Community – A theoretical approach to a big issue

Leonie Wagner, Prof. Dr.
HAWK - University of Applied Sciences Hildesheim/Holzminden/Göttingen
Department of Social Work and Health
Haarmannplatz 3
D - 37603 Holzminden


There are numerous concepts from various authors on the subject of community. The theoretical concept of community is not only a somewhat vague notion but at the same time it is used in different ways in different cultural contexts. Thus, an overview can only highlight some of the main positions and problems. In this paper, I will start with a rather traditional but at the same time influential concept that was developed by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies.1


Tönnies” book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society), which at first was largely unnoticed, has since become one of the most influential works in sociology and the politics that have been produced in the name of community. The problem is that most of Tönnies” proposals contain notions which, in my view, are considered rather problematic – especially if they form the foundation of social work. Nevertheless, some of these notions are to be found in everyday theories as well as in contemporary political and social discourses. Thus, I have compiled and will discuss those problems that also refer to more recent concepts, in order to develop what I perceive as some of the more suitable notions or concepts of community.


The Nature of Community – Ferdinand Tönnies

In Community and Society, Tönnies combined several philosophical, political and psychological ideas about the nature of humankind and the thus-formed social associations. Tönnies” starting point is the different forms of the human will. Initially, he distinguishes between those wills which tend to destruct and those which tend to the preserve the other”s will or body.2 According to Tönnies, both community and society are only possible if the affirmative and encouraging aspects predominate. As one can infer from this, conflict is a subject that Tönnies did not make any remarks about.


Both community and society are social groups, yet community and society represent different relationships. According to Tönnies, while community has ”real organic life”3 and ”means genuine, enduring life together”, ”a living organism in its own right”4, by contrast society is ”a purely mechanical construction, existing in the mind”,5 ”a transient and superficial thing”, ”a mechanical aggregate and artefact”.6


Here we find a dichotomy between the natural and mechanical or rational grounds upon which community or society are based. Nature, i.e. organic life, is classified as belonging to community, while society is characterized by superficial and mechanical but at the same time cognitive attributes. Tönnies repeatedly explained that community and society mutually complement and explain each other.7 Nevertheless, his argumentation is based on dichotomies not only between community and society but also between nature and rationality, natural and rational will, men and women, and so forth. In his view, communities exist as natural units.8


Thus community does not have to be created but exists according to the human condition, as a ”complete unity of human wills”9. He considers the general root of this condition in the ”all-embracing character of the sub-conscious, “vegetative” life that stems from birth”.10 By deriving his theory of community from nature, Tönnies avoided answering the question of the building process of communities but simply described them as being natural and furthermore, omnipresent.

The natural foundation of community, according to Tönnies, is represented in three relations:

  • Mother – child
  • Man – woman (mates/couples)
  • Brother and sister (siblings)

Tönnies outlined his concept of community on the basis of certain types of family relationships that evolved in the 19th century in Western Europe. Tönnies himself at one point stated that he argued a-historically and referred to the former reign of the mother (matriarchy): ”But masculine domination at work and in battle proved stronger, and through marriage the fact of paternity became established as a certainty; thus paternal authority has become the universal [!] pattern for civilisation.”11


Besides the patriarchal attitude and thus questionable argument, we can find here a naturalization of social processes: in particular, Tönnies” reference to marriage (as an example of a social contract) shows the social foundation of his theory which he himself denied.


Out of this seemingly natural basis, Tönnies further explains the evolution of community into a wider social area: ”Community by blood, indicating primal unity of existence, develops more specifically into community of place, which is expressed first of all as living in close proximity to one another. This in turn becomes community of the spirit, working together for the same end and purpose.”12 With this, he characterized the main forms of community:

  • Kinship
  • Neighborhood
  • Friendship or Comradeship

According to Tönnies communities determine the whole life: tribe, clan or descent, land, district or march, village or town: ”all these many different structures and formations are contained within the idea of the family and all proceed from it as the universal expression of the reality of Community.”13

Most important in this context is that communities, according to Tönnies, are not constructed or created by contracts but exist as natural forms of the human will and can be characterized as ”mutual possession and enjoyment, and possession and enjoyment of goods held in common”.14 Whereas in community this possession and enjoyment of common goods is a characteristic feature, in society it represents the very opposite.


