What makes a community?

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be part of a community. There’s so much mixed up in it that I’m having trouble disentangling all the threads, so I’m going to do what I always do and blog to try to make sense of it.

One thread is the community of family. Families are weird, because we don’t get to choose them, and yet we do to some extent. We’re born with a certain set of relatives, but we choose which members of the family we want to spend time with. This past weekend, my sister was visiting me, and we had brunch with our cousin. What struck me was that my sister is much closer to our cousin than I am – she stayed at the cousin’s apartment for a couple weeks a few summers ago, she’s spent a summer in Korea visiting that side of the family, etc. I have seen my cousin only a couple times since moving here, with all but one meeting spurred by visits from my mother or sister. My sister and I have the same blood connection to our cousin, but we choose how much importance to place upon that connection.

Another thread is the community of the workplace. As somebody that has worked at several different companies now, it’s interesting how workplace issues that once dominated my life now seem so unimportant. They were important to me then, as I was spending eight hours a day in that environment, but when I left that environment, they no longer mattered.

And the same holds true for coworkers. There are certain former coworkers with whom I keep in touch. But many of them disappear from my immediate consciousness, only thought of when I need something that they might be able to provide. It’s a bit like Beemer’s description of high school reunions, where you realize all that you had in common was that you spent all your time together.

There’s also the community of my Columbia program. After eight months of seeing these people two or three times a week, it’s been a little bit odd for that to stop. There will be parties and bar nights and get-togethers over the summer, but it will be interesting to discover how much of our community was based in the shared experience of the slog of classes. What will we talk about over the summer without the handy conversation starter of our class experience?

One possibly unexpected non-community is my building. I’ve lived in my building for over a year now, and have no connection to anybody else that lives here. Our living arrangements used to be a strong basis for community, and still are in many neighborhoods, but I’m no longer required or even expected to know my neighbors.

And, of course, no blog post of mine on community would be complete without mentioning TEP. I posted about the ways in which the TEP community renews itself, from email lists and blogs to social gatherings to trips. But, as Beemer pointed out in the comments, there’s also an element of self-selection leading me to feel closer to TEPs than other people – it’s a community of identity. It’s why at my housewarming party last year, my coworker mistook a couple of us for being old friends despite having met only once before – the shared identity and experience of TEP made the bond stronger than it “should” have been based on our actual common experience.

So what are the common characteristics here? What makes a community?

There’s an element of selection. If somebody doesn’t fit in, it doesn’t matter how hard or how long they try – they will never be a member of the community. They may eventually be tolerated at the outskirts of the community, but there will be an inner clique that finds ways to avoid including them. There are “communities” that have no selection, like being a Cubs fan, but those communities are less satisfying.

There’s an element of commitment. We each have a limited amount of time and energy in our lives, and where we choose to spend it indicates our community memberships. Because I spend a lot of time at work, even though that isn’t necessarily a strong community of mine, it creates the artificially high level of camaraderie from the shared experience of spending that much time together. And commitment doesn’t just mean time – I don’t spend as much time with the TEPs, but I’d do a lot more for one of my TEP brothers than I would for a coworker. Between the two factors of time and energy, we have the ability to choose which of our multiple communities matter to us – family or religion or college friends or high school friends or coworkers, etc.

The strength of commitment also matters. Sometimes we just choose to be part of a community. Whether it’s a family or a church or an office, we decide that we’re going to make this community work. This is something that’s been fluttering around my brain – I sometimes wonder if my generation, with its plethora of choices, shies away from making these sort of committed choices. We continue searching for the perfect fit without realizing that there’s no such thing – that the perfect fit is not a prerequisite, but a result, of commitment.

And we know how to make that sort of unlimited commitment. We all function with our families to some extent, despite not getting to choose our family members. And I wonder whether we could make other communities work if we didn’t give ourselves a choice. Maybe that’s why arranged marriages allegedly have a lower divorce rate than marriages of choice – they just find a way to make it work rather than giving up and going onto the next thing. If we decided to make our offices work as a community, rather than dreaming of the next opportunity, could we turn our office into the office of our dreams? It depends – there’s still that element of selection. No matter how hard you try, some people will not function well together. But it does make me wonder if I gave up too easily on a couple of my previous workplaces.

So communities are at the intersection of selection and commitment. When I started this post, I expected there to be more factors, but I think that’s it. When those two factors overlap, when a group of people selects each other and commits to shared goals, the community really works. Anything less than that, and the community will limp along until circumstances change or other opportunities arise and then the community will dissolve away.

P.S. I just upgraded to WordPress 2.2 – let me know if anything looks weird.

One thought on “What makes a community?

  1. “Perfect fit is not a prerequisite, but a result, of commitment.”

    I think you have just articulated the problem of some of our biggest cultural myths about relationships.

    I (obviously) don’t really think there’s such a thing as a soulmate – there’s no “s/he’s The One”. Or rather, there are *lots* of Ones, and a lot of people who could become The One as time goes on.

    And, contrariwise, just because someone was The One ten years ago doesn’t mean they still are now. We all grow and change over time. This is why marriage (or the functional equivalent) is a lot of work: if the growth is random, you’re just as likely to grow apart as together. (More likely, if you’re already close.) So you have to keep nudging things to keep them on track.

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