Share

Community Structure and Process, 1968

*Address to the 20th Annual Church and Community Leadership Institute "Communication and Community," January 29-31, 1968, Mississippi State University, co-sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service of Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Christian Community Fellowship.

  Whatever happened to community? Everybody used to live in one. You know the kind I mean. One where you had real neighbors. And they had a good neighbor, too. One where everybody, even the kids, knew everybody else and really cared about them. Whatever happened to that? . . . So what? . . . The beat goes on! . . . Tell it like it is, man! . . . Make love, not war! . . . Burn, baby, burn! . . . Hell no, we won't go! . . . No money down!

  There are many ways of thinking about the community. To most of us the word conjures up an image of a place where people live. Big places, little places, cluttered and clean, streets and houses, stores, churches, factories and farms. If we think about it for a minute, though, it's not the place or even the things there that count. It's the people, as they "live and move and have their being." First of all, they have their own way of living, a way which they share. A visitor from another country might not catch it, but the difference is there. Even in the tone of everyday living, each community is a little different. Today it is less so than it was once, but the difference is still real. The difference doesn't really strike you, though, until you get away from every day life and think about how the people pull together, or apart, when there is a big issue or drive or problem. Some communities seem to go to pieces. A few people try, but nothing works. "Folks just don't seem to care." Other communities hit it big on bringing in industries or improving the schools, but they fall down on providing opportunities for the poor or caring for the mentally ill. A few communities have sustained growth and development across the board. Why the big differences at this level, even among communities of similar size with similar resources and problems? This is the level of the community that I want to discuss.

  This level is known technically, thanks to our mutual friend Harold Kaufman, as the interactional community or the community field. I have heard building one described as like making a spoke wheel for an old-fashioned wagon. The trick is to get all the spokes together so the rim will fit and the wheel will roll smoothly. If some are too long or short or if some are broken or missing, the ride will be bumpy and maybe even dangerous. Now with a wagon wheel you can make it work, given the materials, tools, know-how and time. But with a community . . . that's something else again. There you have to contend with people and their wishes and ideas. And they have to contend with one another. Out of the mix comes a spirit, a structure, a community that character of which only partly resembles anybody's plan or prediction.

  I should like to be able to tell you that after years of study we sociologists have the community pretty well figured out, that we know what it is and why, and that if you will listen to us we'll tell you how to fix yours. But I can't tell you that because it is not true. We have facts and figures and some ideas about what they mean. Some of us have strong opinions, but no one has the last word. And no one will. The community is a dynamic, constantly changing, constantly emerging, and highly elusive object of study -- even more so I suspect than the human individual, who at least has a biological core to give some order and direction to his existence. The biological principles simply do no hold when one goes beyond the individual to consider the social unit formed by the interactions of individuals. And yet despite the variability, this social unit which we call the community appears to have order and meaning, an order and meaning of its own. It has structure amid change and emergence, and this fact provides the sociology of community with its challenge.

  In seeking to understand the community, sociologists have used quite a few concepts and propositions. One concept, that of the social system, has become very popular among sociologists. Those who use the term system in studying the community mean by it pretty much what is meant by it in biology and physics. The idea is that the parts of a system are interdependent, that changes in one part will by necessity be reflected in changes in all other parts. We are accustomed to thinking of the human body as a system, so why not the community? It's made up of bodies, isn't it? This idea has strong appeal. We could explain a lot about a community if we could think of it as a system. In fact, that would be a very neat scheme. No loose ends. The only problem with this idea is that it is fundamentally wrong. The error is this: a system by definition has an inherent maintenance tendency. That's what holds it together. Take away this principle of self-regulation or balance, and you no longer have a system. Human bodies have this. So do electrical machines, such as computers. So why not communities? Its part are bodies all right, but are those bodies held together by natural bonds, and is there a natural tendency or instinct for those bodies to work together toward harmony and betterment of the whole? We may have thought so once, but the evidence to the contrary is simply too great to be ignored.

