Community is a key concept in political theory and philosophy that lies at the heart of many important social and political debates. Nonetheless, the conceptual clarification of the term community often leaves much to be desired. It has therefore been described as a rather vague, murky, or amorphous concept.

Two different definitions of the term should be distinguished. As a descriptive concept, community refers to a specific social phenomenon, namely a group of people bound by a common habitat, cooperation, and shared interests, traditions, and beliefs. As a normative concept, community appears in many philosophical theories and debates as a value concept, representing either an intrinsic good (or serving as a precondition for the realization of this good) or an obstacle to the realization of a certain good.

The commonplace usage of the term concerns the reference to a social group. Various things can bind the members of this group. The social glue that keeps the community together tends to be more compound and intimate than what binds members of a society. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies ( 1855–1936 ) elaborated on the distinction between community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Gesellschaft) at the end of the nineteenth century. Whereas members of a society can have very divergent moral views, religious beliefs, and sometimes even conflicting traditions and ways of life, members of a community share some of the most crucial features that shape their identities. In other words, and as the term itself expresses, they have more in common. Whereas societies are to a greater extent the result of socioeconomic, geopolitical circumstances, the commonalities and core around which communities are formed are more personal and intimate. The German sociologist Max Weber ( 1864–1920 ) therefore emphasized that Gemeinschaft stems from a subjective feeling based on and fueled by personal affects and traditions.


Communities are identity-making. They offer membership, a sense of belonging, and social cohesion based on a set of shared values, beliefs, and traditions. As for traditions, shared rites of passage are often very important in communities. Members of a community share these turning points in an individual's life, which become embedded in specific traditions and customs. According to the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot ( 1907–2003 ) it is precisely the sharing of these rites of passage on which communities are founded.

Communities also offer a sense of recognition: being recognized as an individual person and as a member of a larger group. That is why reciprocity and recognition have been defined as crucial features of communities as well: being recognized as a member of a community and recognizing others as members of that community. This implies specific responsibilities and reciprocal obligations toward the members of the community.


What turns the term community into a normative concept, and even a political and ideological concept, are the classic issues of the individual in the community and of the community in society. These are not definitional issues. Rather, they raise the question of what the specific social and political role of communities should be. The question of which responsibilities and rights communities have, and of how these relate to the responsibilities and rights of individuals as members of a society on the one hand and to the responsibilities and power of governments and states on the other, is one of the principal sources of disagreement between people with different political views.

How do individuals, communities, and society as a whole relate to each other? Some will argue that communities should play a central role in society and in the life of individuals. In communitarianism, for example, communities have great social and political meaning. Communitarians such as the Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni argue that communal life should be revalued and restored in what they believe to be an increasingly fragmented society. They also believe the role of communities is downgraded in communist and socialist societies and that bureaucratic centralization takes away the local power and responsibilities of communities.

Communitarians share this critique with conservative thinkers, from the conservatism of the Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke ( 1729–1797 ) to a wide range of American conservative thinkers of the twentieth and present centuries, such as Milton Friedman ( 1912–2006 ), Russell Kirk ( 1918–1994 ), and Thomas Sowell. Central to the conservative political philosophy is the belief that more local, communal commitments and responsibilities are beneficial to individuals and society as a whole. Large-scale policies and centralization undermine not only the power and responsibilities of local communities, but also the personal sense of responsibility and commitment of individuals who feel most attached to, and motivated by, the well-being of the community they live in. Communitarians and conservatives stress that an individual can deploy his freedom only within a community that has the social and political power to withstand centralized government.


The view that communities should posses a considerable amount of social and political power also distinguishes communitarians and conservatives from those liberals who hold that the social and political power and role of communities should be limited in order to maximize individual freedom. According to many liberal thinkers, communities—with their specific traditions, customs, beliefs, privileges, and identity-shaping mechanisms that cause both communal inclusion and exclusion—hamper an individual in the deployment of his freedom. The less restricted by rigid traditions and moral views, the more room there is for individual freedom, free choice, and a liberal politics of consent.

Some liberals have tried to defend individual freedom while acknowledging the social and political role of communal traditions and customs. Already in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries British liberal philosophers like Thomas Hill Green ( 1836–1882 ), Leonard T. Hobhouse ( 1864–1929 ), John A. Hobson ( 1858–1940 ), and Bernard Bosanquet ( 1848–1923 ), and American philosophers like Lester Frank Ward ( 1841-1913 ) and John Dewey ( 1856-1952 ) tried to reconcile community, individual liberty, and liberal individualism. This movement has been described as new liberalism and also as social liberalism.

