and little or no concern for the welfare of the community as a whole.

Thus, there is a growing sense of entitlement that characterises the contemporary community discussion. And the discourse of rights has taken on a new tone in the contemporary world in a similar way to that of community. Rights are no longer restricted to basic rights as citizens, but also encompass additional rights to which the individual feels entitled by virtue of membership in a particular community. Old notions such as mutual concern and the protection of cherished values have disappeared, replaced by the strategic special interests of contemporary individuals.

In short, the new contemporary community exists for the accomplishment of personal objectives and the satisfaction of individual desires. Henry (13), writing about the unsatisfactory state of American social life, states, 'We have foolishly embraced the unexamined notions that ... self-fulfilment is more important than objective achievement ... We have devoted our rhetoric and our resources to the concept of entitlement, the notion that citizens are not to ask for what they can do for their country, but rather to demand what it can do for them. The list of what people are said to be "entitled" to has exploded exponentially.'

Is the individual rights discourse such a prominent feature of new social landscape? To a large degree, this is so. Perhaps more important, however, is the paradoxical way in which images of a more traditional, communally responsible form of society are used to fix in people's minds the positive character of this new, more individualistic society. A brief review of the core features of what are called the traditional and contemporary ideas of community are instructive in this regard.

Traditional versus Contemporary Community
The image of traditional community includes a geographical dimension where personal relations between community members are grounded in locality. Members are well known to each other and they are loyal, both to each other and the goals of the community as a whole. When forced to choose however, members of traditional communities place the needs of the group ahead of their own. The traditional community is also a place where the majority of people's needs are met. As a result, the community is relatively homogenous. Sharing a similar socio-economic background or ethnic heritage and frequently holding similar social values, traditional community is a harmonious and equitable place where reciprocity prevails. Traditional community is a good place where individuals contribute to the welfare of others during good times, but can be assured of protection in times of need (14,15).

Contemporary communities, as described in the first section of this paper, stand out in sharp relief against the traditional image of communities past. Contemporary communities need not be anchored in physical locality, nor do they require face-to-face relations. They can exist free of conventional time and space limitations, often achieving such liberated status via communication technologies. Internet communities are an example of this. Because members usually satisfy only one need through their involvement with a particular community, these communities are typically very heterogeneous. This heterogeneity and the time-limited and issue-specific character of involvement means that contemporary communities can be selfish and competitive sites where contradictions abound (16).

One may ask, to what extent are the features of what are called traditional and contemporary community actually evident in living and breathing contemporary communities? And while the answer to this question lies beyond the scope of this paper, it is nonetheless crucial to discern the extent to which communities claim to have or are assumed to possess these traditional features. Often, communities of the past and communities in the South are described and understood in traditional ways, irrespective of whether they have ever existed in this form. The argument is this: If communities are imagined to have the features of has just been described as traditional community, and in reality they do not, there will be innumerable difficulties with respect to understanding the processes and structures of that community and any community-based activities undertaken. Community language conjures up powerful images of mutual concern, commitment, harmony, equitable sharing of community resources, and consensual decision making. These features may not accurately reflect the character of community, contemporary or otherwise, and indeed may militate against its very essence. An example illustrates this point.

Harmony or Coercion?

Social relationships in "the community" are typically depicted as harmonious and equitable. But as Wignaraja (17) so correctly points out however, this model must be demystified because it ignores power relationships within communities. 'The assumption of harmonious communities in a conflict-free social framework for change has no basis in reality, whether at local, national or global levels.... In most Southern villages, deep-seated contradictions exist between different groups with conflicts of interests. There are sharp relationships of dominance and dependence. These relationships give power to the dominant (the landowner, the trader, the moneylender, the bureaucrat, etc.), bringing about a crisis of immediate survival for the poor. Serious divisions exist among the poor themselves, based on caste, religion, gender, age, etc. These divisions, the people's resultant reluctance to take economic, social and political initiatives collectively to improve their lives, and their inability to change their lives individually, further compound their difficulties.'

Also, and in sharp contrast to the positive language, communities at times can be coercive. Coercion is required to ensure threshold levels of community commitment. Efforts to enhance community cohesion must also be continuously reinforced, otherwise the group disintegrates with little chance to reach its goals, whatever they might be. As Pearson (18) states, 'To earn the appellation "community," it seems to me, groups must be able to exert moral suasion and extract a measure of compliance from their members. That is, communities are necessarily -- indeed, by definition -- coercive as well as moral, threatening their members with the stick of sanctions if they stray, offering them the carrot of certainty and stability if they don't.'