  If a community is not a system, what accounts for its structure and unity? The answer may seem corny and unsophisticated, but I believe it to be true. Whatever structure or unity a community has results primarily from the interaction of the wishes and commitments of men. This is to argue that community exists because people wish it to exist and work together to build it. It may not turn out the way any given person or group wants it to, but that is because there is interaction involved. It may not even turn out to suit anybody. That's because there's a bit of change or fate involved. But the role of man's will, especially the collective wills of cooperating men, cannot be discounted.

  Why do men wish to build a community? Why are they willing to work together to do so if they are not obliged to do so because of their nature? They have been doing so for a long time. Anthropologists tell us that the earliest social units were the nuclear family and the band. The band was a roving community. When it settled down to cultivate the land, the geographic community was begun. Throughout history most men have lived in clusters which we could call communities. Today most of the world's population is to be found not in metropolitan agglomerates nor in the open country, but in small villages or communities. In Mississippi an overwhelming proportion of the population lives in town and country trade area communities. What basic needs are met through living in a community?

  While many specific needs may be listed, there are two basic categories relevant to community. These are bound up in the very nature of human existence. A psychologist-theologian, David Bakan, has termed these the agency and communion aspects of human existence. The former has to do with fulfilling the individual's desires, accomplishing tasks, maintaining a positive self-image and the like. The latter has to do with establishing viable relationships among men. Psychological theory from Freud on has emphasized man's dual nature, on the one hand, taking, on the other giving; on the one hand drawing in, on the other reaching out. Sociologists have dealt with this duality in a number of ways. In small group studies we read of task-oriented and social-emotional behavior, in organization studies of productivity and cohesiveness or morale. In each case there is a distinction between getting the job done and getting along with people.

  The getting-the-job-done reason for forming a community is easy to see. Man needs and wants certain things that he cannot get by himself. So he joins with others who also want those things or who want some other things which he can help them get, and together they get at it. Community in this way is an instrument or tool for meeting needs which cannot be met by singular workers. This is an instrumental reason for community. Man is willing to give up a lot in the way of personal autonomy and sometimes integrity to get the help of others in providing him his mammon.

  But is this enough? Surely it is not, for if it were man would withdraw his commitment -- take back that given up -- at the first indication that the social contract might not pay off. The fact is that man derives intrinsic as well as instrumental satisfaction from his associations with others. Should man be technologically equipped at some time in the future to meet his every material need, he would still have the need for meaningful interpersonal contacts. Community in this sense is an end in itself, a goal to be pursued with vigor by man along with his pursuit of other goals. To cast the intrinsic and instrumental values of community in an either-or context is to distort reality. Man must simultaneously pursue instrumental and intrinsic satisfaction in his every social act; and every social act, every social unit, every community has both task accomplishment and social relational dimensions and implications.

  One of man's most critical social problems, now or at any time, is represented by the fact that the kinds of things that tend to enhance task accomplishment tend to disrupt social relations and vice versa. In industry, for example, we find that if one wants to maximize productivity quickly, he should assume a powerful, autocratic management stance and forget about worker morale. If he wants a very happy team he should not fret so about achieving production goals. In community we can see the same principle operating. A comprehensive "systems management" approach to economic development, for example, if applied ruthlessly according to impersonal, highly rational standards would literally wreck the community, or the society, it aimed to serve. An optimum balance between task accomplishment and structure maintenance in the community is earnestly sought by many. It must be sought; it does not come naturally. Communities have inherent problems for which they do not have inherent solutions.

  I have said that community involves place, people and collective action and that the social structure of a community results partly from will, partly from interaction and partly from chance. I have added that community reflects both instrumental and intrinsic values in social life and that these values tend to get into conflict. I have also hinted, in the beginning, that something is amiss in community life today. Before commenting on the problems I should like to describe the elements of community and the arrangements or structures among those elements by which the instrumental and intrinsic values are pursued.

