What is community?

What is community?

Merriam Webster defines community as

: a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)

: a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.

: a group of nations

As you can see, the definition isn’t particularly clear.

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. The word “community” is thrown around quite a bit, but I’m not sure we really understand what we mean when we use it.  I’ve often referred to myself as a community builder. I teach in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies. I work on a mental health team in Edmonton called the Community Outreach Assessment and Support Team. Earlier this year I attended the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists National Conference in Fredericton, where the focus was on “Enabling Healthy Communities”. At the conference we discussed many interesting and innovative community based programs, but I left still puzzled about what community actually was.

I guess my preoccupation with this question began last year, during a conversation I had with a client. The client was experiencing depression and I was called in to help him find some meaningful activities to do in his community.

** (I’ll speak to this more in another post, but occupational therapy is an often misunderstood profession – I see myself as working collaboratively with people to help them explore how doing can provide a sense of purpose and meaning). **

I sat with him and began to talk about all of the things he might be interested in doing. I saw that he was disinterested in the discussion on activities, and so I asked him about his community and what he identified as his community. His reply was that he didn’t have one. I grew to understand that his experience of depression was exacerbated by profound loneliness and social isolation. He saw community as “other people”.

While his response to my question was troubling, it wasn’t surprising. My team supports adults with developmental disabilities – most often the biggest issue that affects their quality of life is chronic loneliness and a lack of connection with others. The reality is that there are many people in Edmonton that don’t see themselves as part of a community – oftentimes due to barriers that are a result of marginalization and oppression.

Following that encounter with my client I was determined to try to do my part in addressing the issue of social isolation and disconnection.  My pursuit in connecting people with communities fueled my desire to understand what community was.

This question was on my mind during the Fall 2013 semester, and so I asked the students of the mental health class I teach at MacEwan University. I received varied responses: a village, “my soccer team”, a city, a culture, “my church”, a support group. My question didn’t provide a definitive answer – and I am happy that it didn’t.

If I asked my father to describe community, he would probably say it was how the people of Saraotalli (his small rural village in Bangladesh) would collectively come together and look out for one another, ranging from sharing farmed produce to taking care of the neighbour’s son. I believe that his upbringing exemplified the common adage “It takes a village to raise a child”.

If you were to ask a sociologist what community was, they would likely tell you that community is a “social construct”. According to Phil Bartle from the Community Empowerment Collective, community is “a set of interactions, human behaviours that have meaning and expectations between its members”.

To further abstract the concept, he states that “a community usually was already existing when all of its current residents were not yet born, and it will likely continue to exist when all of the people in it have left”.

So it seems that community isn’t a physical place as much as it is an idea. But then again, physical spaces have much to do in creating community. Just look at the great community revitalization work being done on 118 ave or the envisioned plan for Blatchford where public spaces will help foster a sense of community.

Maybe we can’t create a universal definition for community. Perhaps it lies in the subjective and personal experience one has with it.

If we can’t define what community is, maybe we can explore the purpose it serves. As my client said, “community is other people”.

Social inclusion is considered a social determinant of health and has been tied to many health outcomes. According to Berkman and Glass (2000) studies have consistently demonstrated people who are socially isolated or disconnected from others have between two and five times the risk of dying from all causes compared to those who maintain strong ties with family, friends & community. (here’s a link to their paper: http://www.ulb.ac.be/esp/psd/foresa/Durkheim.pdf).

Community involvement has direct implications on our health.

As I stated earlier, there are Edmontonians who, for a variety of reasons, don’t feel connected to a community. I believe that we need to remember that as we move forward in participating in our own communities.

When I think of community, I think of human connection, mutual support, and shared vision. Through the sharing of ideas and social capital, members of a community can assist each other in realizing greater goals.

Edmonton has a demonstrated commitment to community. I have heard that we have the most community leagues of any city in the country – which is quite impressive. Often times when you ask people, Why Edmonton? – they respond “because of the community feel”.

So it seems that I haven’t come to a definitive conclusion in my quest to define community, and so I turn to you. I’m curious to hear your perspectives on the following questions:

  • How do you define community?
  • What communities do you belong to?
  • How can you make your community more accessible to others?

Please comment below and share some of your thoughts on the topic. Thanks!


(header credit: EEDC https://www.flickr.com/photos/edmontonliveallyear/4148779276)

3 thoughts on “What is community?

  1. You have posed an interesting question. For me community has been a varying experience from enrolling in a parent teacher organization and growing friendships with it, to a close family unit that welcomed waifs & strays to emigrating and finding a new community in my writing group and introducing myself to new neighbors. I feel community is the connection between people, whether because of their locality, career or volunteer activities. The more you reach out the better your community becomes.

    1. Hi Mandy,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and I apologize for not commenting sooner! I’m still getting used to WordPress.

      I think you make a good point about reaching out. I moved to Edmonton almost 3 years ago and found that for the first year I had a bit of a tough time, – after I had reached out to different communities I found it to be really helpful for my wellness. Thanks again for your comment!

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