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Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Community

In the first edition of Keywords (1976) Raymond Williams concluded, remarkably for such a complicated concept, that the most important attribute of community was that the word “seems never to be used unfavorably”.  It may be that Williams’ view was accurate at the time he expressed it; and it may have been for that reason that self-described ‘communities’, black, gay and regional, proliferated during the 1970s. More recently, however, those very uses of community have been used in a negative way to emphasize separateness from wider society.

Nonetheless, for Williams in 1976 community was a “warmly persuasive” word describing both an existing set of “more direct, more total and therefore more significant relationships” and also an “alternative set of relationships” in contrast to Ferdinand Tonnies’ civil society, which was characterized by “more formal, more abstract and more instrumental relationships of state, or of society in its modern sense”.  As an example, Williams cited community politics as being distinct from both national politics “but also formal local politics”.  The UK now has a Minister for Communities and Local Government, perhaps emphasizing how ‘communities’ have formalized themselves.

Certainly, since Williams wrote his entry for community the word has taken on an ever-greater variety of meanings, both in general discourse and in academic writing. Not all of these are positive.  For example, ‘communities’ may be described (or self-described) as located outside prevailing notions of social inclusion; in this use, community denotes groups who lack social worth because they are believed not to share majoritarian attributes or values.

The word community came into English from Anglo-Norman and Middle French communite, meaning in particular joint ownership.   Early uses of the word community, now obsolete according to the OED, signified the ‘generality of people’ and ‘the body of people who have common or equal rights as distinguished from the privileged classes’.  
Subsequent developments as recorded by OED show four main strands in use of the word since 14c:

  1. ‘As a body of people who live in the same place, usually sharing a common cultural or ethnic identity’ (OED I2a). A community in this sense is geographically situated, but its boundaries circumscribe a group sharing certain cultural attributes (as in Tonnies’ ‘Gemeinshaft’).  For example, in modern legal debates on the protection of traditional knowledge,  indigenous communities are identified as sharing a sense of place and of culture.  However, this same meaning may be deployed negatively to describe ‘communities’ (for example ‘indigenous communities’) perceived not to be coeval with ‘modern’ society (cf. Fabian’s Time and the Other).  
  2. A group of people who share particular ‘circumstances’, such as their race, religion or sexuality.  ‘In particular, a group living within a larger society from which it is distinct’ (OED, I5a). This appears now to be the most usual sense in which community is used.  Although OED dates this general sense from 18c, the early citations almost all relate to community as denoting a shared religious identity, as in the Morning Post 1840 headline, ‘Address from the Jewish Community to her Majesty’.
  3. Relatedly, community meaning the ‘civic body to which all belong: the public; society’ (OED I6).  Use of the word with this meaning appears to have been more widespread during 18c and 19c than in the present day.
  4. A shared or common quality or state, as in the idea of community ties, or the fact of having a quality or qualities in common, as in a community of interest or the fact of ‘being in communion; social intercourse, fellowship, amity’ (OED II9a).  All these variants are attested in OED from 14c, and appear to overlap with the notion of a community as a group of people who have ‘circumstances’ in common.  A broader example of this use of the word might be ‘The European Community’ of nations which emerged after, and as a political response to, the Second World War.  Recently, a concept of virtual communities has also emerged. Such communities may be people with either circumstances or interests in common, who connect over the internet.  In the case of game players using avatars, however, the avatars may congregate in a specific virtual world, such as Second Life, and hence may most closely resemble communities that are defined geographically as well as culturally (cf. Sherry Tunkle,  Life on the Screen).

Inevitably, use of the label ‘community’ for any group involves a process both of inclusion and exclusion.  Which of these is predominant appears to shift primarily, but not always, on the basis of whether it is a self-attribution or an attribution made by others; or alternatively whether the word describes a form of identity, as in black community, or merely an attribute or interest which a number of individuals may choose to share in common, such as ‘the fly-fishing community’.

In 19c, community was most commonly used to denote a majority, national identity (cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities).  Those who did not belong were in a minority.  For example, in 1851 Thomas Plinth described the “dangerous classes”: “May it not be said of the class that it is in the community, neither of it, nor from it”.  By the turn of 20c, community, although still used to denote the nation as a whole, was recognized to be fragmented. That recognition is reflected for example in Andrew Carnegie’s comment, “therefore gifts to churches, it may be said, are not in one sense gifts to the community at large, but to special classes” (Pall Mall Gazette, 1/1/1890), as well as in the frequently used phrase, “all classes of the community”. 

In the present, community may still be used inclusively to describe the nation as a cohesive whole, with shared cultural bonds, as it is on state occasions.  More common, however, is use of community to describe groups, such as the working class community, who inhabit, or live inside, society rather than being co-extensive or coterminous with it.  Community studies, a branch of sociology, emerged in mid 20c, in a form divided between those who saw a ‘community’ as an object of study and those who viewed community studies “as a method of collecting data illustrative of some wider generalization.” (cf. Colin Bell and Howard Newby, The Sociology of Community).  Others argued that community is a meaningless term because it “embraces a motley assortment of concepts and qualitatively different phenomena” (George A. Hillery, ‘Villages, Cities and Total Institutions’, Amer. Social. Rev., vol. 28, 1963, pp. 779). 

As Williams noted, community politics emerged in the 1960s as an alternative to national politics and to formal local politics. Since then there has been a proliferation of often self-styled community groups and community spokepersons. Most claim to represent socially marginal populations.  It might be argued, however, that recently the idea of ‘community’ or ‘the community’ has been evoked more often and more effectively by those seeking to legitimate an exclusion of such populations, for example the poor and particularly racial minorities, from the mainstream of English society than it has been as an effective basis of self-assertion by them.  Examples include the identification of a “young, lawless black community” after the 1985 riots, or of the “Asian community” held responsible for most dogfights (‘Today’, BBC 2009), or of the Muslim community, held responsible among many other things for not “turning against” the sexual abuse of young girls and hence allowing such abuse to continue in its ‘community’.

It is because of the word’s ubiquity in contemporary political discourse that community remains a keyword.  However, returning to Williams’ suggestion that community is ‘never used unfavourably’, it should be pointed out that the word community will inevitably carry an exclusionary meaning even when it appears to be used positively, whether that exclusionary meaning relates to the idea of a gated community designed to exclude a feral underclass, or praise of the ‘South Asian community’s ‘admirable treatment of its ‘old folk’, which nonetheless suggests that as a group its values differ from those of the English majority.

It is arguable, in fact, that one of the earliest uses of community to define groups within the nation, rather than as constituting the nation itself, was by the British in colonial India. As George Francis Hamilton, Secretary of State of India, wrote to Lord Curzon in 1886 in relation to the dangers of educating the “native community” in Western ideas: “… if we could break educated Indians into two sections holding widely different views, we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government. We should so plan educational text-books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened”. Undoubtedly, use of community in this way was a precursor to use of the word communalism to describe sectarian conflict in South Asia.