As I mentioned above, according to Tönnies, society as well as community require the peaceful living together of a group of people. However, in contrast to community, in society these people are not ”essentially united” but ”on the contrary, they are here essentially detached. In Gemeinschaft they stay together in spite of everything that separates them; in Gesellschaft they remain separate in spite of everything that unites them. As a result, there are no activities taking place which are derived from an a priori and predetermined unity and which therefore express the will and spirit of this unity through any individual who performs them. On the contrary, everyone is out for himself alone and living in a state of tension against everyone else. […] Nobody wants to do anything for anyone else, nobody wants to yield or give anything unless he gets something in return that he regards as at least an equal trade-off.”15


Tönnies called the underlying will of every exchange that forms society ”contract”. Here two different individual wills cross at one point in time. This will, in contrast to the natural will which is the basis of community, is a rational will. In other words: societies are constructed consciously while communities exist as natural entities.


The way Tönnies described community and the contrast to society implies several problems. One of the main problems, in my view, is the dichotomy between nature and rationality, which leads to the naturalization of social processes and the image of communities as existing on natural grounds. On the other hand, this implies an image of community as a ”universal pattern” of civilization because there is no empirical or cultural basis needed.


Further, in this notion a certain idea of progress and decline is implied – the shared common goods of communities where everyone supports the general good is contrasted with an image of society in which every one strives for his/her own good. To express this more directly, the common or general good is neglected.


As a basis for the discussion of the problems that accompany these notions, I propose some theses which I will explain under the following contexts:

  • There is no natural community
  • Community building and development means interest building
  • Communities require heterogeneity
  • Community development should be aware of possible exclusionary factors and acts
  • Disturbances may indicate errors in the programme
  • The recognition and reflection of external (cultural) forces is important

There is no natural community

The reason why I argue quite strictly here is that the idea of a natural formation in social relations is very risky. This idea of natural that means pre-existing social groups lack the possibility of autonomy or self-definition. What is stated as natural cannot be questioned from a social standpoint and thus cannot be changed. The naturalization of social action does not only disguise the construction process but at the same time eliminates the possibility of change. It is that it is, ever has been, and always will be.


The social anthropologist Mary Douglas once explained that a convention is institutionalized when the question ”Why do you do this that way and not any other?” is perhaps first answered with general amenities but after further questioning is ultimately answered with reference to the way the planets rotate or how planets, people or animals act by nature. Thus conventions are effective when they have reached the status of nature or natural forces.16


Actually, communities and even families in a certain form are social constructs which may derive from older forms and concepts, but as the older forms are created by will and at least informal contracts – norms and values – they can thus be changed if the form does not fulfill contemporary demands.


Community building and development means interest building

If it is not nature that links people together into a community, the question is then what else can the bonds can be. One approach to characterize communities is to define them by locality. Thus, a community is defined by sharing a certain region or space. This is a very formalistic approach in which only the geographical residence is taken into account. However, ”the fact that people live close to one another does not necessarily mean that they have much to do with each other. There may be little interaction between neighbours.”17


Furthermore, a purely geographical definition excludes social groups which do not share a geographical space but nevertheless consider themselves as communities, especially if the Internet as a meeting place is taken into account.


The communitarian theorist Charles Taylor pointed out that a community will never be able to survive if its members do not regard it as ”common good” and develop patriotic or loyal relationships. The system of rights does not guarantee its existence; the rights and values have to be supported by the members in order to guarantee the continuance of the community.


The problem is that – and this is also one of the most popular critiques against communitarian approaches – in contemporary complex societies a set of shared values does not exist. Thus the task is much more one of coming to an agreement in the absence of this shared horizon. Yet what can this ”more” be, that is necessary for the building process or the continued existence of a community? In many theories, this ”more” is described as interest. Indeed, interest is itself quite vague and not a very well-defined term or concept. In comparison to the concept of values or shared common goods, interest is a softer concept in which, however, the influence of the different members becomes clear. Interest highlights the meaning of the Latin word reflects - something that is established between people. In this sense, interests function as a third category between different and separated people and create a link to overcome this difference. This interest can be religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation, or ethnic origin; it can also be interest in creating a good neighborhood. Thus, in my view, we can talk about community if there are shared interests and hence derived expectations. Accordingly, interest building should be one of the main tasks in community work.


