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Towards a Definition of Community

Submitted by Derek Alton on October 8, 2015 - 9:02am
Towards and Integrated Model for Deepening Community Part. 1

*In preperation for my thesis and as a way of organizing my own thoughts after 4 years exploring and studying community in academia and practice I created an integrative model for deepening community.  What follows is part 1 of this theory.

Towards a definition of community: 

Community has been a topic of great interest and research for many years, from its early proponents like Tonnies (1887/1957) and Durkheim (1893/1964) to more recent scholars like McMillan (1986; 1996), Chipuer (1999) and Perkins (2002; 2003).  There is a story of a scholar who set out to track all the academic articles written on feelings of disconnect and loneliness, which is one aspect of research on community, only to give up after three months due to the overwhelming mass collected (Glynn, 1981).  Outside of academia, writers like Born (2012; 2014), Vanier (1979; 2008) and McKnight (1993; 2010) have also written many books on the subject.

This interest is driven by growing bodies of literature that connect community with positive outcomes in health (Jung & Viswanath, 2013; Hagerty et al., 1996), happiness (Achor, 2010), and job satisfaction (Burton, 2013; Winter-Collins & McDaniel, 2000).  Maslow identifies belonging, the personal experience of being in community, as an essential aspect of humanity in his landmark hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1954).  Despite the significant importance and attention, community has been a notoriously difficult topic to define because of its phenomenological nature (Chavis, Hogge, McMillan & Wandersman, 1986; Sarason, 1974).  Hillery documented 94 different definitions of community back in 1955 (Hillery, 1955) and scholars continue to express frustration at the nebulousness of the term and how this has lead to many definitions making study within the field difficult (Loomis, 2013; Puddifoot, 1996; Sarason, 1974).  By now you can understand the complexity of the term community.

As a result there have been many frameworks that have been developed to assist researchers in more effectively analyzing and measuring community to help deepen our understanding of the topic and its implications.  These frameworks are developed out of a specific field of study as is highlighted in the chart below.


Field of Study

Key Article’s

Level of Focus

Social Capital

Political Science and Economics

Putnam, 2000; Coleman, 1988


Sense of Community

Community Psychology

Sarason, 1974; McMillan & Chavis, 1986


Sense of Belonging


Hagerty et al. 1992; Hagerty & Patusky, 1995


Asset Based Community Development

Community Development

McKight & Kretzman, 1993; McKight & Block 2010


Social Network Theory


Freeman 2006



Counselling Psychology

Lee & Robbins, 1995



Because of this, each framework for community reflects the lens, scale and focus point of the related discipline.  A good way to conceptualize this is by using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Levels of Analysis.   The model lays out five distinct levels of interaction starting at the individual level and extended to the macro system, which represents society and culture.  Originally this model was designed to make sense of childhood development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) but it has since been applied in many other fields including Health Science (Marks et al., 2005) and Community Psychology (Kloos et al., 2012).


Different fields of study focus on different levels of this model.  Sociology for example looks at larger societal patterns and thus focuses more on the meso and macro levels.  Its corresponding community framework Social Network Theory therefore also focuses on these levels.  Similarly Political Science also focuses on this scale and thus Social Capital is most often also applied to meso and macro issues.  In contrast Nursing and Counselling focus on the individual scale and thus Sense of Belonging and Belongingness also focus on this scale.  Beyond the scale of focus, each framework also emboddies the underlying assumptions and characteristics of their given field.

Despite this diversity of perspectives the one constant is the phenomenon they are all striving to study: Community.

My Definition:

Community put simply is the phenomenon of transcendence: when a group of individuals becomes a collective unit.  From here the understanding of the phenomenon can be studied and evaluated from a series of different perspectives and lenses as described above.

      Through a combination of my experience talking with thousands of people about community and also the readings I have done on the subject I put forward that community has three basic elements: Deep Relationships, Broad Relationships and Physical Space. 


1. Deep Relationships

Each of us often have a small group of friends and family members which we call ourcore group

  • The focal point of these relationship is the depth of connection
  • These relationships are ends in and of themselves (The purpose is the relationship itself).   

2. Broad Relationships

Most relationships in our lives are NOT focused around depth, they could be about:

  • Utility
  • Geography
  •  Common Interest
  •  Common Activity


These relationships develop because we live in a world with many people who we end up interacting with 

The diagram below highlights some of the key distinctions between these two types of relationships.  Deep relationships require much more energy and time to develop and nurture and thus people usually only have a couple of them.  In contrast broad relationships are usually much more shallow in nature and thus take far less energy, this allows us to have many broad connections.  Paul Born in his book Deepening Community (2014) refers to these two groups as shallow and deep community.

3. Physical Space

Space seemed to be a really important aspect of people's experience of community for two main reasons  

  1.   Familiarity: being familiar with a space goes a long way towards building a person’s sense of community;
  2.   Space for community to happen within.  This could be a house, office, favorite coffee shop, gym, online chat forum, online game platform

We are the most connected we have ever been (Wang & Wellman, 2010), despite this, most community building efforts continue to focus on helping people broaden their relationships.  Likewise most of the academic literature focuses on this aspect of community.  As a result I do not see the need for my research to explore this space.

Human centered design is becoming a growing approach within many fields including urban planning and building design.  Groups like CSI are exploring how to redesign office spaces to nurture community.  There is still lots of important learning to happen here about how space nurtures community but this is not the area I would like to focus on for my research.

It is the element of deepening relationships where I feel there is the greatest gap of research and also the greatest need for support.  I believe this is at the heart of why there is a growing feeling of isolation within Canada (and the US) despite us being incredibly well connected.  Deepening Community has been written about by authors such as Vanier and Born but I feel conceptually the term is still very underdeveloped.  The first focus of this paper therefore will be to conceptually develop this term.

A note on deepening community and deepening relationships.  Both terms refer to the same phenomenon the key difference is the scale of analysis, relationships are often used to refer to the interchange between two people whereas community is the interchange between a larger group of people.  For the purpose of this research I use these terms interchangeably.


Talk About Complexity

I love this Derek! Thanks soo much for bringing all of these thoughts and resources onto one page. I love how you manage to sum it all up in one sentence, "when a group of individuals becomes a collective unit". Obviously trying to understand community is a complex as it is dynamic, contextual, relative, and fluid.

I can't wait to read more of these bits as your thesis formulates.  Thanks soo much for sharing it with us.