What is community?

Anyone who has written a paper for or taken a class from me knows I’m rather passionate about three things:

  1. Defining what one means when using the concept of ‘community’;
  2. Using the Oxford Comma (as in, you must use it); and
  3. Citing references (again, as in, don’t even think about submitting a paper to me without doing this).

This post is an intro to the definition of community used on this blog.

Community is one of those words we toss about without really stopping to think about what it means. If we took a poll, we’d find there are likely just as many definitions as there are people in the poll because we each have have specific values, feelings, understandings,  (mis)conceptions, and so on we attach to the term. We just assume others understand what we mean – and what we attach – when we say ‘community’.

The messiness of the term ‘community’ was highlighted in George Hillery’s seminal 1955 article (1). He explored definitions of community in academic literature at that point, where he found over 90 distinct definitions of the term. Most of those definitions contained two key aspects: people and place. In the ensuing years the fuzziness has still persisted, but the concept continues to revolve around people and place. Place itself has been increasingly conceptualized using one of two key aspects: a locality where people live and an area (or application as in the internet) across which people interact.

Some definitions, like the one I will use in this blog, include both locality and interaction. It is this last aspect – interaction – which distinguishes the approach to community used here.

I come from a school of community theory known as interactional community or community field theory(2). From this perspective, community doesn’t simply exist, it emerges from the interactions of local actors toward addressing the common interests of the local society. The generalization of interests across multiple aspects of the community sets the community field apart from other social fields (which are also defined by the actions of actors but which are focused on one or two limited interests).

While this definition is limiting (and somewhat confusing when first exposed to it), the interactional approach to community sets the stage to understand how human interaction – and more importantly barriers to human interaction – makes or breaks our efforts in community, economic, and entrepreneurship development.

This blog is dedicated to exploring this approach further, highlighting how this approach manifests itself in our everyday lives, in hopes that others can begin to see their towns, cities, and interactions in new ways.


  1. A. Hillery, George. (1955). Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement. Rural Sociology. 20. 111-123.
  2. The field theory approach can be traced back to the early 1900s, but the stage for the interactional community approach can be traced back to key works by:
    • Lewin  – Lewin, K. 2006. Resolving social conflicts & field theory in social science. Field theory in social science orig. pub. 1951. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
    • Mey – Mey, H. 1972. Field-theory: A study of its application in the social sciences. Translated by Douglas Scott. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Kaufman – Kaufman, H.F. 1959. Toward an interactional conception of community. Social Forces 38(1): 8-17).
    • Wilkinson – Wilkinson, K. 1999. The Community in rural America. First Social Ecology Press Ed. Middleton, WI: Social Ecology Press. (Orig. Pub. 1991)

 

One thought on “What is community?

  1. Pingback: Community spotting | Searching for Community

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