Communities require heterogeneity

The notion of communities requiring heterogeneity is an accordance with another concept or description of community in which the problem of similarity and difference is raised. It is undoubtedly true that members of a community have to have something in common with each other. This is what distinguishes them from other communities and at the same time is the reason for the association. Yet this is just one side of the problem because the members of a community are not equal in every respect.


According to Torsten Bonacker the French philosopher Jacques Derrida emphasized that communities contain a certain kind of tension: communities consist of individual, singular members and at the same time there has to be something that links these members without at the same time reducing them to the bonds.  Thus, a difference between members is a strong precondition of any community: ”A community requires an inner difference, a not accessible uniqueness of its members. But in order to be generalized it has to abstract from this uniqueness of the members by representing them and their political will.”18 Because of this paradox the general representation can never be complete or final, since in this case those who are represented would be unnecessary.


This image of a certain degree of equality has been a strong ideological instrument in totalitarian theories. It has been used for a strict distinction between those who belong to a certain race or ”Volk” or to erect the image of a common will of all proletarians.


If, therefore, heterogeneity is an important factor, those who are engaged in community work have to be aware of the differences of the participating members of the community and/or the possible participants. This implies a profound knowledge about social change and a rejection of images of community that are not derived from empirical knowledge on the ways of life of those people that are involved.


Since the 1990s, a change in the structure of social inequalities and segregation in European cities has been observed whereby the former social networks have become increasingly more fragile. New urban underclasses have emerged that are constituted variously of older women with minimal pensions, people with little or no work at all, and a rising number of migrants.19


On the other hand, there has also been an increase in the existence of the middle classes. Further, a process of social segregation has started that has led to a revaluation of suburban and inner-city neighborhoods. These are more likely to flourish if the population is not homogeneous but shows a certain mixture, otherwise there can be no cultural progress. Furthermore, heterogeneity is a necessity because different people dispose of different capacities or, to use the popular term, social capital.


One of the most popular concepts of social capital was introduced by Robert Putnam, who stated:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.20


According to Putnam, social capital is a resource of communities (or networks). He lays emphasis on the group or association. In this concept, communities are somehow naturally the means for the raising of the general good, yet at the same time the members and their specificities are neglected; They somehow dissolve into the larger group.


Pierre Bourdieu proposed another way to describe social capital. In his theory, social capital is also a means of connections and only available by joining a group. However, in contrast to Putnam, Bourdieu emphasizes the importance of the individual. According to Bourdieu, social capital is an individual resource that attains importance in groups or communities.21


I consider this concept is much more suitable as a foundation for community building and development because it emphasizes the importance of the individual. This is important because it helps to differentiate between communities according to the social capital of the individual members. Thus it follows that communities of members with low social capital (and hence economical capital) can only build this capital on a limited scale.


Community development should be aware of possible exclusionary factors and acts

Norbert Elias pointed out that the term community is very often ”associated with the hope and the wish of reviving once more the closer, warmer, more harmonious type of bonds between people vaguely attributed to past ages”.22 More recently, Zygmunt Bauman added that community is often imagined as the ”kind of world which is not, regrettably, available to us – but which we would dearly love to inhabit and which we hope to repossess”.23 Thus community often implies a notion of romantic, holistic, peaceful situations where no competition exists but where all work together in harmony to raise the general good.


In this view, the possible problems within communities have no place. Narrowness, strict rules, exclusion, and so forth are not wanted in this lovely picture. However, one problem with this view is that communities are not ”good” in themselves; they can even be orientated backward or have attitudes and values that conflict with human rights: ”The definition of “community” or “communion” can, thus, become an exclusionary act. […] A very obvious example of this is the growth of “gated communities” in the USA and UK. A physical barrier is erected to keep out those who are poor or who are seen as a threat.”24 Thus it can also be necessary to change these attitudes or in serious cases – for example, the Ku-Klux-Clan – to work for the dissolution of the group.


