Friday, September 9, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975: Part VI - A Break

A Break

Essays by Effrat and Gusfield in 1975 are among many that mark the transformation in the study of community in sociology. Gusfield’s invocation of the communal ideals of the New Left was located in the utopian forms of communitarianism, while Effrat identified community with a politics of localism and participatory democracy. Because Effrat provided a summation of sociological work, and it is best to begin with her analysis.

Central to Effrat’s analysis is the assertion that conceptualizing community was akin to “trying to scoop up jello with your fingers” (1975:1). Faced with the same heterogeneity of definitions that Hillery had already found, but with twenty intervening years, Effrat too attempted to bring order to the chaos of sociological definitions. Instead of producing categories of definitions as Hillery had, she commented more broadly on the “process of debate” within post-Chicago School sociology was responsible for the current chaos because sociologists had avoided the “controversial issues” surrounding community: territoriality and function. Because of the reluctance to engage those two aspects of community, sociologists had come to enveloped community within
a gelatinous mess of hypotheses, research, and value judgments.... The term “community” is frequently invoked in tones of profundity by ideologues (social scientists as well as “laypersons”) from the far left to the far right. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is considered synonymous with virtue and desirability. Indeed, much of the problem in identifying the various definitions lies in separating the content of the conception from the value-laden imagery of warmth and camaraderie attached to it in many cases (1975:1-2).

Effrat recommended a more empirical approach because the study of community had shifted away from the ecological concerns of territory and population which should have remained central to the sociological study of community. Instead, the study of community was understood as a problem of identity and not about conflicts in the everyday existence of an ideology whose function it was to unite a population within a territory. Only when territoriality was reduce to being a mere theoretical problem could sociologists ask “whether community must be grounded in a particular, delimited place, or whether it can exist among people who are territorially dispersed” (1975:6). The authority of sociology to effect social policy and reform rests upon such fundamental questions.

Although Hillery acknowledged that territoriality and social interaction are common characteristics of community, his own classificatory scheme could not fully “separate [out] the value-laden imagery” because it depended upon the same value-laden language. While aware of the political aspects of definition and classification in relation to evolution, Effrat wanted to separate out “the content of the conception” of community and highlight the conflicts between definitions of community while Hillery highlighted the points of agreement. To complete her task, Effrat presented a history of four traditions distinguished by their reliance on territoriality and the size of the population. The focus of studies on municipal power in urban and suburban areas with large populations characterized this investigation of the territorial community. However, newly emerging traditions without a strong territorial grounding, “community as society” and “personal community” are based instead on occupation, leisure, lifestyle, and professional associations as forces/institutions of social cohesion.

Gusfield’s typology of intellectual concepts reveals a series of disciplinary paradigm shifts. The 
development of sociological theories centered on the fundamental difference between “community and society,” or “concepts and counter-concepts” although this distinction is an artificial one, for 
community and society are always idealized concepts. For Gusfield, “the concept ‘community’ [has]
significance in three dimensions. In one dimension, it points to and describes a specific form of human association. In another it is part of a theory of social evolution. In still another dimension, it is part of an ideological debate over the value of the present as compared to the past and to possible alternative futures.... the concept of community” as “part of a system of accounts used by members and observers as a way of explaining or justifying the members behavior. (1975:21)” This ”consciousness of kind” formed the implicit basis of the concept of community that Gusfield compared to class consciousness: both are ”facilitated by the capacity to evoke symbols of community. Within the emergence of a consciousness of kind is the rise of a collective experience; a sense of participating in the same history” (1975:35). Community in this sense can not be separated from ideology and discourse. It is ”a system of accounts” to be drawn upon depending on one's social status and cultural capital, and the very phrase reminding us that the everyday experience of community is indistinguishable from the community of money.

Despite his invocation of a Left utopia, Gusfield’s analysis emphasized the traditional binary of community and society. “I use the idea of system to characterize the concepts of “community” and “society” and “tradition” and “modernity”.... Community must decline if society is to grow. “Tradition” and “modernity” are in struggle and one must give way to the advantage of the other” (1975:54). At the same time Gusfield also proposed that “this use of the community-society dichotomy as a theory of social evolution distorts and confuses processes of social change....We can better understand change by emphasizing the mixture and interpenetration of types than we can by emphasis on conflict between systems” (1975:55). By juxtaposing community and society, Gusfield removed them from the “dialectical” development of modernization and progress that he believed united community and society into a single object of study.

