Re-discovering community

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I moved to Ireland with my family in the early 1960s, when I was seven years old. We came from a heavily industrialised region of Germany to rural County Westmeath, and one of my earliest memories of that time is of the strong sense of community: there was a feeling of togetherness and of a common life and common interests that, at least at that young age, I had not been aware of in Germany. Of course an active community can also be claustrophobic, and in 1960s/1970s Ireland you became most aware of it when you realised you could do almost nothing that would not become public knowledge within hours. And of course we also know now that the community of the time was concealing some terrible secrets. But it also provided many supports and comforts.

Later I moved to Dublin, and Dublin itself moved into an age of growing prosperity and aggressive materialism, and the sense of community was much less apparent. And yet it could make an unexpected appearance occasionally. I remember, just after I took office as President of DCU, visiting Ballymun (the outer city district just North of DCU, which for a couple of decades had been a centre of urban blight, high rise apartments, bad services, crime and deprivation); what struck me more than the poverty and the rampant social problems was the amazing diversity of voluntary social organisations and societies.

And now, as we have lost our recent up-start prosperity, what appears to be happening is that we are witnessing a return of community ideals. Some recent market research discovered that advertising that makes at least an oblique reference to community values and activities resonates more with potential customers than that which addresses just the consumer-related benefits. Also, organisations that depend on volunteers to run their often charitable activities have witnessed an explosion of offers of help.

It seems that material adversity is bringing out the people and putting them in touch with the community. But there may also be other things at work. Consider, for example, the apparent decline of email as a communications method of choice; this is not a sign that people are returning to writing letters on vellum paper with quill pens, but rather that email is perhaps seen as too private and individualistic, and that communication through social networking sites and applications is attracting younger people in particular: the concept of community for the digital age.

The idea of the community has also been harnessed for social theory and semi-ideological purposes. The German-Jewish sociologist Amitai Etzioni was one of the founders of the ‘communitarian‘ frame of reference, which influenced a number of politicians, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Another noted academic with communitarian ideas is Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who has been influential amongst some politicians in Ireland.  Although it cannot be said that this has become an ideology, nevertheless it has contributed to an interest in the community as a basis for social and economic policies. And it has reinforced the idea that aggressive individualism, unimpeded by any recognition of society, will tend to unravel after a while.

So as we try to make sense of all the events of the past two years or so, it seems that our sense of the community is being re-awakened. That cannot be a bad thing.

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8 Comments on “Re-discovering community”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Of course one of the interesting aspects of this is the extent to which there has or has not been a decline in the sense of community, in other words whether it is perception or reality. As you know the Taskforce on Active Citizenship, which was set up in by Bertie Ahern following his interest in Putnam, discovered that the levels of volunteering in society had not seriously declined during the ‘boom’ years. That’s also one of the criticisms against Putnam’s earlier work in that the forms of association and participation change with time. Similarly for types of political activism and involvement, with a move away from the networks and groups that may have been prominent in the 50s.

    Of course, patterns of housing and planning have indeed had strong influences in for example potentially separating generations from one another, but it is a more complex and dynamic pattern that has emerged with less of a focus on specific geographic location, as you might expect from a mobile society.

    But as you say it will be interesting to see what happens now with the impact of a radically different economic environment and whether people return to ‘place’ as more of an identifier and bring more life to dormitory suburbs, since some unfortunately, through joblessness will be spending less time commuting out!

  2. kevin denny Says:

    Indeed. The rediscovery of community is uneven though: I am thinking of the considerable racism that exists or a certain tension between public and private sectors. I suppose you might say this is between – rather than within- groups but I think that as we face a prolonged period of lower resources there is a real risk of fractionalization. In a sense its easier to be altruistic when the pie is growing than when its shrinking.

    • Perry Share Says:

      The ‘death of community’ has of course been announced many times, and yet the association of people outside of family and workplace continues, albeit in different and varying forms.

      There was a strong discourse during the Tiger years (associated for example with the Céifin conferences and books) that decried the impact of rampant consumerism and individualism – very much expressing traditional Catholic Church viewpoints. But as Iain has pointed out above, the government’s own Active Citizenship report found that engagement with the labour market enhanced one’s likelihood to engage in volunteering activity. So the fall out of the recession in terms of impact on ‘community’ and social capital is hard to predict, but will no doubt keep some of us sociologists busy in the years ahead!