  The essence of community is a generalizing process, which is to say a process by which the activities in pursuit of a wide variety of interests of a local population are both enhanced and coordinated. Within a local society there are many interests or goals which people share. These may be seen in the various institutional areas such as economics, government, religion, education, family life and the rest. In each area people are working together to get things done. It's not a community, in the technical sense, unless it has most of these. It may have all of these and still not be a community in the full meaning of the term. Analytically, one asks how is the economic activity tied in with the school system, for example? Suppose one finds that in everyday life these are tied together fairly well. Then one asks what about the effort to bring in new industries? Is that linked with the development of a new vocational education program in the schools? If so, through what means did the linkage come about? Here one is asking about what we have called the essence of community. The essence is a process by which task accomplishment programs in many, ideally all, areas of the common local life are (1) strengthened through having access to local resources, such as people, material and good wishes, outside the immediate interest group and (2) integrated with other efforts so that the structure and well-being of the community as a whole are enhanced.

  This generalizing process has a number of aspects. One is leadership, defined broadly to include the behavior of all those who participate in bringing about across-the-board development. People participating in several interest fields and carrying on relationships with people in other interest areas are the conductors and actualizers of the generalizing process. In most communities the number of highly generalized leaders is small; but for the generalizing process to be effective, the network of integrating relationships must be broad and include many in less visible roles. Participants work together in organizations and informal groups, and these constitute a second major element of the generalizing process. These range from informal friendship rings through which information and ideas are exchanged, to highly organized development associations which not only coordinate but sponsor community projects in multiple interest fields. The third element consists of the activities themselves, the projects and programs through which goals are met and social networks are strengthened. Over time communities develop distinctive action styles. In some communities everything important that comes up results in public debate and controversy. In others there is a lot of talk, but little action as important undertakings abort. In still others efficient procedures for accomplishing goals have been worked out and are applied time and again as new problems are identified. This implies that the three elements actors, associations, and activities, may be related to one another in a variety of ways or, stated another way, that community structure comes in a number of sizes and shapes.

  Among the types of community structure identified through research, four stand out as clearly distinctive. One is the integrated type with a well-defined generalizing process. Generalized leaders link many interest fields, and continuous attention is given to identifying new action problems and improving interactional patterns throughout the local society. Often there is a multi-interest development organization with broad activities which are modified through time to reflect changing interests and needs of the local populace. A second type of structure is segmented. In such communities there is a high level of activity and coordination within one or more interest areas but little among interest areas. Government often provides the only coordination across interest lines and that only when some conflict between interest groups enters the local political arena. A third is the factionalized or lateralized type which differs from the segmented type in that its split runs across, rather than along, interest lines. In such communities ethnic, political, or class distinctions separate local residents such that there is a bifurcation on almost any question that might arise. The fourth type of structure is amorphous, sometimes called the vacuum, and is really no structure at all. Such situations are far from rare in the modern world where identifications and commitments outside of or within, but apart from, the locality create residential and sometimes total agglomerates of relatively autonomous families and individuals. These are constructed or ideal types, and there are many variations on each.

  It should not be taken by fiat that the integrated type of community structure as described here is the best or the universally desired type. There are many people who are prepared to list the merits of each of the others and to show the drawbacks of an integrated model. Human values being what they are, there is no real basis for argument. The position taken here is that to a great degree community is what people want it to be. Segmented, factionalized and amorphous community structures, however, represent something less than what I have termed the essence of community.


  Now to the problems. It doesn't take a great deal of study to know that the community in America is in trouble. Oh, there are some strong communities all right, and there has even been a resurgence of late in the community development movement. Witness urban renewal, new towns, the Secretary of Agriculture's call to strengthen small cities of the South so that the poor will not continue their massive migration into troubled megalopolis. Witness also the suburban growth of the 1950's and, closer to home, the strong positive local responses to things such as the recently concluded Mississippi Merit Community Program and the spread of chambers of commerce. But there are a great many communities that are getting weaker, and in the case of the country's metropolitan centers there are a great many more people now than ever before in the weaker communities. The problems are at two levels. At one level are broad sweeping movements in western society which threaten the existence of community in the sense that I have described it and perhaps even society as we know it. There is a question as to whether these should be called problems or changes. At the other level are problems specific to the community. The latter problems have been with us for many years and will likely continue so long as there is a community.

