Community as a Process

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

When we speak of community development, we often gloss over the conceptual fuzziness of the term “community” (let alone “community development”). At a very simple level, when we speak of community development we are speaking descriptively of communities of place, whether they be neighborhoods, villages, cities, or regions. There is some sense of territory, shared space, and interdependence. A recent article in the journal Community Development by David Mataritta-Cascante and Mark Brennan titled “Conceptualizing Community Development in the Twenty-First Century” (which I highly recommend) reminds of some of the standard conceptual components of what we mean by community.

Social scientists by-and-large have studied community in terms of structures and systems of relationships. In other words, communities are comprised of relationship structures among people in a given place, as well as groups and institutions that emerge to help meet the collective needs of the population. Community has also been studied in terms of its components. The assets-based approach discussed often in this blog is the most widely utilized model in this respect, breaking down communities in terms of physical, human, economic, and social assets.

In addition to thinking of community in terms of social structures or various kinds of assets, community can also be thought of as a process. Field theory, most importantly advanced decades ago by Harold Kaufman and Kenneth Wilkinson, emphasizes social interaction as the most important aspect of community. The idea here is that communities of place are comprised of several different fields of interaction (e.g. education, business, or religion), but “the community field” is an integrative force that creates and maintains linkages across the various fields that otherwise are directed toward more limited interests.

This is an extremely important insight into the “community” aspect of community development. It reminds us that community is more than just sharing community space or even interdependence among people and organizations. And it is more than the sum-total of the the various assets, human, physical, or otherwise in a place. Rather, community involves a sense of commonality and common purpose that emerges out of community-oriented social interactions, which are qualitatively different than other social interactions that are more parochial (or sub-community, if you will).

One way to visualize this is to think of the different fields of interaction one might experience in a typical community. A businessman may interact with group of people in church on Sunday, with school officials in relation to his children during the week, with other businesspeople during economic transactions, and other groups of people during recreational activities. These are all fields of interaction that occur in the community. But a true sense of community, at the level of the town or region, only occurs when those different fields of interaction are brought together or integrated in social interaction at the community level. Community festivals may be one way this occurs. Public dialogue around community issues is another. And community-oriented projects that engage  the community broadly are another (think of community clean-up days).

It is through these community-oriented interactions that community fields are developed and strengthened. The progressive-era writer Mary Parker Follett wrote about community as a process in a similar vein, noting that dialogue that unifies differences (points of view, backgrounds, interests) into common purpose is the essence of community. So the question this perspective begs for community developers is how strong their “community field” is? To what extent are the different networks, structures, or fields of interaction integrated at the community level? What kinds of processes might engage people in a way so that they may develop a sense of common purpose, or sense of community?

Community visioning is one process utilized in many communities and regions to build the community field. Chapel Hill 2020 is a recent, local example of a Town government leading a process of integrative engagement that not only served the purpose of developing comprehensive plan for the Town, but also helped citizens engage at the community level and develop a common vision with their neighbors that was inclusive of but also transcended individual and group interests and perspectives. No process is perfect, but the important insight is that such community-oriented processes are community-building–in other words, these processes are community development–when one thinks in terms of community as a process.




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