Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975: Part II - Understanding Community

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975

"The Crowd"


A version of this series of blog posts was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 2003.


The meaning of community has been asked in many ways and the manner of raising the question tell us a great deal about the social conflicts expressed by the proliferation of authoritative answers. The traditional questions concerning community were always questions of definition and classification, nomenclature and description, and over time these proved insufficient to furthering the sociological study of community. It is not that our contemporary questions are better and the traditional ones are simply obsolete. Our understanding of community results from the continuities and discontinuities in the sociological investigation of community.

For example, a break occurred c.1975 that marked the end of a period in which the sociological investigation into community centered on the requirements of definition and classification, the mapping of real or imagined territories, and the tracing of a speculative evolutionary development. In our own period the question of community centers on identity, new social movements, enclosures of community, and the degeneration accompanying a lack of community. These breaks were not simply due to the internal dynamics of discourse, but to the social dislocations and expressions of the forces of modernity.

Early in the study of community, we find an emphasis on problems of definition, classification, territoriality, and development. The volume of references and studies in the field testifies to the regularity with which sociologists felt compelled to comment upon the meaning and definition of community. The study of community became a site where the assumptions and scientific ideologies which guide our desire to rationally change our social relations meet the difficulties of governing the very populations that often appear to stand between us and the enlightened society. The accumulation of knowledge about community is constitutive of the social relations it describes. Community provides investigators with an ephemeral baseline from which to measure social change, validate sociological assumptions and theories, and create objects of social policies we proposed, implemented, evaluated, and sometimes terminated. It is in this sense that ‘community’ is a point of articulation between sociological theory and social policy.

Next: The Reception of Tonnies in American Sociology: Is there a debt?

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