  The great trend in community life, indeed in social life generally, over the past hundred years or so has been away from the interpersonal pole and toward the task accomplishment pole of the social field. This has accompanied the cumulatively startling advances in technology of the Industrial Revolution, which one could fairly say is just now really getting going. Presuming this earth makes it over the next few weeks and beyond, what will life be like not only in the year 2000, but in 3000 and 100,000 when the technological boom really gets rolling? But of course our interest is in the now, and if you agree with Lord Keynes, the long run doesn't count because in the long run we're all dead. The best guess is that during our time here present trends will continue and be accelerated, that the shift from normative to rational thought, from status to contract, and from love to use will be continued. This will not be without counter trends, such as recent furtive quests for community among the flower children and within the black power movement. These protests offer little mainstream resistance to the bureaucratizing, secularizing, depersonalizing trends in American industry, government, religion and philosophy. A new kind of character structure is being created which is neither tradition-directed, inner-directed nor other directed. It is task-directed, which by extension means thing-directed.

  Where does all this leave the community? Some observers have already counted the local community out in American society, saying that the term has no referent in the present, that the nation is the community of today and the international mass the community of tomorrow. Others say that the local community must be rebuilt if this society is to avoid a cataclysmic end. This latter point of view has been expressed more frequently during the past few years than in the previous decade. Perhaps the community is coming out of its eclipse and has a contribution to make, after all. Maybe we'll even get to know our neighbors again.

  Why do things change so and communities decline? How do communities get to be segmented, lateralized or amorphous? Part of the answer lies in the statement that people want things that way. It is true. I have heard people extol the values of living where there is Real Action, meaning controversy, conflict and competition among groups and agencies. But another part of the answer lies in people wanting an integrated community and not knowing how to attain it, or not being willing to put out for it, or not being able to get others to join in, or not being able to stem the pressures of dynamic change in modern society which make any community development effort an uphill fight. In a certain very real and frustrating sense, community cannot be built; it has to happen. We can study community A forever and still not know enough about it to replicate its basic strength in community B. Communities are like people that way. They have their own ways of doing things. We can nonetheless ferret some general principles of community organization out of the experience of successful programs and out of the logical framework by which a strong community is recognized and allow these to be applied where people want to do something about their community.

  I will only mention a few ideas in this regard. These might serve as points to stimulate discussion or dialogue. I regard them as keys to community development.

  1. The long-term theme of community development should be to develop the community as a human relationship structure, rather than to develop things in or through the community. Recruitment of participants for a given effort perhaps requires that emphasis be placed on goals and immediate rewards, but without an underlying, or behind-the-scenes, overview and long-range plan or vision, the accomplishments in various areas and at various times will not add up.

     

  2. Community development, as described here, must reflect and express the values and wishes of the local population. Programs of outside bureaucracies sometimes work best in the short run in localities which lack community, but these fail to tap sources of support for continuing local sponsorship. Community development in the sense of development of a community as such has seldom been tried by outside agencies. As with public welfare, it seems to be a good idea; it just never has been tried. The key here is selective use of external resources by local citizens.

     

  3. Community development requires a commitment on the part of special interest groups to align their efforts with those of other groups. This costs. Take the case of the church as an example, and the costs are obvious.

     

  4. Community development requires that attention be given continuously to problems and needs in all areas of local life. The old admonition about "one thing at a time and that done well" will not do the job called for here.

     

  5. Sustained community development requires an organizational structure. Development organizations take many forms. Whatever the form, to be effective, a community development organization must be comprehensive, systematic and sensitive to the values of people.

     

  6. Community requires communication. Community is interaction, and interaction is based on communication. I'm speaking here of the one-to-one kind and of the kind that flows through public media. A rule-of-thumb way to assess the potential for development of a community is to count the number of breaks or gaps in the local communication structure. Breaks come at points of class separation, of ethnic, political or interest cleavage, and sometimes along family lines. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the communication is the community.

     

  7. Community development requires a commitment beyond selfish gain, at least by the small number of people in any community who can really make it work. There's nothing wrong with the merchant's interest in industrial development as a means of making his cash register ring. That's the American Way, we are reminded. There's nothing inherently wrong with the link between the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism. My point is that something more is needed. That something is a willing, responsible, and continuing commitment to enhance the lives and well-being of others. We call it love.