As I mentioned above, Ferdinand Tönnies only took into account those associations that are marked by affirmative attitudes. He did not look at the destructive forms and how these are to be judged or dealt with. By overlooking the destructive forces that might work in social groups he left out aspects that have been emphasized in contemporary discussions as being of great importance. On the one hand, this refers to the exclusionary effects of social groups, and on the other hand to the homogenizing factors inside social groups that can also be a certain force for the members to act and live according to group pressure. Hence one can say that Tönnies neglects the dialectic in-effects and excluding effects of groups or group-building processes.


As a first level, I would recommend bearing in mind that communities can be or even are both: exclusive and inclusive; while they can offer shelter and safety they may also demand an adjustment to specific, seemingly common values or even be aggressive and intolerant towards non-members.


Furthermore, for the most part, individuals are not just members of one community but form part of different associations. Research on social networks has shown that the question of density (and thus the belonging to one or more communities) leads to different qualities. A high density enables the evolution of a sense of community but also favors a closeness and thus rigidity. More open networks, on the other hand, enable plural connections with the outside and thus offer a higher potential for innovation.25 Accordingly, Helmut Schreier suggests a concept of community in which a disposition of enlargement is included. The concepts of learning and education should lead to a change of habit. In this way, he tries to avoid exclusiveness and the ”inclination to seal themselves off” or draw a strong line between in- and out-groups.26


Disturbances may indicate errors

With regard to disturbances indicating errors in the programme, I hope it has become obvious that it is not very helpful to build or develop a community according to a static example of seemingly successful communities. Apart from other problems, this might also lead to a problematic perception of disturbances. If the potential members are not willing to act according to the example this might be counted as a failure of the members. It could perhaps be more helpful if disturbances were judged in another way. Disturbances might indicate that the intended ways or parts of the programme that are wrong or have to be changed. Thus it is necessary to keep in mind that disturbances or delays have to be evaluated very carefully. It is necessary to distinguish between disturbances that are caused by institutions that dislike the program, disturbances from people who do not want any change because it might threaten their power, and It is necessary to distinguish between disturbances that are caused by institutions that dislike the program, disturbances from people who do not want any change because it might threaten their power, and disturbances that are reactions to inadequate measures.


In the following, I combine this thesis with another proposition that additionally takes external forces into account.


The recognition and reflection of external (cultural) forces is important

Community building and development often take place within the outlines of national or international programmes. Those programmes mostly have certain ideas – though not often explicit ones – about communities and how they are to be built or developed. Even those who attach great importance to self-help also highly value the co-operation with external experts.


In this context we are confronted with two major interrelated problems: one is funding and the other is the cultural image or goal that is to be achieved.


The problem of funding became especially obvious with the beginning of the debt crisis in the 1980s: ”Many governments, particularly in Africa, failed to provide adequate financial support but nevertheless extolled the virtues of self-help. Community development was soon recognized by the people to amount to little more than a slogan which brought few tangible benefits.”27


The nation states alone are not able to solve the problem of education when they are forced to pay back debts that exceed their national income: ”In 1998, for every $1 that the developing world received in grants, it spent $13 on debt repayment.”28 Thus, the so-called developing countries have become more and more dependent on international funding.


In this sense, the problem of the term ”developing countries” finds an equivalent in the concept of developing communities. Community education and community development often are structured and shaped along shining examples from the West or North, and this means a high linkage to capitalism and can lead to cultural colonialism in various aspects. An example of this policy are literacy programs which are supported as one of the most important means in community development in the so-called Third World. The hope is that: “access to education would deliver many benefits: for the nation, a skilled work force to contribute to economic development, national unity and social cohesion, and in some countries, popular participation in politics. For the individual, it promised an escape from poverty, greater social prestige and mobility, and the prospect of a good job, preferably in town. In practice these hopes were often unfulfilled, particularly among the least privileged social groups, but they remained powerful aspirations.”29


