What is a community? Most people have some idea of what they mean when they use the word, but actually it’s a lot like “culture”, it is an abstract concept without an absolute definition, and therefore gives rise to hot debates about what it means to say that people are part of a community. This is not merely a semantic argument, but one that has a lot of implications in politics. Community is not some benign word, but one that carries with it a sense of power and entitlement that renders it a label worth fighting for. I remember once in a class our elderly professor was expounding his definition of community, saying that communities were defined by geographic boundaries, and that groups of people who come together around ideas or shared experiences cannot be called communities. A student who was hearing-impaired took issue with that, exclaiming that although hearing-impaired people were spread out across the nation and even across the globe, they found resources and support by connecting with one another and forming what they all call a “community” despite the lack of regional closeness. She said that together they have formed a “culture” of ideas and expressions, a common language, and a political and social presence. The professor responded that he would choose to define it as something else, like a “group”, a response that was not well received. The way many people use the word community, it tends to imply something beyond regional closeness; something that is generated by the people who are a part of it. How many people have said that they live in a neighborhood but don’t feel like it’s a “community”?
The old fashioned definition of “community” mandates that geographic location is the most important factor. That is, people that live close to one another, or that live within certain geographical boundaries, are in a community. Urbanization, the introduction of “communities” online that have no locational basis whatsoever, and the use of the word by various kinds of social and political movements, have called this definition into question. But even before that, the concept that communities should be defined by location is full of philosophical pitfalls. For example, where exactly do you draw the lines around a given community, where the community members say to draw it? What if they disagree? What if two populations are fighting over a piece of land, and disagree about which community it belongs to? What if no one in a given neighborhood knows one another, such as is the case in many urban settings? Is community only location-based, or does it require communal interaction among its members?
Others say that what’s important about community is the interaction between individuals that makes it happen; the idea that people form a network which may include certain shared social norms, a language or dialect, and other types of “communal” knowledge. This means, of course, that the hearing impaired are able to have a community, because they are able to connect with one another based on shared values and experiences and, often, a shared language. Lesbians and gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people may participate in local, national, and global communities which may include all of the above populations, while more specialized communities may exist within that that are comprised of say, lesbians. The values of these communities are often communicated through media and the arts, such as films and popular music, and through various kinds of technology. The internet, of course, has enabled people to get together with others with whom they identify in unprecedented ways, fostering discussions in forums, chat rooms, and blogs. For both the hearing impaired and LGBT folks, using the word “community” fosters a sense of pride and gives them larger political clout in, for example, the public policy arena. Community names and validates the space that people use to connect with one another based on shared values, experiences, and interests. Calling people a “group”, for instance, just doesn’t hold the same kind of clout.This notion of community as a pliable and constructed network of individuals, which can be instigated, developed and maintained through media- and technology-based interactions, is something that has caused scholars to debate over whether we should ourselves use the word when others use it. Some scholars, especially those who consider themselves activists, too, use the word to describe populations they study as a way of validating their sense of empowerment, a fact which the informants themselves often appropriate as further proof of their unity and power as a population. Other scholars recommend a more cautious approach, steering away from the word altogether, because it is a political act in itself for a researcher to name something a community. Also, using the word blindly may prevent the researcher from approaching a topic with a critical eye and getting at what people are actually doing as opposed to what they say they are doing.It’s an interesting debate, and I think the solution is probably context-driven; personally I tend to use the word community when my informants use it, but in the interests of empiricism and the critical perspective, this may not always be the best option. What I do know is that my professor, arguing that communities could only be formed by people who lived close to one another, appeared inflexible in his argument, which did not allow for the way in which technology has changed the communication landscape, nor for the dynamic nature of human language and thought to explore and describe such changes. That kind of inflexibility can be damaging to the relationship between researcher and informant, or professor and student, if the concept of community comes with a sense of empowerment that the professor or researcher (who is in a place of power) appears to be denying — even if that’s not his intention.