Gusfield once again quickly modified his view: “The persistence and continuation of communal elements and the emergence of social institutions and activities are not necessarily in conflict” (1995:55 [emphasis in original]) because they interpenetrate each other. He then suggested an additional conception of community: as a utopia that is nothing less than “an anguished cry against those facets of modern life in which men and women are categorized, isolated, typed and in which their specific qualities as human beings and as emotive and dependent persons is ignored” (1975:104).

In contrast to Effrat, Gusfield concluded that “the scientific, semantic meanings of sociology are not sufficient to grant significance and moral direction on their own. But the infusion of dramatic, poetic, even distorting, meaning is essential for the vitality of scientific concepts and their significance for relevant human concerns. That the concept of community has had so constant a usage is testimony both to its power and to the ubiquitousness of its ideal” of a “utopian communitarianism” (1975:104). These communes served as potent critiques of contemporary life. “Each age is the judge of its own utopias.... the ideology of community and the utopian communitarian movements are expressions of the concern of modern men [sic] with the specific quality of life today” (1975:102). As critiques, communalism and “utopian communitarianism” point toward the possibilities for social change inherent in their resistance to the community of money, including the possibility that they might become reactionary movements.

In the period preceding Effrat and Gusfield’s reassessment of community, the sociological work had centered on the concern for a scientific or rational definition of community. This search was organized around and greatly aided by the dichotomy of community and society. There was an emphasis on classification, definition, evolution, and the territorial aspects of community. The taxonomies of community existed alongside the broader sociological studies on the evolution of society. Not only did the community/society dichotomy contain an assumption of a progressive movement, but the task of classification necessitated a continuous search for intermediate types that might prove to be the links in an evolutionary development. Territory became a mandatory characteristic of community within which teemed a consciousness-in-kind rooted in a geographical landscape and sense of place. The positive aspects of this “sense of place” have been quite extensively explored by geographers (James 1972, Johnston 1983) and so too have its reactive aspects found obvious practical expressions, for it is not difficult to move from an emotive sense of belonging to an ideology of consanguinity and soil.

For Effrat, the study of community ---like much of sociological theory--- was straining under the weight of questions that could no longer be incorporated within the discipline’s structures. In a last attempt to preserve the integrity of the four traditions she described, Effrat proposed an system of four traditions, with each inhabiting its specialized niche. In Gusfield’s work, community became both an abstraction and aspiration.

If there is a typology of ideal (symbolic) types, along with a classificatory regularity, then there must also be criteria for their inclusion. Loomis gave three criteria which for Parson’s had to be met for a social group’s inclusion in a classification of community: history, derivation, and content. Hillery used several criteria to select the definitions of social groups for inclusion in his classification of community. Gusfield recognized how “the dichotomy between ‘community’ and ‘society’ has played a significant role in the development of such theories, especially in the distinction between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity.’ In positing ‘community’ as opposite ‘society,’ ‘tradition’ as opposite ‘modernity,’ both the evolutionary sociologists and the modernization theorists have given us a simplified and distorted picture....” (Gusfield 1975:80-81).

Hillery’s method for producing his classification of definitions further illuminates the methods and problems early researches encountered. Much like Borges” librarian, Hillery literally browsed the available literature on sociology on the shelves of the library. He first looked up the definitions that the are regularly referred to as important works. Then he used the cited references in that first group of important works to uncover additional definitions in less well known works. In the course of tracking these definitions down, he perused the nearby shelves for interesting titles and included these in his classification. He does not mention that the indexes of the texts and the bibliographical order of the library catalog provided a preexisting classification. Nor did he in anyway question how a work comes to be important. Hillery’s work was not theoretical; he was not testing a hypothesis or theory, his empiricism was descriptive and yet his study remains a fundamental reference because he captured the extent of sociological opinion regarding the definition of community, but never reaches a final true definition.

Gusfield shared Effrat’s desire to produce a classification of all previous sociological work on community. Effrat’s very different scheme limited the question of community to social theory or associate it with particular types of community. The break marked by the very different essays by Effrat and Gusfield was the shifting away from a classification of types and definitions of community toward reinvestments in and revaluation of identity, politics, and locality. Now proceeded a gradual deterritorialization of community as “a place where one’s life may be wholly lived within” (MacIver and Page in Hillery 1955) in favor of an identity which one lived in every setting. The era of the New Left ended, to be replaced by the emergence of the New Social Movements and an understanding of multiculturalism in which giving meaning to community became an explicitly political and organizational imperative: a style of life.

Next: Community: Discursive Formations, Systems of Classification and Social Evolution

Previous posts in this series:
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Understanding Community
Part III: The Reception of Tonnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft [Community and Society]
Part IV: Hillery and Hollingshead: Two Conceptions of Past Sociological Studies

Part V: The "Societal Community" of Talcott Parsons