This policy sheds very serious light on the problem of community education and/or development and the problem of debt crisis:


”Here the various reviews and policy analyses undertaken or sponsored by the World Bank have been particularly influential. As King argued, the agency map of educational priorities became much more clearly profiled, but this often happened without a corresponding local attempt to analyze national educational requirements. […] On some debates about education, the signals broadcast from the agency perspective are so powerful it is difficult to hear the local voices at all.”30


Unfortunately, education is not politically neutral but a powerful tool for securing or changing the status quo. This is definitely not a new discovery. Already after the Reformation in 16th century Germany, the Protestant rulers established schools in order to spread the new religious belief. This was managed with the help of literacy programs:


The conclusion must inevitably be that while some informal, non-formal and popular education programmes have had a concern to combat colonialism and “colonial mentalities” others have effectively worked in the opposite direction. […] The state often has a significant influence in these organizations – often through the nature of the funding it provides. International aid has a similar impact.31


Thus, we have to question the underlying goals of any program: Is it meant to raise consciousness and to enable people to participate and perhaps even to disagree, or is it meant to calm down the participants? What is the underlying image of development? Does it follow the Western idea of development or does it take the local needs and requirements into account? If education for democracy is demanded, is the education in itself based on democratic methods and goals? Therefore, in the process of community building or development the possibilities of participation also have to be improved.



To summarize, I comment further on some of the considerations presented in this article. If we accept heterogeneity as a main principle, and are or want to be aware of the exclusionary effects and do community work in order to give disadvantaged people a chance for change, then we have to ground these plans on a profound empirical knowledge of the situation of the people we want to work with.


Considering the diversity of most communities or neighborhoods, one might come to the conclusion that it is no longer appropriate to work for the integration of disadvantaged groups and/or individuals but instead to work for the development of an atmosphere in which different cultures coexist and at the same time to create a new integrating ”hyperculture”.32 This has to be based on the principle of tolerance.


Furthermore, one has to reject a backward-looking, idealized image of communities. This perspective is based on a change regarding the developments in recent years: while it was common to judge many developments as disintegration, nowadays the task is to take a closer look at the different effects of social change. If only the loss of specific forms of communities and/or network relations such as in homogeneous working-class neighborhoods are counted, then the picture shows decline – in contrast to the formerly anticipated progress. In fact, alternative or different networks are perhaps already evolving and which one might find but only if the ”old image” of community is no longer standing in the way.33


To reiterate what I have stated earlier in this article, community building should be realized in the form of interest building. Further, I would like to link this to another meaning that is connected with the term community, namely communication. ”Communicare” means to share, to make something common. Thus, in my view, community building is a process in which communication among different people has to be established or strengthened. Without doubt, all this can only be achieved if one important resource is provided: time (and thus, money). It takes time to find out what the specific needs and capacities of a particular group of people are. The capacities and needs might not be obvious from the outside and thus this process needs deeper exploration and a lot of communication. If some of the steps turn out to be wrong or inadequate it is necessary to change them – ideally with the involvement of the participants. It takes time to build interest and to establish open and tolerant groups or communities.




Bonacker, Torsten (1999): Die politische Theorie der Dekonstruktion: Jacques Derrida. In: André


Brodocz / Gary S. Schaal (eds.): Politische Theorien der Gegenwart. Eine Einführung. Opladen: Leske + Budrich, pp. 95–117.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1983): Ökonomisches, kulturelles, soziales Kapital. In: Reinhard Kreckel (Ed.): Soziale Ungleichheiten. Göttingen: Schwartz, pp. 183–198.


Douglas, Mary (1986): How institutions think. Syracuse University Press, NY.


Ipsen, Detlev (2003): Von der Stadt- und Regionalsoziologie zu einer Soziologie des Raumes? In: Barbara Orth / Thomas Schwietring / Johannes Weiß (eds.): Soziologische Forschung: Stand und Perspektiven. Opladen: Leske + Budrich, pp. 533–545.


