From the earliest days of sociology, family and community have been central concerns of the discipline. The dense interpenetration of these two dimensions of life was associated in particular with simple societies. This is especially evident in the work of early social thinkers such as the German Ferdinand Tonnies and the Frenchman Frederick Le Play.
The development of more complex societies brought with it the emergence of specialized institutions catering to discrete aspects of social life which previously were catered to within the family and local community (e.g., economic, educational, and religious activities). With the development of these more complex societies the nature of social relationships also changed. It was thought that both family and community, if not actually in decline, were certainly less pivotal than before in the life of society. This was the theme of much work in English language sociology in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Aspects of it may even be traced in the writings of the highly influential American sociologist Talcott Parsons in his discussions of societal differentiation, the narrowing of the functions of the family, and the sometimes misrepresented concept of the ‘‘isolated’’ nuclear family.
In subsequent decades of the twentieth century the study of family and community became less fashionable in sociology, as an overview of many textbooks of the time will testify. It seemed that in modern society community extended beyond the locality and the family, and their interrelationship no longer seemed unproblematic. In practice, empirical research continued to attest to the persistence of both family and community, and in more recent times the centrality of the family, the significance of community, and the continued importance of the relationship between them have been reasserted (Crow & Maclean 2004).
Meaning of Family and Community
The definition of these concepts is contested. In empirical terms what constitutes a family has varied throughout history and between cultures. For present purposes the discussion of family and community refers only to these phenomena in western societies. In sociology the debate around a standard definition of family dates from the late 1960s. A functionalist definition of the family as an adaptive system which takes responsibility for a particular range of tasks had been dominant, particularly in the middle decades of the twentieth century. These tasks may include the reproduction, socialization, and maintenance (emotional as well as physical) of members, as well as the exercise of social control and the transmission of culture. However, it is widely recognized that the existence of different family forms across time and cultures makes it very difficult to formulate a definition of family which is both comprehensive and concise.
As a result, many writers now prefer to speak of ‘‘families’’ (Allan & Crow 2001), ‘‘family life’’ (Cheal 2002), or ‘‘family practices’’ (Morgan 1996) rather than deal in such a contested term as ‘‘the family.’’ Recent practice in many western welfare systems has expanded the concept of family units to nonmarital cohabiting couples and in some countries to same sex marriage and partnerships. There is an ideological complex ion to much of the debate on what should or should not be regarded as a family. The empirical reality is of course that ‘‘family’’ is not a static construction, but a dynamic phenomenon which is negotiated and renegotiated in relationships, always within the context of a social structure which itself is subject to change. Also, a family exists as part of a network of kin relationships, the salience of which may vary significantly even within a culture, and certainly across cultures.
Similarly, the concept of community refers to a dynamic phenomenon which does not readily lend itself to narrow definition (Crow & Allan 1994). Over 50 years ago Hillery (1955) identified over 90 definitions of community even then. To¨nnies’s (1963: 65) idea of community as a group of people ‘‘essentially united in spite of all separating factors’’ is still relevant. The concept is essentially associated with a body of people who, although unrelated in a family sense, are conscious of having some things in common which contribute to a sense of shared interests, shared identity, and feelings of solidarity, whether weak or strong. In societies where mobility is limited, people share a common life, and there is much neighborly con tact, the resultant interaction builds up a sense of solidarity and ‘‘weness’’ associated with a locality, or in the case of nomads, a tribe. Even in neighborhood communities, however, relations of solidarity are not simply between neighbors as a category, but between particular neighbors who have developed sufficiently close relationships. In more recent times the concept of community has been expanded to include groupings beyond the local. Giddens (1990: 21) asserts that social relations have suffered a ‘‘disembedding,’’ meaning ‘‘the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts.’’ Even as Giddens made this claim, however, there was ample evidence to suggest that in fact locality still persisted as a vibrant dimension of community life in many settings.
Interweaving of Family and Community in Social Research
As in the theoretical discussions of the nineteenth century, in the middle decades of the twentieth century sociological research reflected a close relationship between the concepts of family and community. Community studies were especially popular at this time, with the emergence of several classic works such as those of the Chicago School in America, Gans’s Boston study published as The Urban Villagers in 1962, the 1950s Bethnal Green studies in Britain, and the 1930s County Clare study by Arensberg and Kimball in Ireland. Many of these community studies were closely interwoven with accounts of family life. Indeed, some of them may not have been so successful were it not for the involvement of the researcher with families in the community, as was the case with Whyte’s association with the Martini family in his study of Street Corner Society (1943). This interpenetration of family and community is further borne out in Frankenberg’s (1966) over view of community research in Britain.
