Capabilities and Community

What does community have to do with capabilities? In a word: Everything. Communities provide the context and resources for developing capabilities. They tell us which capabilities are important and valuable, and which are not. They complement and extend our capabilities. And, communities help us get back on track after accidents, mistakes, or simply wasting time. Without community, people languish, fail to develop, and can’t contribute to the well-being of others. Community also drives innovation. It all — capabilities and community — has to do with caring.

To see how and why, we have to come to grips with a perennial issue: What, exactly, is “community”?

There is no simple, single answer. I like to say that community is a nexus of human needs-fulfillment, but that may sound academic. Another way to say this is: community is people with similar interests and/or in a particular place who share some other characteristics — rituals, values, ways of dressing, living, and speaking, etc. But, what community is isn’t as important as what it does. In fact, community may be best defined by factors and functions.1

  1. Identification is what and who we are, where we belong, and who else is like (or not) us. It is the primary function of and first factor in building a community: to identify it, who is in it, who is not, and who might be. The key characteristic of identification is that it is done collectively. No one individual determines a community’s identity. It emerges as individuals interact, based on their common characteristics and shared interests.
  2. Integration is getting everyone to fit into the community, behave like other community members, and consistently represent the community. The second function or factor is to make sure everyone functions as part of the community and works to strengthen it. Integration is not separate from identification. It occurs as individuals identify themselves with each other by adopting similar behaviors. The power behind integration is enforcement: the ability of the community to collectively exclude someone who can’t or won’t identify with it.
  3. Differentiation is setting members apart from each other. This is critical to community because community is as much about standing out as it is about fitting in. The third factor/function is for each individual to be seen as notable or unique within the community. Differentiation cannot occur without integration because being a solid member of a community provides the basis — the confidence of both the individual and other community members — for individuals to develop capabilities that complement, and are necessarily different from, others.

These three functions, or factors in community-building, also represent increasing levels of capabilities. The ability to identify oneself and one’s community is modest capability, but an important one. Fitting into and being recognized as part of a community involves more capabilities because it requires one to actually behave in certain ways and for others to judge that behavior. Standing out involves particular capabilities that are different from and valued by others in the community.

Tightly integrated, minimally differentiated communities may seem more stable, but a highly differentiated, loosely integrated community is better able to respond to change. The ideal is probably somewhere in between — stable yet responsive. This requires collective reflexive capabilities. In other words, members of a community must be able to think together about how the community is doing and what it — each and every member of it — must do to sustain it. They must be aware of and open about community factors/functions. Critical reflection must be a community value.

A robust, fully functional community encourages deviation because deviation enables community to evolve and respond to changing circumstances. Effective community shows the individual how his or her behavior helps or hurts others, rather than simply disallowing it. Of course, this only works if community members care about each other, which can only happen if individuals feel the community cares about and for them. Mutual care must also be a community value.

Community doesn’t break down because of poor integration. It breaks down when individuals stop caring about others and reflecting together about community’s functions. That makes us incapable. To be truly capable, each of us must figure out how to make others more capable, in ways that are meaningful to them, individually. But we can only figure this out together.

And, that builds community. Caring about others together is the basis of identification that is not objectifying. It enables integration that doesn’t depend on shame and is not limiting. And, it drives positive, community-strengthening differentiation. When we care about each other, we each strive to improve and innovate in ways that benefit others, and we encourage others to do so as well.

Mutual caring drives creation of new technology that enhances human capabilities. Failure to care about people — or “caring” about them as objects — results in destructive, exploitative technologies. The weaker one’s community, the less complete or robust the community factors/functions, the less one cares about others, and the less likely it is that one will generate positive capabilities, including technological innovations.

You should care because it builds community and makes you—and others—more capable.

OK, so this post may have gotten a bit too philosophical. What do you think? In my next post, I’ll focus on practical implications of technology, community, and capabilities.

1For an exhaustive consideration of various scholarly views of community, check out pages 128–146 of my dissertation, which you can find online at

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