Community as Identity

Submitted by Paul Born on August 13, 2009 - 9:29am
'My Community' defined

My community. These two simple words can say so much about a person. It can say where they come from and by association what he/she believes or at least the context in which their beliefs were shaped.

Community As IdentityIt can give us insights into their friends and connections, who their family is and their lifestyle. The words my community can also label a person as in, “ they are part of the Gay community, disability community or feminist community." I have chosen four words to help us fully embrace this understanding.


An African term widely used and rich in meaning describes the interconnection among people, “I am human because I belong." This understanding brings with it the expected behaviors associated with this interconnection . When a person is identified with Ubuntu – they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate – they share what they says Desmond Tutu who goes on to describe Ubuntu as a concept to mean, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, a person is a person through other persons.

Identity is through others; if I am accomplished it is not the “I” that identifies the accomplishment but rather the “we”, it is the context of our community that we gain our identity and sense of purpose. This is often seen as contrary to the western understanding of identify in which a strong sense of self and personal identity is seen as desirable. Ubuntu provides a wonderful understanding and context for a discussion of community as interconnection and the associated expectations and behaviors that such interconnection evokes.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

The term Gemeinschaft was used by Ferdinand Tönnies to describe a connectedness, where people identify as much or more with a group than to their own self interest. Individuals in Gemeinschaft are self regulated having a bond one to the other and as such not wanting to disturb that bond there is a conformity that ensues. For Tönnies saw the family was an excellent expression of Gemeinschaft but also believed that Gemeinschaft could be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship. (wikipedia)

Gemeinschafts are broadly characterized by strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel for society. wikipedia

In contrast, Gesellschaft describes associations in which, for the individual, the larger association never takes on more importance than individual self interest, and lack the same level of shared mores. Gesellschaft is maintained through individuals acting in their own self interest (wikipedia)

These terms are helpful in us better understanding the difference between self interest and community interest. The identity in community…


Is an important source of community identifying. "I am a Born," my son would say, or, "I was born a Wall," my mom would say. To identify yourself from a particular family provides a context of relationships. In some cultures links to families go back many generations and bring with it status – at times good at other times to the family's detriment. Being part of a family and extended family can be a powerful source of community identify for some.


Another powerful source of identity is an association with a cause, particularly if the cause provides a sense of solidarity and brings feelings of belonging. Most often communities of association are amongst those who feel outside or on the margins of mainstream thought and are “struggling” together for broader acceptance in society.

An important example of this is the gay community in which people have been discriminated against because of sexual orientation and have bound together to advocate for change. But this identity goes beyond advocating, the bond has resulted in gay people living in close proximity to each other, to establishing places for social contact and expression of their faith.

The disability community is another important example but is slightly different from the gay community in that many leaders in the disability community are parent advocates trying to provide a safer, more inclusive society for their children.

The feminist community is an important blend of women that strongly identify with those who struggle with bringing a sense of equity in relationship between men and women and those who see themselves as feminist as a progressive way of thinking.

Communities by association can cross many boundaries. They are most often not restricted by geography but rather provide a context for identifying with others like you or with a cause about the way things should be.