Keupp, Heiner (2002): Vermessung des Sozialen – alltägliche Ressourcen – die Zukunftsgesellschaft. In: Klaus Beyrer / Michael Andritzky (eds.): Das Netz. Sinn und Sinnlichkeit vernetzter Systeme. Heidelberg: Ed. Braus, pp. 145–152.


Schreier, Helmut (2000): Extending Community. Keynote address. University College Day Texas Wesleyan University. February 2000 (, last access: 15.05.2004).


Smith, Mark K.: ”Community” in the encyclopedia of informal education., last access 20.06.2005.


Smith, Mark K.: Community Development., last access 20.06.2005.


Smith, Mark K.: Community Organization., last access 20.06.2005.


Smith, Mark K.: Informal and non-informal education, development and colonialism., last access 20.06.2005.


Taylor, Charles (1985): Philosophical Papers. Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language. Cambridge University Press.


Tönnies, Ferdinand (1979): Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie. Reprint of the edition of 1935. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


Tönnies, Ferdinand (2001): Community and Civil Society. Edited by Jose Harris. Translated by Jose Harris and Margaret Hollis. Cambridge University Press.



1. Together with Durkheim and Weber, Tönnies (1885–1936) is considered to be one of the founding fathers of sociology in Germany. As a consequence of his commitment to social questions he was appointed as a professor relatively late, and thus not able to promote his concept with the full strength of a German professorship. After his appointment he became President of the German Sociological Society. In 1933 he became a member of the Social Democratic Party and was subsequently dismissed from University in 1930 when the National Socialists seized power. This is quite strange because his concept of community had a strong influence on the development of the idea of the national socialist Volksgemeinschaft.

Tönnies wrote an outline of the above mentioned book as his doctoral thesis in 1881. The first edition was published in 1887. From 1912 onwards, the book was published in several editions (7th in 1926, 8th in 1935). Community and Society was first published in English in 1940 (London) under the title: Fundamental Concepts of Sociology. After several more editions, a new translation was published in 2001 under the title: Community and Civil Society. In this translation, Tönnies' very old-fashioned use of the German language was transformed into a more readable and understandable style.


2.       Tönnies 1979, p. 3.


3.       Tönnies 2001, p. 17.


4.       Tönnies 2001, p. 19.


5.       Tönnies 2001, p. 17.


6.       Tönnies 2001, p. 19.


7.       Tönnies 1979, p. XXIV.


8.    In the preface to the second edition of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1912, reprinted 1979), he expressly differentiates his work from organic-biological views: ”biology aims to explain the natural organism by comparing it to social life, in reverse sociology aims to explain the social body. […] By contrast I am not able to recognize any sense in the assumption that the state, the community or any human association “be“ an organism. […] In contrast I will make a stronger distinction between natural associations whose meaning for social life is of course outstandingly important, and cultural or artificial units, even if they might emerge from those. Indeed those too exist in our consciousness and for our consciousness but not substantially on behalf of our “consciousness“ as the real and true social relations and connections.’ (Tönnies 1979, pp.XXXI-XXXII.)


9.       Tönnies 2001, p. 22.


10.       Tönnies 2001, p. 22.


11.       Tönnies 2001, p. 25.


12.       Tönnies 2001, p. 27.


13.       Tönnies 2001, p. 36.


14.       Tönnies 2001, p. 36.


15.       Tönnies 2001, p. 52.


16.       Douglas 1986.


17.       Smith: ”Community’.


18.       Bonacker 1999, p. 105.


19.       Ipsen 2003, p. 537.


20.       Robert D. Putnam: Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster, quoted by Smith: ”Community’.


21.       Bourdieu 1983, p. 191.


22.       Elias 1974, quoted by Smith: ”Community’.


23.       Bauman, Z. (2001) Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge: Polity Press. quoted by Smith: ”Community’.


24.       Smith: ”Community’.


25.       Keupp 2002, p. 147.


26.       Schreier 2000, p. 4.


27.       Smith: Community Development.


28.       Smith: Informal and non-informal education.


29.       Smith: Informal and non-informal education.


30.       Smith: Informal and non-informal education.


31.       Smith: Informal and non-informal education.


32.       Ipsen 2003, p. 541.


33.       Keupp 2002, p. 150.




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