Importantly though, as soon as communities solicit commitment, they become exclusionary, at least to some degree. Of interest is this question: At what point does the necessary coercion or exclusiveness of a community become oppressive? In the case of disability, efforts to enforce community participation in so-called community-based activities may instead culminate in the replacement of a centralised tyranny (rehabilitation professionals and government health officials, for example) with a newer localised tyranny of power brokers. If this is so, then the problems of centralised authority and control are not solved with recourse to community; they are simply reproduced on a smaller scale.

Exclusion is the ultimate consequence of social control and domination. A focus on the positive features of traditional community alone obscures this. Significantly more work must be done to explore the circumstances under which communities can overcome their exclusionary tendencies. If we do not, the misfortune of others outside the collective circle of identity called community will be none of our concern. A careful examination of the social functioning of contemporary communities may reveal that community may mean empowerment and inclusion, exploitation and exclusion, and everything in between.


The paper thus far has argued the following: 1) that rapid societal change has important implications for the character of communities in the present, but 2) despite these changes communities of the present claim or are assumed to have features of a more traditional form. For this reason, as mentioned earlier, there have been deliberate attempts by (mostly) the elite to control the image of community to achieve strategic ends. In addition, however, there has been a more widespread, intense, and persistent interest in community. This is attested to by the veritable explosion of research into community in last number of years. In the field of international health, for example, community-based endeavours have become the new paradigm for health and disability. It is therefore essential to question what has fostered this deep and lasting trend. What is so fundamentally attractive about community that it refuses to slip quietly out of our collective consciousness?

Bauman (19) claims there are (and perhaps always has been) many torments in our human lives, but they all boil down to "the noxious and sickening feeling of perpetual uncertainty in everything regarding the future". If this is so, and if this represents a prominent feature of the present, then it is surely possible that the symbols embedded in the notion of community function to alleviate the uncertainty of contemporary life that Bauman speaks of. Stated most plainly, the reason community is quested today is because it represents a way out of the indeterminate present. Community is a counterpoint to the normlessness and selfishness engendered by post-modern times.

Cameron and Gatewood (20) have carefully explored the relationship between history, heritage and nostalgia in the North American context in some detail. Their analysis is directly relevant to the analysis of community undertaken here since the quest for community often contains nostalgic elements. These authors argue that nostalgia serves several social-psychological functions, but two emerge as dominant: First, nostalgia may be a slowing mechanism. The search for community may therefore represent "a psychological adaptation to circumstances of rapid culture change during which individuals fear becoming obsolete". When the pace of technological and economic development is too fast, individuals and organisations seize on the notion of community to slow the process down.

Second, nostalgia provides a calming balm of hope. Imagining a simpler "community" time allows people a greater sense of control over their lives, and in time, a deeper optimism. Once again, Cameron and Gatewood state: "Alienation is so much a part of contemporary life that people seek to gratify emotional needs for connectedness and community by going back in time (or elsewhere) to find a simpler, gentler life" (20). This may be true, both for Western individuals who believe more genuine community exists in the South, and for people everywhere who believe more authentic community existed in ages past, communities "lost" to the present. Human beings, while attracted to the unknown and the allure of adventure, have also likely always sought the comfort and communion of others. In fact, some form of collective association may define and satisfy the most fundamental of human needs (21). For many, the word community triggers positive images of sharing and caring, of warmth, belonging and understanding. Its mention engenders a sense of familiarity and stability as people recall special people, places and times. Community is also a reassuring word, emphasising principles of acceptance, nurturing and reciprocity. The goodness of these recollections coupled with their familiarity permit feelings of constancy and predictability, even control, to take root. Hence, community is an important psychological resource. Community provides solace. It is bedrock. Community satisfies our longing for security, by linking an unknowable future to the understood past. As Cameron and Gatewood (20) state: "Whenever societies become fearful about the future and lose confidence in their way of life, people will seek emotional solace and security in the safe certainty of the past".


Anxiety in contemporary society has not diminished. In fact, the pressures of global culture are increasing - arguably driving (and explaining) our search for or return to community. The two main arguments advanced in this paper are: first, that contemporary communities differ radically from traditional ones, but that traditional images still abound and may be employed for certain purposes, and second, that the idea of community, envisioned in its traditional sense, functions to alleviate the anxiety and stress associated with the penetration of global culture in post-modern times. The idea of community functions as a slowing mechanism, allowing time for adaptation to the enormity of social change confronting individuals. It is also a touchstone of hope. Community can be imagined in a myriad of forms and is manipulated to conform to a diversity of contexts and purposes. The challenge is to see in community a paradoxical concept of considerable complexity and power.

Catherine L. Lysack
Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions
Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan 48202
Tel: (313) 577-6794, Fax: (313) 577-5822, E-mail: lysack@wizard.pharm.wayne.edu


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