Similarly, much family research was inextricably linked to community, as for instance the seminal study of Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Young and Willmott. What is evident from much of this work is the identification of family and community with a spatial location; the social linkages are primarily those of family, kin, and neighbors, who were often also friends.
It would not be fair to say that these social linkages did not extend into other domains; frequently, the world of work is a central feature of family and community study. However, there was a particular emphasis on the identification of family and community with a spatial location, and the spatial reconfigurations of modern society impacted on this. The mobility and dispersion which became a more common
feature of family life in the 1960s fed into concerns regarding the ‘‘eclipse of community,’’ arising from the growth of the suburbs and the establishment of dormitory towns and commuter belts. Indeed, with such change, it has been suggested that family and kinship relations came to be perceived as ‘‘the chief, if not the sole, carrier of the idea of community or of a sense of locality’’ (Morgan 1996: 5). There is a great deal of evidence that family and kin continue to be highly significant in modern society, fulfilling many community like functions; however, family and community are not interchangeable terms.
Besides significant spatial reconfigurations in modern society, a number of developments in sociology from the 1960s on contributed to what was sometimes perceived as a separation of the two areas of family and community as interrelated foci of sociological research. Penetrating critiques of the sociology of the family, from feminist sources in particular, opened up the family unit to considerable scrutiny and to a recognition of the individual interests, economic dimensions, and power relations within the group.
The subsequent concern with relations within the family contributed to moving the focus away from community dimensions of family life. This has been further exacerbated by the emphasis in more recent work on the individual rather than the group, as portrayed in the work of Giddens (1991), Beck (1992), and Beck and Beck Gernsheim (2002) on individualization. These writers point out that modern society presents us with a myriad of choices not avail able to earlier generations, which necessitate a degree of personal reflexivity more conducive to individual action than to a collective orientation. Beck (1992) alerts us to the expanded possibilities for individual choice regarding participation in community, and others have identified communities which need roots in neither family nor locality (Willmott 1986). Families, however, continue to be studied in context and that con text includes the local spatial setting.
Family and Community in Simple Societies
The portrayals of family and community in earlier societies, and particularly in relatively simple peasant societies, indicate that these dimensions of life, if not exactly coterminous, were at least closely interwoven. For example, To¨nnies conceptualized simpler societies as those characterized by close, intimate, holistic bonds of a primary nature, with the dominant social relationships being those of kinship, neighborliness, cooperation, and fellowship (Gemeinschaft), and more developed societies as characterized by rational calculation and segmented, specialized, secondary type association or relationships (Gesellschaft). These two terms have been commonly translated in the socio logical literature as community and society, respectively. An example of the portrayal of a gemeinschaft type society is to be found in the classic work by the Harvard anthropologists Arensberg and Kimball (2001), Family and Community in Ireland. This book, based on ethnographic research in the 1930s, paints a picture of rural life characterized by familism, where family ties are the main organizing and structuring principle in the community, both as a social and an economic system. Economic life in particular revolved around the cooperative interpenetration of family and community. The meitheal was a common feature of life in this peasant society; this was a cooperative work group where neighbors worked alongside each other to complete various farm tasks which necessitated help beyond that of the immediate family, such as saving the hay in season. Such cooperative practices brought about an identification of the family with the wider community. This identification of course comes also from many other shared experiences, including local schooling, shared social activity, and participation in group religious practices, identified by Durkheim as a particularly powerful form of community cohesion.
One of the features of community type societies is an orientation towards the collectivity, as distinct from a focus on the individual. Family members put the collective interests of the group before their own individual needs; this is especially the case as depicted by Arensberg and Kimball (2001) in relationship to landownership and inheritance. (Their portrayal of such issues as non-conflictual has been robustly critiqued: see Gibbon 1973.) Le Play saw this collective orientation as revolving around family enterprises, which acted as a sort of magnet keeping the larger family grouping together in a specific location as a form of community.
Tonnies’s ideas were developed, not only theoretically (e.g., by Parsons in his discussion of the pattern variables), but also in the empirical research of the Chicago School, of which Redfield was an exemplary member. While Tonnies recognized that kin networks were not incompatible with urban life, Redfield hypothesized from his comparative research on families and communities in Mexico that the embeddedness of an individual in his family and neighborhood group was a feature of non-city life. In his view, as peasant societies come into contact with urban culture they tend to change in the direction of Gemeinschaft type society. Redfield contrasted ‘‘folk’’ with ‘‘urban’’ societies and associated the latter with a weakening of the cohesive nature of community.
For Le Play and others, the advent of the industrial revolution, and with it the growth of cities, changed the close identification of family and community described above. In his view the movement of individuals off the land to seek paid employment in centers of industrialization led to individualism, self-interest, and a rootlessness which threatened the family. It gave rise to smaller family forms of the type now called nuclear, which lacked the strong structural ties of local community and pre industrial kinship systems; for this reason he identified the new type of family as ‘‘unstable’’ as compared to what he believed to be the ‘‘traditional’’ stem family (la famille souche).