Green and Bosanquet argue for communal values and a more inclusive, social form of liberalism as opposed to classical laissez-faire liberalism. Their view of individual freedom and how to maximize it differs from that of classical liberals. Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill ( 1806–1873 ) defend a negative concept of freedom: freedom as the absence of external constraints and impediments. In order to maximize individual freedom external restrictions and constraints should be minimized, which includes limiting the power communities can exert over an individual's life. Green and Bosanquet, however, defend a positive concept of freedom: an individual is not free simply because he is free from external constraints. An individual is free only if he also possesses the actual power and resources that he needs to perform self-fulfilling acts. Communities can play a positive role in helping the individual to obtain that power and those resources and thus in the maximization of a person's freedom.


Contemporary liberal political theorists have also acknowledged a need and longing for communal life in human nature. The Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has attempted to refute the communitarian critique of liberalism. In his 1989 book Liberalism, Community, and Culture, he defends the values that are central to classical liberal thought—personal autonomy and freedom of thought, expression, and choice—while fully recognizing that these values can only be realized in a community with others. Though the community element might not have been sufficiently recognized in classical liberalism, the constructive role of communities in the maximization of individual freedom and liberal values is central to Kymlicka's reformulated liberalism.

Other contemporary philosophers and political theorists, like the Americans Benjamin Barber and Michael Walzer, have tried to reconcile liberty and community as well and have emphasized the positive social and political role communities can fulfill. A democratic community, tending toward egalitarianism, facilitates the liberation of men and women. It should be observed, though, that in this regard the term community is again used in a rather wide sense, referring to a group of people who share the citizenship of a specific, democratic society, and who have specific social and political rights and duties owing to the fact that they are members of this democratic society. The idea of democratic citizenship is hard to refute in today's world, but it is not essential to communities in a strict sense.

Still, liberal political philosophers are wary of the risks involved in overemphasizing the social and political role of communities, or misusing community to legitimize hierarchical social relationships. Those relationships are difficult to reconcile not only with the idea of democratic citizenship and an egalitarian community but also with the republican concept of community and republican self-governance.


Central to republicanism (referring to the republican form of government, not the party) is the view that people rule themselves and that without this self-government the virtue of a common good cannot be realized. People are sovereign and govern themselves, and this should be reflected in communities as well. If one part of a community rules over another part of that community, as happens in more hierarchical conceptions of communal life, this conflicts with the republican ideals of self-government and sovereignty, and with the republican notion of freedom as well. The republican ideal of self-government—and particularly of self-improvement through self-government—has greatly inspired American politics and constitutionalism since the days of the Founding Fathers. Many, like Thomas Jefferson, considered selfgovernance to be an essential human right, a belief that deeply marked the American Constitution. The Founders' great innovation was to introduce the idea of actual representation, in which eligible citizens elected officials to represent them.

Historically, a certain wariness of governmental power and a suspicion concerning the concentration of power has inspired American politics, constitutionalism, and decision making. Many of the Founding Fathers sympathized with classical liberal thought. As a result they were wary of the extent to which governmental power should curtail individual freedom. James Madison is a case in point: often described as a classical liberal, Madison was very much concerned with how the lives of individuals and communities could be negatively affected by governmental power. In an October 1788 letter to Jefferson, Madison famously commented on the idea of a bill of rights: “Wherever the real power in government lies, there is the danger of oppression” ( quoted in Ketcham 2006, 160 ).

The term community was frequently used in the writings of the Founders. Setting the just boundaries between individual freedom and the power and rights of communities, society, and governmental institutions was a major concern in the political writings of Jefferson and in Madison's contributions to The Federalist. The Founders believed in the benefits of limited government in the interest of communal autonomy and self-government. Although they sympathized with classical liberalism, many of them also recognized the importance of communal life and values. Madison, for example, repeatedly emphasized the intrinsic value of a common good and argued that governmental power should accommodate the happiness and liberty of a community, that government should be informed by the views and needs of the community, and that the cultivation of a just sense of community was the best way to avoid political tyranny. The Founding Fathers did not always use the term community in a very precise way, having in mind sometimes local communities and sometimes society as a whole. However, the use of the term community, even when referring to the larger society, suggests that this may not have been a hard and fast distinction.


As the new century approached, political thinkers and activists alike called for more self-governance by individuals and communities through participatory democracy, active citizenship, collaborative decision making, and the cooperation of local economies, citizens, and government to realize the goals of local communities. Underlying this view is the belief that local and communal governance offers better problem-solving mechanisms than do centralized or federal government.

Community advocates argue that local governance enables people to engage more actively in response to local challenges. They are undeterred by the global proportion of challenges like globalization, climate change, and migration that appear to lie beyond the reach of local influence. Critics argue that large-scale and global phenomena, such as global warming, require large-scale and global measures. Community advocates argue, in turn, that challenges like global warming must be addressed at their point of local origin. As in most such debates, the search for American remedies lies less in the choice between localism and nationalism or internationalism than in their combination.

SEE ALSO Autonomy ; Civil Community ; Civil Society ; Common Good ; Communitarianism ; Conservatism ; Liberalism ; Limited Government ; Republicanism ; Self-Governance .


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Alicja A. Gescinska
Amherst College