Community — what the books are saying

This listicle is the first in the series “What the books are saying”. It lays out some of the core academic fields which have analysed community and relationships. Future articles will look at each area in turn, seeking to give an overview of the core insights that it brings to the debate.

Together is not an academic research project, and nor does it try to be. However, this is not to say that the traditional academic research is not relevant to the project.

Not only does academic research offer a pool of resources from which we can pull solutions to the questions Together seeks to answer, but in looking at the forces that shape society’s understanding of relationships we must take account of the Academy’s role in this.

To achieve the kind of cultural change which is at the heart of Together’s mission engaging with academic fields is imperative.

The areas at the start of the list tend to look at what relationships and community are — what is a community? What is it made of? Towards the end of the list, the literatures are focused more on normative issues such as: what good relationships are, and what kind of value there is in aspiring to community as an ideal.

1. Community Studies — this is an interdisciplinary field which, perhaps most explicitly, studies the nature of community and community relationships. To do so research often draws on a wide range of both academic and practical expertise.

2. Social Network / Social Capital Theory — Social network theory tends to look at the structure of social networks from individual relationships to large-scale social structures. If networks are made up of individuals (think: dots) and their relationships (think: lines), then how are they arranged? What shape do networks take? Are communities large or small? Are they centred around one influential individual, or are they very loose associations?

3. Structuration theory — Pioneered by Anthony Giddens, looks at how social structures create norms and identities, how individuals’ actions relate to macro-level outcomes, and how structures change over time.

4. Social / Cultural Anthropology — the study of all kinds of past and present human societies. There are many discussions of community in these fields.

5. Social Psychology — tends to look at how individuals’ cognitive processes work in the context of their relationships with others.

6. Social Ontology — an area of philosophy that deals with philosophical questions about how social structures and facts come to exist. How is it that relationships can have features like formality, responsibilities, meanings, and so on?

7. Ethics of Community — Much contemporary study of ethics concerns how human beings should treat each other. But some explicitly look at the ethics of what communities should look like, what the character of interpersonal interactions should be, and what individual relationships have to do with moral reasons and obligations.

8. Communitarianism — A branch of political theory that seeks to emphasise the importance of community ties and communal identity in public life”. It has often been understood as a critique of liberalism.

9. Citizenship theory — A branch of political philosophy that looks at the nature of citizenship; what a civic community is, and what rights and duties citizens should expect to have.

10. Theology of Community — theologians have written on the nature of community. This is perhaps not surprising, since at the very heart of much Christian theology lies the idea of a community in the Church and in the Trinity.

11. Special interest areas — fields which study sections of society with particular interests, such as geographical, ethnic, religious, LGBT, social class, and groups, and so on have literatures which discuss how these groups form and practice community, and what dynamics are present between actors related to these communities.

Author: Sam Bruce

Sam is currently working on a PhD in political philosophy at Oxford University.