‘What is community?’ or ‘Is no man an island?’

by Malte Gembus

Community is a frequently used term; we hear it in political debates as well as in everyday conversations, we read it in mass-media and press as well as in scientific publications. The first things that appear when Googling “community” is an American TV series, a British trade union, an Australian government programme for child support, further down the line we find credit unions,

A photo of a lone man on a bridgefootball teams and church groups and somewhere down there also “The Great British Community” amongst other non-profits. The question here is: What do all these fundamentally different groups of people have in common that they all use the same term to describe themselves? There is something in all of these that has to do with people coming together but still: What does a for-profit credit union have to do with an advocacy non-profit organisation? What do a football club and a church group share? All these point to one bigger question: What marks the difference between a community and a mere collection of people? And what does community finally mean then?


From the above we can see that community happens on different levels and in different ways. Let’s examine some examples: Community happens where people share one space.

This point seems quite obvious since human beings have maintained close relationships with family and neighbours living in immediate proximity ever since. It seems necessary and natural to build alliances and bonds with others who are (geographically) in the same position as we can see manifested in the cave communities of the stone age or the village communities of the medieval. Nevertheless if we look around an urban centre like London nowadays we might ask ourselves: What happened to that? Do we find that sense of community, that feeling of “we’re in this together” amongst people living in the same neighbourhood, in the same street, in the same building? We live closer together than ever before (12 331 people per square mile in London which you can feel every morning when using the tube) but does that mean we are growing closer together? Maybe the exact opposite is the case: the more people in one space the less people feel being part of this geographic community. Maybe the concept of community has been so torn under post-industrial individualism, and neoliberal competition that it has turned us into anti-communal beings fighting for survival by themselves , could that be the pessimistic conclusion of all this?

Or…Or has the concept of community simply transformed over time and appears nowadays in different forms? One aspect that could support the latter is the emergence of communities that are based on a common interest, a common goal, or common characteristics rather than common geography. Communities are build around a whole variety of different topics and themes of which geography is only one aspect: Football club Manchester United for example  is estimated to have a community of something

like 108 million followers in China which not only equals 20 times the A photo of chinese Man United fanspopulation of Manchester but also is more than 5000 miles away from Old Trafford. But football is only one of many community building features that are displayed in the approximate 620 million interest groups that exist on the social media platform Facebook. Be it protection of animals, music bands, astral projection through meditation, computer games, sexual preferences; all these interests bond people from different parts of the world together in these fragile (often) digital communities. As fragile as one might think of communities that “only” exist online these groups nevertheless fulfil the true essence of what a community is: Bringing people together. And acting together as we can see in the increasing internationalisation of political and social movements such as #Occupy, gay rights or Greenpeace. Under the umbrella of one common cause and fuelled by the emerging opportunities of new media, people that are not necessarily geographically connected interact with people they might have never seen in person. Geographically disperse people interact with each other and act together as a community. So is new media and a transformed understanding of community the answer to all of the before mentioned problems of living in an individualised disconnected and anonymous world? And whatever happened to the physical interactions between people?

A photo of a busy train carriageWe see that community is a difficult topic: It exist where we least expect it and is absent where we expect to find it. But maybe we’re also expecting too much of it. Community keeps on existing in the interaction between people, even strangers, on the smallest scale. Let’s take the tube as an example: Where else do you find that many people (all strangers to each other) from all kinds of different backgrounds sharing one space with each other (even though not for longer than a couple of stops). Does that make them a community? Do we feel part of a community cramped together at 8 in the morning with hundreds of strangers on a Northern Line train or hiding our faces behind the Evening Standard? But there are moments when this anonymous disconnected feeling of the underground gets disrupted. Usually that is the case when something out of the norm happens; someone feeling unwell on the train, the train suddenly stopping in the tunnel, etc. All of the sudden we start to look at each other, interact with each other and build a community even though it only being for a very limited time.

What does all of this teach us about community? My point is the following: we as social beings naturally strive to be part of a community to help and support each other, it’s part of our nature to feel connected to others even though our modern world and society teaches us the exact opposite. This part of ourselves comes out in these “moments of solidarity” that we sometimes share with strangers on the tube or elsewhere even if it is only a short conversation, a nod or a look. Does this solve all the problems that exist in or between communities? Probably not, it just reminds us that we are social creatures and that community and belonging are and continue to be important questions of our being…for whatever it is worth.

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