      Of perhaps more immediate interest is the deliberate attempt by the state and most of the media to actively scapegoat the public sector for the recession, in a way that is unprecedented in recent times. Given that many families and communities in Ireland span this spurious divide, it will be interesting to see how this strategy plays out at the ‘community’ level. It may have electoral repercussions in driving those in or sympathetic to the public sector into the arms of Labour and FG, thereby solidifying FF’s trend towards becoming a de facto Tory party.


      • Perry, I think I would have a very different perspective regarding your final paragraph. First, it depends on what you mean by ‘scapegoating’ – certainly nobody I have ever heard talking about this *blames* the public sector for the recession. It is just that government spending has to be reined in, and that by definition means tackling the public sector. Also, your final comment is not realistic – Fine Gael is far more hostile to the public sector than FF, and is much more likely to be the de facto Tory Party, if such comparisons work in Ireland.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Well I’ve certainly heard plenty of people on the radio and elsewhere giving out at length on the pay, conditions, motives,work attitudes and more in relation to public servants.

    For me the campaign started with John McGuinness TD when he stated, on 15 September 2008, that the public sector constituted a ‘reactionary, inert mass at the centre of our economy’. The campaign has continued since then in the Independent press, on RTE, and through the comments of many government TDs and ‘industry’ spokespeople (with ISME, of course, to the fore).

    It may be that strictly speaking such people are not blaming the PS for *causing* the recession, but they are encouraging the Irish public to see it as a major part of the problem. For example, I don’t see much criticism of small enterprises that are operating in the black economy and contributing to the shortfall in taxation, or of those landowners who pocketed vast sums of taxpayer money through infrastructural development.

    I can see that, in the absence of any scope for currency devaluation, there may be some argument for addressing some public pay rates. But it is another matter altogether to carry out a deliberate strategy of targeting one sector of the ‘community’ in the manner that is being engaged in at the moment.

    As for FF and FG, I am happy to accept that as so-called ‘catch-all’ parties they each contain a range of people across the left-right continuum. There are undeniably some very right-wing people in FG – but the party is making the more pro-PS noises at the moment, possibly for strategic reasons. It is actually impossible to determine where they ‘really’ stand on any issue and if they turned into a Tory party tomorrow I wouldn’t be that surprised!

  4. Paul Doran Says:

    Goodness Am I really reading the” Public Sector has to be reined In” what planet on you on. The Public Sector did not cause this.Of course there are service issues within the the Public sector.This crsis was called soley by the lack of regulation in the banking and Government sector spurred on by the likes of Harneys ,McGreevey etc,etc.. Billions of euro are being given via the Pension sector in tax relief, in the many different quangos set up by this Government and previous Government of whatever hue they came from. Labour were as bad. What we need a revolution of sorts organised by the people for the poepl. . We are living in a Country which is run by a clique of people who live within a bubble, who don’t the real meaning of a wage packet.They are grossely incompentent as I am at spelling. They have no sense of what we the Irish people want. A decent wage with a decent Education& Health Service


    • Paul, I don’t think anyone here said the public sector had to be reined in. I said that *government spending* has to be reined in; of course there is a connection, but the meaning is different.

      I don’t think you can reasonably say that the current crisis was caused *solely* by a lack of regulation in banking. There were a number of issues, both domestic and global, and banking was only one of them. Whether this would have been different if we had had more regulation is something I confess I would be sceptical about. Regulation does not solve all problems; indeed it may not solve any of the ones we have recently experienced, but it does make people feel better…

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Getting a bit off-topic, aren’t we? I hope this doesn’t go the way of the IrishEconomy blog!
    There has been a lot of interesting work recently explaining participation in voluntary activities as well as altruism. I have some (currently) unpublished work on this. Although it can be hard to know what to count. So if someone volunteers to run the local kids football club it may be he wants to look out for his kids or indeed it maybe an ego trip. So some deny the possibility of a truly altruistic action. Of course that depends on whetehr you judge an action by its effect or the intent behind it.
    Consistent with some of the remarks above simply having more time on your hands (either because of unemployment or retirement) does not increase the chances of someone volunteering.
    There is some interesting work on religion and the result is, as far as I recall, that Protestants are more likely to volunteer than Catholics. Its not too difficult to figure out why.
    There are big cross country differences too, Americans are much more likely to volunteer than Europeans(a point noted by De Tocqueville no less). In continental Europe there is more of a statist tradition [am writing this from CDG airport as it happens]. I don’t know what the evidence is on the cyclicality of volunteering, presumably its counter-.


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