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Is there such a thing as community?

 

Kevin Loughran

 

 

Few of us do not acknowledge the idea of community in some way or another.  For example, we attach the word community to many titles of jobs or activities or institutions: community nurse, community social worker, community pharmacy, community policing, community workshop, community enterprises, community health centres; and so on.  Community is more than a commonly used word.  It has become a habit of expression.

    

Does it matter?  After all (it can be argued) the world doesn’t come to an end because many common words or phrases are used loosely.  But when a word is used not only loosely but habitually – when it has become a habit of expression – then we have ceased to think about what we mean by it.  We have ceased to consider that we may not be conveying any information or adding any meaning to what we say or write when we use the word.

 

What do we mean by community when we use the word?  Often when we talk about community we are referring to a group of people who happen to have something in common: they live in the same place, or come from a similar background, or face the same changes – or threats – to their environment.  By using the word community we imply that we are saying something about the situation of this group of people and their relationships with each other.  In fact we may be failing to explain why we are picking them out.  We may be failing to examine what they have in common and what makes them a group.  We may be failing to examine their relationships with each other.

 

If the idea of community is to be of value, it will be as a means of understanding and describing something of what is common between people.  If the idea of community is to be of use it will be by providing insights into the networks to which people are connected and the forms of association in which they participate.  By providing such insights the idea of community can suggest frameworks for offering support and organising services.  It can point to ways of reaching people.

 

But if the idea of community is of some use, how far does its usefulness go?  Most often the idea of community is acknowledged without any sense of the limits of the idea.  But all ideas have limits to their usefulness.  There is much that the idea of community does not explain, to which it is not relevant.   Community is but one among a number of dimensions of our social existence.

 

Take the application of the idea of community in the health and social services, especially the services grouped together under the heading of community care.  How does the community part relate to the care part?  Perhaps the community in community care means that some idea of community is essential to the services and activities under the heading of community care.  But many helping relationships within health and social services do not involve any process which might be described as a process of community.  Most services under the heading of community care involve, as part of the service, individualised helping relationships which are on too small and personal a scale to justify the application of the word community to them.

 

And if we are prepared to question what we mean by the word community, and probe the limits of the idea of community, we should be prepared to ask the fundamental question: is there such a thing as community?  Or are there, as Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia asserted, only individual people with their own individual lives?1

 

For many people the question ‘Is there such a thing as community?’ may seem superfluous.  They can point to the prevalence of group life and learning in human social existence.  They can point out that co-operation, when individuals act together for the benefit of each other, is common in nature and even more common among human beings.  They can argue that co-operation is natural.

 

But co-operation may not be all that it seems.  Co-operation may have evolved as a sensible way of protecting individual self-interest; and now may represent a recognition that, as often as not, individual self-interests belong together.  Perhaps all human behaviour, whether individual acts of acquisition or individual acts of giving or co-operative acts in groups, is motivated ultimately by individual self-interest.  Perhaps we value the outcomes of our actions more by possible individual advantage to ourselves than by any other outcome.  If we do, can the word community be a useful way of describing our relationships with each other?  Straightforward words such as ‘association’ or ‘group’ or ‘grouping’ would be preferable: words which refer simply to people coming together for some common purpose but do not in themselves imply any quality of relationship.

 

Some who take an essentially individualist view will argue that some degree of association for the purpose of mutual support is prudent and necessary, and that there is a necessary role for the state: to prescribe certain goals, to provide certain benefits and to regulate certain activities.  But others will carry the argument further and be sceptical about imposing any social obligations on individuals.  For example, Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia argued for a minimal state which would be limited to the function of protecting its citizens against force, theft and fraud and of enforcing contracts.  On this basis he argued that it was as illegitimate for the state to take a man’s goods through taxes to pay for services for needy people as it would be to direct him into forced labour to provide services for needy people.2

 

What answers do we give to the question ‘Is there such a thing as community?’ may influence how we define problems and where we seek solutions.  If human nature is essentially individualist, if strategies of self-interest are at the heart of social existence, then collective action will be for individual ends.  Social policy – if there is to be social policy – will be about facilitating individual choices.  Community may be a misleading term.

 

But if the groups and associations in which we are involved with other people are part of what and who we are, if co-operation is a fundamental fact of our existence and our being, and not simply collective means to individual ends, then it will not be sufficient to interpret our social existence in terms of the arrangements which individual people make with each other.  It will be necessary to consider the quality of our relationships.  It will be necessary to acknowledge that being with other people and acting together with them are not simply means to individual ends but can be ends in themselves.  If relationships with other people are ends in themselves then the idea of community can have some validity as a means of describing what is common between people.

 

A strong idea of community may imply state action.  Michael Walzer advocated the idea of political community, and a general obligation for the mutual provision of security and welfare.  Within such a philosophy, state action would seem a natural and logical consequence of there being a political community.3

 

A strong idea of community within a conservative philosophy would lead to a different view of social relations and obligations and the role of the state.  Roger Scruton emphasised association between people outside of government.4   Mutual support could be provided by direct association and a multiplicity of associations.  This conservative idea of community could be taken to call into question the very idea of an active social policy by the state.

 

What answers we give to the question ‘Is there such a thing as community?’ may reflect how we see social existence: how we view obligations and responsibilities and what we should do about them; how we associate; and how we see the role of the state.

 

In questioning the idea of community I am not arguing against it.  If an idea is worth thinking about, it is worth questioning.  I believe that community is a reasonable idea to apply to our social existence, but I am asking 'How far does it go?'  And what does each one of us mean by it when we use the word?  When we use the word community we should mean something and convey that meaning, and so help each other to choose common actions more sensibly.

 

 

 

1  Anarchy, State and Utopia.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1974. p. 169-70.

 

2  ibid.  p. ix

 

3  Membership, welfare and needs.  In Liberalism and its Critics,  edited by Michael T. Sandel. New York: University Press, 1984. p  200

 

4  What is conservatism?  In Conservative Texts: an anthology. . Palgrave Macmillan, 1991.  p. 10Macmillan.  p. 10

 

 

Kevin Loughran, 2011

 

 

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