Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development

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What is Community?  What is Community Development?

Eric Lerner
October 13, 1999


"Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it." (M. Jourdain, in Moliere's Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme)

Much like M. Jourdain, I've been doing community development without knowing it. During a twenty-five year period, I've been a human service agency executive director, an elected county board member, and a philosophy professor teaching applied ethics. But only when that combined experience brought me to Cornell and CaRDI did I learn that what I'd been doing had been community development all along. How about that. I've now spent nearly four years learning about community development at Cornell. This draft essay is an attempt to summarize what I've learned, punctuated with a few editorial comments. I expect to publish an improved version as a CaRDI Community Development Report.

Diverse viewpoints

What is community? What is community development?

Different folks seem to have different answers to these questions -- and those answers are not always complementary, and not always clearly articulated. If nothing else, there is great diversity of perspective in the community of community developers. The conceptual labyrinth can be bewildering. This essay explores the notion that asking the reasons why folks are interested in the idea of community, and the roles that the notion of community plays in their thinking may help clarify alternative traditions and bring into focus their points of convergence or disagreement.

There are groupings of people who share similar points of view. These groups cross conventional disciplinary boundaries, and are far from mutually exclusive. In the pages that follow, I have attempted to characterize each of these groups with an over-simplified summary statement. Most everyone, I suspect, will embrace more than one of these statements. But no one, I think, will embrace them all. Some, after all, are straightforwardly inconsistent.

A community is a bunch of people who have something in common. Let me try to spell out a broad conception of community that may be compatible with most or all points of view.

Place. Centrally, a community is a group of people who live in the same place. Depending on context, that place may be small or large, and the community may include just a handful of people, or millions, e.g., the Chicago community. Often but not always, community of place is conceived of in terms of governmental units: village, town, city, county.

Interest & identity. We also speak of communities based on a shared interest or identity, including profession, ethnicity, religion, language, hobby, etc., e.g., the local Armenian community, the Cornell community, or the community of major petroleum shippers. Today we must also include virtual communities, e.g., the America Online community. Plainly, most any individual is a member of a large number of communities of place, interest and identity. And it is quite difficult to generalize accurately about communities without specifying what type of community is being discussed.

Social research & community change

Community can be studied scientifically. Some researchers are interested in the idea of a community level of analysis of "the causal forces that influence the quality of local life and well being." They may be concerned with the consequences of "admitting communities to our theoretical ontology", asking what a theory gains by talking about communities rather than just individuals, or whether moral concepts apply to communities as well as persons. These concerns may be embodied in seeking mathematical social indicators that define communities as entities in a model or theory, or in exploring the internal social structure and processes of communities. There is disagreement about whether the most important models of community are economic. Some researchers may be especially interested in rural communities because community boundaries can be more readily identified.

Communities are best understood holistically. Some emphasize the need for a holistic view of communities as complex, inter-dependent human eco-systems. Communities "are collective, historical actors and not merely grand individuals. Communities are not only aggregates of persons acting as free agents, but also collectives that have identities and purposes of their own and can act as a unit." (Etzioni 1995). Some stress the importance of concepts like "social capital" and "community vitality" that highlight the inter-relatedness of communities. They stress that it's shortsighted to plan or develop programs for just one segment of a community outside the larger community context.

Community social science research requires community participation.  Participatory Action Research explores new models of problem-solving and knowledge-generation that emphasize community participation over individual expertise and "high science". Community research that takes into account neither the interests nor the expertise of the community itself cannot create the knowledge that is most needed.

Social Change Requires Community Participation. Based on such insights, some folks see that many kinds of social change can best be implemented at the community level. A vision of true democracy links to a belief in the intrinsic value of broad-based participatory community decision-making, and of partnership and collaboration that transcend conventional institutional boundaries. Some have called for decision-making that involves "the whole community" (though I'm not at all sure what that means). Public Issues Education and the call for renewal of Civil Society embody these principles.

Community vitality & economic development

The primary goals of community development are community vitality & well being. Many see the goal of community development as human well being, broadly construed. They judge the effectiveness of community development efforts on their effects on a broad array of quality-of-life indicators. These principles are embodied in support for, e.g., sustainable communities, livable communities, community dispute resolution, community food security, or community strategic planning.

The primary goals of community development are prosperity and job creation. For many, economic development is the heart of community development, whose primary goals are then seen as job growth and prosperity. Other aspects of community development are of interest only to the extent that they contribute to economic success. Many emphasize the importance of low taxes to business profitability. Others insist on economic justice for a community's most vulnerable members.

Economic development and community vitality pursue incompatible goals.  There is some tension between the agendas of community economic development and of holistic community development, though I have not yet seen the disagreements clearly articulated. Pursuing prosperity and job creation calls for different policies, programs and budget commitments than pursuit of improved quality of life and a shared sense of community. For example, economic development criteria might fund fewer human service programs; a job-training program whose primary goal is to help workers find fulfilling careers may be quite different from a program whose goal is to help employers develop a work-force with needed skills. [get quote]

Economic development and community vitality pursue mutually supportive goals. Some try to reconcile these differences by subordinating one set of goals to the other. For example, the movement for sustainable communities blends concern for economics, equity and the environment, making economic goals a subset of broader community goals. Others suggest that holistic community development is the most effective path to economic development, e.g. Community Economic Renewal, Enterprise Communities & Empowerment Zones. The name "smart growth" has been given to several approaches to land use and economic planning that attempt to reconcile both sets of goals.

