Written on October 21, 2008. Written by .

Beach People
The significance of community.
Photo courtesy of Shenghung Lin

I never used to think much about communities because I thought that having a girlfriend and a bunch of good friends was all that mattered. But recently I have realized that communities provide the foundation for good relationships and fill a special role in our psychological needs.

Community doesn’t feel so important when you are already in one. It is one of those things that we take for granted. Being in a church, a high school, or a good job provides a strong community, but it may seem more like a cost than a benefit. You are obligated to go and this obligation is preventing you from doing what you want. But it is this obligation that makes the community effective. Without it, people would find more efficient uses of their time that would inevitable involve less social interaction, or at least interaction with a much smaller group. But being exposed to a group of people regularly provides a way for you to build a social network that persists. If you do not belong to a community and you get dumped, then you are back to square one. But if you are in high school and your ex goes to the same school, then your social ties with the school have grown through the experience and this may end up helping you to meet new potential partners. Furthermore, a sense of community fosters existing relationships by providing a sense of mutual belonging – you relate to each other because you each relate to the group. It also provides fodder for gossip, which is a genetically-programmed factor in creating emotional connections.

A community is made up of a group of people, but not all groups of people are communities. It is hard to say what exactly defines a community, probably because it is more of a continuum of community-ness than an on/off definition. Groups with more community-ness have three main ingredients: the right size, obligation to meet regularly in a social setting, and commonalities. The right size is hard to specify, but it is somewhere between the number of people that you can know intimately and the number of people that you can remember at once. So good sizes are probably between 50 and 1000. Meeting regularly means seeing people at least once a week, preferrably at least twice a week to prevent drifting. Having commonalities helps to create cohesiveness in the group. If it is just a random sampling of people, there may be significant divisiveness over values and principles which damages the feelings of community.

Religion works so well as a community builder because it forces people to agree on a specific system of beliefs without critical judgement. It is tempting to think about the ideal of a church-like organization that encourages free thought and discourages psychological distortion, but there is probably a reason why such endeavors have met with limited success. This kind of structure would promote debate, which not only creates negative feelinds by itself, but ends up dividing the community into camps based on their views on specific issues. Since there is so much in philosophy that cannot be rigorously derived, there is a lot of room for disagreement and people will end up splitting into smaller and smaller camps until the community is lost. It seems that the best hope is to build a community around something that avoids philosophy altogether.

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