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.