Posted tagged ‘communitarian’

Re-discovering community

December 11, 2009

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.