He was not alone in seeing industrialization as a threat to group cohesion. Tonnies and others believed that the modernization which accompanied it was eroding the old ways of life and with them the interpenetration of family and community.
Industrialization as a Threat to Family and Community
The identification by Le Play and others of nineteenth century industrialization with an unraveling of ties between family, the wider kin group, and the community became a dominant theme in twentieth century sociology. A rapidly changing division of labor was seen as leading to the disruption of social solidarity. The demise of the so called ‘‘traditional’’ family was linked to the theme of the eclipse of community. In revisiting the research interests of Arensberg and Kimball 30 years later, for example, Brody (1973) represented the changed roles of family members in the community as coinciding with the overthrow of the traditional family.
The mainstream perception of the role of industrialization in the unraveling of the ties between family and community, with the decline of both, has been widely challenged. Many argue that the most significant change factors for social relations occurred much earlier, with Stone (1977) claiming that significant changes in the nature of family relations can be dated to the mid seventeenth century with the development of affective individualism. Others pointed out that despite theoretical claims concerning the collapse of community, empirical research indicated that community was indeed alive and well. Not only that, it would seem that the concepts of community and family are still perceived as interconnected; Dempsey’s (1990) concept of community as ‘‘one big happy family’’ is strongly evocative of Tonnies’s perception of communities as large families. To evaluate the extent to which industrialization, along with its attendant features of urbanization and mobility, has indeed caused an unraveling of the interpenetration of family and community, it is necessary to consider these themes in modern sociology.
Family and community exist within the con text of society, and the changes in developed western society cannot but be reflected in its members, however they are grouped. Thus the phenomena of globalization and of individual ism, so central to discussions of modernity and postmodernity, are also central to discussions of family and community in developed western societies. The development of the concepts of choice, reflexivity, individualization, and globalization in late twentieth century sociology contributed to a rethinking of the bases of social cohesion in groupings such as family and community. For example, Beck (1992) suggests that there is now a much greater element of individual choice regarding participation in community. Giddens (1991) emphasizes the centrality of reflexivity in the project of the self as an aspect of contemporary life, with its attendant obsessive anxiety and lack of focus on the collective. This theme of individualization was further developed by Beck and Beck Gernsheim (2002). All of this suggests a movement away from the ascribed nature of group membership associated with family and community.
Nonetheless, as Bauman (1988: 53) asserts, ‘‘the need for freedom and the need for social interaction – inseparable, though often at odds with one another – seem to be a permanent feature of the human condition.’’ This, in his view, gives rise to the ‘‘dream of community,’’ a fantasy embraced to alleviate the twin fears of loneliness and lack of freedom. Community is in a sense an aspiration. It is one, however, which has tended to enjoy widespread and continuing support, despite exaggerated rumors of its demise. Even very recent work on community attests to positive associations with the concept, despite attention to its potentially negative dimensions.
In the late twentieth century new conceptions of community emerged. Cohen (1985) made a distinction between community as structure and community as symbol. Willmott (1986) distinguished three bases for community; these were locality (‘‘place community’’), communities of interest (e.g., occupational groupings), and communities of attachment (e.g., ethnic communities, or groups of people identified as sharing a disability such as deafness). Although it is impossible to draw firm boundaries around these different conceptions, it would seem that the first one, place community, is most likely to be involved with family. Occupational groupings, for example, are less likely to involve all members of a family, although there are many exceptions to this, as in the case of large scale local employment, local family businesses, or among clergy families. Some have written of ‘‘personal com munities’’ beyond the confines of locality,
encompassing friends and colleagues as well as kin. Others draw on the concept of ‘‘imagined communities,’’ which involve a sense of identification with a notional grouping which does not necessarily involve direct contact (e.g., the idea of nationhood). Recently, too, the idea of Internet communities has also been receiving
attention. Clearly, concepts of community in modern and postmodern times emphasize that community does not necessarily imply propinquity, although it is a relevant dimension of some kinds of community.
In traditional community studies, however, where there was an interpenetration of family and community, the type of community in question was overwhelmingly that which was associated with a geographical locality. The locality was frequently used as the title of the published study, albeit disguised. Examples of this are Greenwich Village by Ware (1935), Middletown in Transition by Lynd and Lynd (1937), Littlejohn’s (1954) Westrigg, Mogey’s (1956) work in Oxford and Williams’s (1956) in Gosworth, Durant’s (1959) Watling, Stacey’s (1960) work in Banbury, Yankee City by Lloyd Warner (1965), Brody’s (1973) Inniskillane, and Dempsey’s Smalltown (1990). It has also been noted that the interpenetration of family and community continues to be an important aspect of life in more recent times in places where there is little geographic mobility. It can be argued, then, that while the interpenetration of family and community can be seen to survive in such studies, it is bound up with geographic locality and the significance of shared place for the establishment of personal relationships. However, geographic locality is not an essential feature of the many new conceptualizations of community identified earlier. Further, even in small, relatively static communities, the amount of face to face interaction may be lessened with the advent of high levels of car ownership and usage.
