What Is Community Anyway?

“Community” is easy to say. It links us with other people. It explains a social experience that we never really think about. It is easy, normal, and very human. It is also applied to the names of social innovations as a sign of good intentions (for example, community mental health, community policing, community-based philanthropy, community economic development).

But it is a complex concept. The lack of clear understanding of what a group is and its role in the lives of people has contributed to many well-intended community projects falling short.

It helps remind funders and evaluators of the strengths and needs of the groups they work with. There is a great deal of study regarding the structure of a human society. We take the research and we combine it with our expertise and incorporate neighborhood change.

It’s about people

First and foremost, the community is not a location, a building, or an organisation; nor is it an exchange of information on the Internet. Community is both a feeling and a collection of relationships between individuals. People are developing and sustaining groups to meet common needs.

Group members have a sense of trust, belonging, protection and caring for each other. They have an individual and mutual sense that they can affect their surroundings and each other as part of that culture.

That precious sense of community comes from common experiences and a sense of — not necessarily the real experience of — shared past. As a consequence, people know who is and who is not part of their culture. This feeling is central to human life.

Neighborhoods, businesses, schools and various places are contexts and environments for these groups, but they are not communities themselves.

People are living in different groups

Since meeting common needs is the driving force behind the creation of groups, most people identify and participate in a variety of them, often based on culture, country, religion, politics, race or ethnicity, age, gender, hobby, or sexual orientation.

Most of us participate in many groups on a given day. Residential communities are particularly valuable for single mothers, families living in poverty and the elderly, since their sense of community and connections with people living next to them are the foundation for the help they need. But for many, the culture is beyond. Technology and transport have made the community possible in ways that were impossible only a few decades ago.

The Society has formal and informal institutions

Communities form institutions—which we typically see as broad organisations and programmes such as colleges, government, religion, law enforcement, or the non-profit sector—to address their needs more effectively.

However, informal group organisations, such as social or cultural networks of helpers and leaders, are equally relevant (for example, council of elders, barbershops, rotating credit and savings associations, gardening clubs). Lower-income and immigrant communities, in particular, depend heavily on these informal institutions to help them make decisions, save money, solve family or intra-community issues, and connect them to more formal institutions.

Communities are structured in a number of ways

Each society is structured to meet the needs of its members, but functions differently depending on the cultures, religions and other experiences of its members. For example, although the African American Church is widely understood to play an important role in promoting health education and social justice for that group, not all religious institutions such as the Mosque or the Buddhist temple are organised and function in the same way.

Global migration has led to a number of societies focused on the needs of the people and the need for that sense of trust, belonging, protection and care for each other. For example, a group of new immigrants may create a coalition around their need to lobby for better treatment by law enforcement. Another group may form a community around the need for spiritual guidance. The former does not look like a group, as we can imagine, while the latter is likely to.

The sense of the group demands more thoughtfulness and deliberation than we normally give it. Moving forwards, scholars, practitioners and policy makers must accept this complexity—including the critical effect that societies have on health and well-being — as they work to recognise and create social change.