Education of community policymakers, and especially elected officials, can be a direct path to community change. Some folks see that education and information for local government officials and other community policymakers, who can directly vote on funding and policy, can be the most cost-effective way to bring about community change, particularly if those community leaders can themselves learn the value of holistic approaches to community development. Local policymakers must make good decisions on countless issues that don't attract or warrant extensive public controversy or input, but nevertheless have major consequences for their communities. Supporters of participation can reclaim the democratic structures embodied in local government. Others, however, are concerned that such training for existing leadership may help buttress the existing power structure, rather than helping to cultivate indigenous leadership among traditionally marginalized groups.

Shared vision & diversity

Community is a universal human value. Some folks perceive community as a primary good, that is, something valued for its own sake, and not just as a means to other ends. The search for "authentic community as a shared vision" can fuel the idea that "It takes a whole village to raise a child," and be an incentive to the creation of intentional communities. Some are nostalgic for a (possibly imaginary) past in which community ties are thought to have been stronger.

Whatever happened to community? Everybody used to live in one. You know the kind I mean. One where you had real neighbors. And they had a good neighbor, too. One where everybody, even the kids, knew everybody else and really cared about them. What happened to that? (Wilkerson, 1968) I'm inclined to wonder whether that sort of community was ever very common.

Community is more important than individualism. Some favor "shared community values" over against what they perceive as "libertarian individualist values". Community values are seen as supporting sharing and cooperation, e.g., more and better daycare, racial harmony, gun control, & dispute mediation. Sometimes, there is an evangelical wish to teach these values to community members, or to help them discover that this is, deep down, what they already believe.

An ideal community supports diversity & individuality. Many see true community as embracing a diverse assemblage of self-actualizing individuals. Liberty, too, is a primary good. Ironically, this can link to support for positions on some issues that seem to place individualism above community, e.g. abortion rights, euthanasia, gay rights & flag burning. The suggestion that communities must strike a balance between individualism and communitarianism does little to resolve particular controversies.

Romanticizing localism. Rhetoric about "community" can be used as a marketing ploy for "devolution" and regressive tax policies. The federal and state governments have backed away from earlier commitments to support community development and social welfare programs. Some social problems are not well suited to predominantly local solutions. The "devolution" of social programs to local government is part of a deliberate strategy of shifting the cost of government to regressive local property and sales taxes, instead of more progressive state and, especially, federal income taxes -- a massive transfer of costs from the wealthy to the middle class. Local communities are now obliged to find creative, community-based solutions to problems created by dwindling support from those most able to pay. Too often, "community decision-making" and "community empowerment" are rhetorical gift-wrapping for federal policies deeply unfriendly to American towns and cities. The genuinely valuable new tools of participatory community development can be the consolation prize for communities that can't fund community development from the local tax base.

Community is a cozy concept. For some, the notion of community has an attractive "warm-fuzzy" feel, without much detailed articulation. The word "community" has been used promiscuously in a very broad range of contexts. I've come across references to: community policing, community sentencing, community knife sharpening, community psychology, authentic community, true community, community analysis, community standards of obscenity, Community Bank, Community Manor, Community Corners, community photography, Community Propane, Inc.

The role of the university.  The university should be engaged with the community. Some articulate a view of the "engaged university," an idea embodied in the mission of the land-grant colleges. This can mean bringing to bear the university's financial and academic resources in a systematic way in support of community development.

Everyone should be involved in and contribute to their community, including university employees. Some folks simply want the university faculty, staff and students to be contributing members to "the larger community" They encourage volunteerism and other individual efforts to contribute to community betterment. When many folks on campus refer to "the community," it can be a vague reference to most anywhere off-campus, away from the ivory tower, in the "real world".  It is, of course, a Good Thing that many individuals choose to be contributing members of the communities they live in. But that is qualitatively different from an "engaged university" and lacks the theoretical framework of research-based community development.

Every health, human service or public service program, including university extension programs, contributes in its own way to community development. When a community is viewed holistically, each activity that contributes to community well being can be seen to play its own role. Similarly, any client of any social program is a "member of the community". So every program that helps community members can be construed as a community development program. But a program that makes a genuine contribution to community may nonetheless not itself contribute to a holistic understanding of the community, nor embody other community development principles.

Concluding thought. This essay is a work in progress. Have I neglected or misconstrued a point of view dear to your heart? Do have a favorite quote to share? Please send comments, questions, quarrels or flattery to

Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development
504 South Plain Street
Ithaca, NY  14850
(607) 273-1154

Page updated August 30, 2001

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