Shared experience and community

I spent last weekend up in Boston hanging out with TEPs, most of whom were younger folks that had joined TEP years after I had left Boston. And yet I felt reasonably at home with them. I continue to be fascinated by these questions of what makes a community and how community is linked to identity, and had some more thoughts on the subject while riding the bus back to New York.

I’ve rejected the idea that shared experience alone makes a community. Going to high school together, going to work together, living in the same building – all of these create some sort of connection, but it’s not enough for a community to thrive. There has to be a combination of selection and commitment to create a community out of shared experience. But what if the shared experience involves elements of both selection and commitment?

Sharing a rite of passage may be enough to create a community. As Seth Godin points out in his book The Dip, there are challenges in life that we have to push through in order to reap the benefits on the other side. He calls such challenges “The Dip”, but one could also call them rites of passage. Regardless of the name, such experiences create a meaningful shared experience to those who have survived them, because survivors share a level of commitment (to have pushed through The Dip), and a level of selection (only certain people can make it through a given Dip). And given my theory that those two elements add up to community, it makes sense that such rites of passage are used in all sorts of communities. Let’s take some examples:

  • Tribes used to have rites of passage that required bloodshed. Similarly, fraternities have their hazing rituals. To survive such rituals required commitment and served as a means of selection that every community member had shared.
  • Lawyers have the bar exam. Two lawyers may have gone to law school at different universities, take the bar exam in different states, but still be able to share memories of their law school classes and their experiences of frustration and trepidation when taking the bar.
  • Grad students have the grad school experiences of TA’ing, studying for and passing the quals, then the years of loneliness and craziness of research and writing the thesis.
  • MIT students have, well, MIT. MIT students share similar experiences of having stayed up all night studying and hard classes such as junior lab, unified, or 6.170.
  • TEP had experiences like Rush (when we got about 3 hours of sleep a night for a week while identifying and recruiting the freshmen that we liked), Work Week, and just the general grind of classes as above.

I like this theory because it explains why I feel that instant communities have little or no value. Because there is no Dip, no rite of passage, there’s nothing that has created shared experiences, the stories that define the community. Rooting for a sports team by putting on a baseball cap has no meaning – there’s no commitment or selection process that can ground a community. But rooting for a sports team your whole life, and being able to share experiences of heartbreaking losses and thrilling victories, creates a bond that can form the basis of a community.

Such shared experiences of the rituals necessary to become a community member have the result of creating those community members in a certain image. Phil Agre once wrote a piece where he observed that the point of grad school isn’t to write a thesis – it’s to turn the grad student into a full-fledged member of the academic field. These rites of passage use the elements of selection and commitment to forge community applicants into community members by giving them a community of identity.

Such shared experiences are also why I can feel so comfortable around people that I’ve barely met, as often happens with TEPs. They are all the same people – even though the names have changed, the stories they tell and the experiences they have had remain the same.

I’ll have to play around with these ideas of selection and commitment creating community some more. I think there may be some interesting stuff here. We’ll see if I have time to develop any thoughts with classes starting tonight, though.

2 thoughts on “Shared experience and community

  1. hmm… I’m not sure I like your idea that there is a universally shared definition of “community.” I would argue that a “community” is defined by its members. Perhaps you are comfortable in communities that are defined by “selection and commitment,” or that have a shared “dip,” but that doesn’t work for everyone. I have gone through the ‘hazing’ (if you will) ritual for the riding community, but I do not consider myself a part of that community. They define themselves in ways that I am not comfortable with, and despite shared experiences, there is often little for me to talk about with other riders. It is a community, by your definition, that I am technically very much a part of, but it is not something that I consider to be a part of my identity.
    I find that I have a connection to girls with whom went to boarding school, even if we were not friends, and neither selected or committed to a “community.” There is a shared experience that creates a bond that, like you and TEPs, even when I don’t even know it is there, there is a connection. It is a community that has developed without effort exerted by any one person. We accept it as an invisibly bonded community. That is how we are comfortable defining it.
    I would most certainly define myself as a member of several communities that I have not been selected to, nor have I committed to. Sometimes it is a shared lexicon that permits me to call myself a member, or for other members to recognize me. Sometimes it is a shared skill. But I find that different communities define themselves in unique ways that suit the needs of the members.
    I require less definition to my community membership, so I am comfortable as a member of more loosely organized communities. And I am not a member of communities that define themselves in ways that do not meet my needs. So my definition of “community” (as a group that I am a part of and a way that I self-identify) would be different from yours because I have different needs that are met by my “communities.”

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