Society masquerading as community

The word community is in danger of overuse by the politically correct jargon crowd.

(It thus joins a long and growing list of words that were once beautiful and powerful but have now been neutered. See: passionate and sustainable.)

This has consequences. The resulting loss of meaning certainly reflects but might even exacerbate the common modern feeling of alienation.

First, here is what our (The Economist‘s) Style Guide says about the word:

Community is a useful word [in some contexts] but in many others it jars. Not only is it often unnecessary, it purports to convey a sense of togetherness that may well not exist. The black community means blacks, the business community means businessmen (who are supposed to be competing, not colluding), the homosexual community means homosexuals, or gays, the intelligence community means spies…. the international community, if it means anything, means other countries [or] aid agencies … What the global community means is a mystery….

I would go even further. A real community is an almost-biological thing: human beings living together closely and with a shared fate that binds them, whether they love one another or not. For context, you might rank human groupings in this order:

  1. Family
  2. Clan
  3. Community

I’ve posted, in other contexts, about Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis that there is a cognitive limit to the size of primate communities, which for our species is about 150. I think that’s just about right.

Beyond that, you don’t have communities. At best you have societies. That’s when humans agree to cohabit a physical or abstract space with other people, most of whom are total strangers, by agreeing to certain rules.

Because people typically are not happy living as unconnected atoms in such a society (ie, because they feel alienated), they will be psychologically tempted to fudge.

They will, in the famous words of Benedict Anderson in this classic of International Relations, imagine communities where none exists. (Perhaps project is a better word.) This is often called


Beyond such national or ethnic societies, you might merely have systems, as in the international system. That is the witty meaning built into the title of another classic of International Relations, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society.

Within a nation (unless it is a failed state), somebody has a monopoly on legitimate violence, in order to enforce rules, and that provides order. In the absence of such a monopoly (as in the international system), you get anarchy, so you need a different way of achieving order (a balance of powers, for example).

In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether all these mentions of communities that I constantly hear might not reflect a profound and unsatisfied yearning. We yearn for that sense of togetherness which is so often just not there.

21 thoughts on “Society masquerading as community

  1. great thoughts! you might also be interested in Patricia Hill Collins’ ideas on community and “the new politics of community” — community as an inherently political construct characterized by multiple and intersecting relationships of power (and resistance). “community” as it is often used seems to imagine away these power relations…
    great post– thanks!

    • Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Margaret. I see that you’re an expert — ie, a sociology teacher. Would love to hear your take on all this.

      “…multiple and intersecting relationships of power (and resistance)…”: For a second I thought you were talking about my family. 😉

      Will read into Patricia Hill Collins a bit…

  2. Thanks for the reference!

    I agree totally about the overuse of “community” and I think you are on to something as far as a desire to create a sense of community where none exist. The other thing that may be operating is an attempt to give cohesion to groups of totally disparate people in an attempt to simplify the world. It is easier to say “the black/gay/whatever community is . . . ” because that way people can have simple viewpoints without giving consideration to the complexities of the individuals who make up those groups.

    • Exactly. So we use a word that implies an OUGHT instead of one that describes an IS. Meaning: We would like things to be simple, hence we choose a word implying simplicity, when instead the subject is fiendishly complex.

      As you know, I’m an IS’er, not an OUGHT’er in language matters.

      Denial would be another word for this linguistic OUGHTism.

  3. I think there is a simple reason for the use of the word “community”. It implies a force of strong consensus and cohesiveness. If we say the [insert ethnic, racial, or political interest group you wish here] community is opposed to this or in favor of that, it has more impact than saying “the leaders of [whatever group] had this to say.” It creates or reinforces the image of a monolithic group, a large number of people holding a single opinion rather than a lone person or small group of “leaders” offering a personal opinion. It implies unity.

    • “Unity” = “Simplicity” in Thomas’s comment above. Ie, it is again an OUGHT, not an IS.

      (I’ve probably garbled my reply to Thomas above. I might not be making any sense).

    • I should have just “dittoed” Thomas’ comment. I wanted to touch on something more, the use of words to imply certain things on a subliminal level.

  4. Dear Andreas,
    I agree that certain words lik e Community are overused. Whoever is responsible for the Economist style guide needs to update it to the late 20th and 21st century. Business Community can be replaced by Business People would be OK, but Businessmen is definitely prejudiced against women succeeding in business. Business People sounds a bit strange to the ear, which might explain the frequent use of the term Business Community as it is gender neutral.

    • Hi John,

      I should introduce you to Jonny Grimmond, the author of our Style Guide, and a doyen of language and usage. He’d have quite a few things to say to you.

      You really think that businessman is “prejudiced”? What about chairman? Mankind?

      This reminds me of the endless debates we had in the Derrida and Foucault seminars in college, circa 1992, when the topic that kept us busy was whether “God” should be “he” or “she” or “he or she” or “it”….

      As I recall, we all decided at the time that the discussion was tedious and prevented us from investigating more interesting matters.

      By the way, does this mean that you would also advocate violating the singular/plural rules of grammar in examples such as the following:

      “A businessperson has to manage THEIR business….” (as opposed to “his business”).

    • John speaks of a gender bias. I was taught that the use of the masculine form was a matter of simplicity that grew out of the historical gender bias. Tie that in with the lack of appropriate gender neutral pronoun in the English language (which is likely the result of a historical gender bias)

      I tend to use “one’s” when trying to remain gender neutral or the (also not quite smooth) “his/her”

      “A businessperson has to manage THEIR business….” (as opposed to “his business”).

      “As a businessperson, one has to manage one’s business…”


      “A businessperson has to manage his/her business….”

      … but these often feel a bit awkward.

      You could write your example as:

      “Businesspeople have to manage their businesses…”

      Most of us who blog or comment are fairly sloppy about such things. Style is not so important. But writers of books and newspaper or magazine articles need to pay attention to style.

    • I like Douglas’s solution of “one’s” in most cases. For example, it always comes up in sentences where “Everyone” is the noun.

      “Everyone was going to the park to stretch one’s legs.”

      Better: They were all going to the park to stretch their legs.” But we’re being pedantic, of course. The warriors on the other side aren’t concerned with grammar, but with sex, er gender, er….

      You’re remind me that my problem is that I am a busi-ness man without a business.

  5. I might write a fan letter to your Jonny Grimmond. On full stops:

    “Use plenty. They keep sentences short. This helps the reader.”

    What a charmer!

  6. We in the IT “Community” are trying to mimic the same in the cyberworld as well. “Community” is a big theme in technology world as well. They are building all kinds of financial communities, social communities, adult communities, kids communities, blog communities etc etc.

    I agree its such a abused word whose efficacy is completely lost. Though off late the world networks is replacing communities so you have the social network (facebook) or busines network (linkedin).

    Do we prefer network over communities or is this something that is relevant only for the cyber world ?

    The size limit of 150 is too small for a population of 6 billion.
    Are there similar limits for society as well ?

    I actually would prefer to invent a new collective noun for large clusters of human without the biological connotation.
    Similar to “School of fishes”, batter of barracudas, hive of bees, colony of ants.

    herd ? Sangh (old buddhist term) ?

    • This is interesting, suresh. In the animal world it becomes poetic; a murder of crows, a brace of grouse.

      How about a buttload of bloggers? A f*wad of facebooks? A fortune of facebookists? A heave of hackers. A posse of programmers. Not so poetic. (Ms. Hendrix can help)

      Furthermore, a Dunbar could become a unit of measure, like a Newton or a Henry, Pascal or Kelvin. 1 Dunbar = 150 people.

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