A very brief history of the meaning of “community”

“Community” is now one of those words that arouse an emotional and positive consensus. But it is relevant to ask ourselves, when two people use it in the same conversation, whether they really mean the same thing.

KibutzFew words have become so polysemous as “community.” During its medieval origins, it became the basis of the earliest forms of democratic sovereignty, but the Revolt of the Comuneros of 1520 made the term synonymous with rebellion and assembly revolt. Quevedo uses the term in that sense, as well as, to some extent, the subtle and always critical Cervantes.

The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert recovers its guild meaning, defining it as the “union of individuals exercising the same art or occupation under certain common rules, forming a political body,” a definition that prepared the extension of its use during “the century of revolutions” to mean any form of local sovereignty supported by schemes of shared ownership.

cabetCabet, much more popular than Fourier in the 1840’s, calls his egalitarian colonies “communities,” and therefore defines a social system based on them as “communism.” The term was so successful among the “anti” of the moment that it came to define movements with little or no interest in creating phalansteries or cooperative colonies. Thus, within a decade, “community” and “communism” were claimed by two groups that were rarely openly antagonistic, but definitely competed for the attention of the restless and discontented as their respective propaganda apparatuses ignored each other.

On the left, only some Jewish emigrants, influenced by the ideas of an ultraminoritary Russian socialist party, Poale Zion, recover from 1909 onwards the term to name their settlements in Palestine. Based on sharing goods, labor, and savings, the movement “of the communities” will become the largest voluntary social experiment of the century. Paradoxically, it will not renew the term “community” in the rest of the world, but only its Hebrew form: “kibbutz.”

kibutzFrom the thirties, however, Tönnies and Weber in the field of sociology, and Adler in that of psychology, develop a definition of community – “Gemeinschaft” – that will gain momentum in the eighties, reaching political science and history as “real community.” The distinction is highlighted by Benedict Anderson in opposition to the nation, the quintessential “imagined community.”

Under this definition, a community is any group united by interpersonal relationships where all members know and recognize others in an equal belonging that implies personal and collective rights. The nuclear or extensive family, and to a lesser extent the premodern guild, become the model of “community” for an educated person.

Meanwhile, in the US the word community overlapped territorial characteristics with ideological meanings. The importance of dissenting religious groups in the culture of the Anglo-Saxon colonization of North America associated towns and settlements to certain Christian cults. The tension between the illustrated political values of the young state and the particular beliefs of each church was in part transferred to the always controversial definition of powers between states and federal government. But it also gave gave birth to a new concept: the “community standards,” which reinforced the association between place of residence and voluntary acceptance of a more or less lax and extensive set of particular rules.

The “community standards” had in Anglo-Saxon America a similar role to local cultures in Europe: showing a diversity boasted by the growing national identity, but still constituting the definition of the primary group to which good part of the farming population belonged, and thus arousing suspicion among the illustrated urban classes. But as religious identity was diluted as the main feature of belonging within North American culture, the word “community” increasingly evoked the faint obligations of good neighborliness materialized in voluntary and charitable work organized by churches. “Community” tended to mean a set of people, regardless of whether they knew each other, who shared a physical or social space. Universities, developments, associations of all kinds, and more recently, online networks, became defined as communities with their own “standards,” which were now only tacit or explicit rules of coexistence and cooperation.

So when the conversation became global, “community” started to mean almost anything, from living in the same city to sharing everything. “Community” is now one of those words that arouse an emotional and positive consensus. But it is relevant to ask ourselves, when two people use it in the same conversation, whether they really mean the same thing.

Translated by Alan Furth from the original in Spanish.

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