A relevant feature of the relationship between family and twentieth century concepts of community is the privatization of the domestic sphere. This is hypothesized as coinciding with the separation of paid and unpaid work, most especially perhaps in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and suggests the physical restriction of family life to a limited area. Once communities extending beyond the boundaries of geographic locality became common, and family life became more privatized, the interpenetration of family and community could no longer be taken for granted. Perhaps because of this, family and kin often came to be thought of as a community in itself. Crow and Maclean (2004) draw attention to studies showing the enduring nature of kin support even in the face of geographical mobility.
As the aspiration to some form of community has persisted, so has the aspiration to family. Despite the enduring claims of family crisis – which indeed stretch back into at least the nineteenth century – and individual negative experiences, people still look to this human grouping with hope and longing. Both small scale locally specific and large scale international empirical research attest to its continued importance for ordinary individuals in everyday life. There is also strong evidence for the persistence of intergenerational bonds. In that family continues in general to embody such attributes as supportiveness, solidarity, and identity, it is sometimes represented as a form of community in itself.
However, an essential aspect of community is that it exists on a more inclusive level than that of family. Even in the geographically local community there are networks of friends and neighbors as well as kin. In other forms of community family may not be of more than tangential significance. Community as it is commonly understood in both a traditional and a contemporary sense is greater than individual families and households. It has essential elements of linkage between individuals and the larger social structure which are on a scale different from the linkages offered by family and kin. In that sense it is always different from, even if sometimes interwoven with, family.
It must also be borne in mind that great variations exist in the relations between individual family members and the family’s networks. Such relations are often highly gendered. In Arensberg and Kimball’s (2001) study, for example, while the men went out ‘‘visiting’’ (ag bothantaiocht), women, once married, were largely confined to the home place. In other studies of traditional industries like mining, men are often portrayed as socializing with workmates while their wives were, again, far more home and kin centered. Women have often been seen as central to community life, especially in urban working class settings. In some welfare provision there may even appear to be a confusion of ‘‘community’’ with
‘‘women’’; there has been much comment on how the state has embraced a version of ‘‘community care,’’ which in practice has meant imposing heavy responsibilities for care on the family, and usually on women in the family. In another vein, Bott in her classic study Family and Social Network showed that spouses’ link age with their wider networks varied with the nature of the conjugal role relationship. Other structural factors are also of significance for variations in the family – community relationship, including age, class, ethnicity, and differential power. The significance of local community networks is often a feature of an individual’s stage in the life course. A potential local network is likely to be much more salient for families with young children than for young single employed persons.
A particularly important development is the now widespread engagement of mothers in the paid labor force. This has prompted a rethinking of gender roles. Much of the putative change is in attitude rather than in behavior, but one outcome has been the emergence of a new concern with work–family balance. This in turn has led to a new interest in the related areas of community, work, and family. Indications of this focus are seen in the establishment of the journal Community, Work, and Family in 1998. While the orientation may be changing, there can be no doubt that the themes of family and community will continue to exercise the sociological community on into the twenty first century. While there is change, there is also continuity, and above all there is diversity in the relations between the two phenomena.
Having considered some of the issues relating to the interrelationship of community and family, it is clear that these two aspects of society continue to be of major concern to sociologists. Both are understood differently today, however, than they were by the social theorists of the nineteenth century. Various concepts of community have developed which no longer assume that family is a central component. The emergence of communities of interest and of attachment suggest that the interpenetration of family and community associated with simpler societies is no longer an indispensable feature of community. Globalization contributes to the development of occupational communities not rooted in family or kinship networks (although in the case of employment by transnational corporations in less developed societies these links may endure). However, family and community continue to be closely interwoven in settings characterized by limited geographical or social mobility. Even where there are high levels of such mobility in modern western societies, shared place remains an important basis for the establishment of personal relationships, and technological advances in transport and communication facilitate the maintenance of such relationships. While the relationship between the concepts of family and community has changed, and the dense interpenetration of these phenomena has become attenuated, it is by no means defunct. Notwithstanding the reality of expanded choice and its attendant anxieties in modern society, both family and community have remained central values in western cultures, albeit with more developed conceptualizations of each. These are, after all, the contexts within which most people spend the major part of their lives.
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