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Defining Community

Defining Community

By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Social Work


The idea of community has played an important role in American and social work history. As with most history the concept’s definition has changed over time. In some eras there are competing definitions which mirror existing social tensions. R. Jackson Wilson’s In Quest of Community: Social Philosophy in the United States (Wilson 1970) looks at community definitions from this country’s founding through the First World War.

Until the Civil War to be oriented to the community as a social reference was in conflict with Individualism which was the dominant American philosophy. The way these ideas played against each other illuminates an important part of the American experience, one that continues to be active today.

At the time of this country’s initial settlement the Puritan ideal comprised the dominant value system. This was expressed through a strong religious community that valued stability and unity. The Puritan hegemony of the 1630’s could not be maintained against the powerful forces that were shaping the country. Immigrants came from many countries, land was free and plentiful and people rapidly moved beyond the borders of New England. The new immigrants were heterogeneous and not part of the small tight homogeneous communities united in their belief in God that distinguished Puritan culture.

The Puritans who had come here in a search for freedom found themselves engaged in frequent and often coercive struggles, sometimes with rebels within their ranks, trying to maintain their way of life. One group’s sense of freedom became another’s sense of tyranny. Wilson says, “These processes as they pushed in an amplified way into the nineteenth century, created a society whose dynamic was centrifugal and whose public ideology was individualism “(p. 2).

In colonial America most of the leading intellectuals were ministers or closely affiliated with the church. They developed the first Universities and became its professors. They dominated Ivy League Universities until well into the twentieth century. This meant that early American ideas of community centered on defining some relationship to God.

One important value clash centered on the Unitarian church which developed in America as a reaction against the strictures of Calvinism. It was dominant at Harvard but had come to be seen as conservative. A small group of New England ministers and intellectuals moved beyond Unitarianism to Transcendentalism. It included such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Their ideas were radical but they did not particularly disturb society. Nature was substituted for economy and social institutions. As Emerson put it no one could own the view of the landscape. God was present in each individual and each individual through his own intuition and not through organized religion reached his accommodation with God. They were also reformers and influential in the abolition movement. To be one with nature was the ideal. Wilson comments that if an individual achieves such a Nirvana he loses his identity. The problem of the relationship between society and the individual remained.

While these ideas never became particularly influential in the way society was run they did and continue to have a powerful influence on American values. As Thoreau put it, “America is the land where people still believe that the individual can achieve whatever he wants to. It is a land where people are optimistic about the future.”

This nineteenth century individual, then, was anti-historical and anti-institutional. But he had a great deal of trouble living in this world. In great American novels such as those by Hawthorne and Melville individuals struggled against society and usually came to a tragic end. Utopian communities such as Brook Farm failed. Communities were seen as foreign to American values. These included such thing as colonial America, Catholicism, the South, Europe, or those who espoused some utopian future. Wilson says it is no accident that the first two books in this country to use sociology in the title were defenses of slavery. In short, the community was seen as opposed to the individual.

The United States entered the second half of the nineteenth century without a satisfactory philosophical solution to the relationship between the individual and society. Wilson reviews the work of five thinkers who struggled with this problem. These are Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse), James Mark Baldwin, Edward Alsworth Ross, Granville Stanley Hall, and Josiah Royce. They all, except for Peirce, were distinguished and influential professors. They all struggled with trying to understand the relationship of the individual and the community and they all couched this work in terms of morality and a relationship to God.

Peirce’s vehicle for achieving community was logic. William James said he was the brightest man of the nineteenth century. He was also a tortured person who never held a full time job and died in poverty. Despite this he is considered to be the forerunner of logical positivism, the creator of pragmatism and instrumentalism, and the developer of the idealism that Royce later adopted.

To Peirce truth was an ideal value, one which didn’t have to have any particular use. Science was a calling in the same sense that one feels called to the ministry. A community of scholars was seen as overcoming the defects of individualism. He could not, however, eliminate the individual in his philosophical work. He rejected evolution and the turmoil it brought to the intellectual and scientific world.

James Mark Baldwin thought in terms of a moral community. He started as a laboratory psychologist and ended as a social philosopher with a strong bent toward metaphysics. His major teaching jobs were at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University. A product of the South he yearned for harmony between the past and the future. Extreme individualism or collectivism was dangerous. He wanted change but it had to be consistent with traditional inherited morality. Moral skepticism threatened society. He thought it possible to put a scientific foundation under this morality. To him science and religion were different aspects of the same truth. The university was a center of morality. Society was supposed to produce an individual who was comfortable in the community.

This theory of social man justified both the individual and the community. This was the moral balance he searched for, but never found. He was an elitist who saw the common man as easily led and the Progressives as insincere and stifling individuality. In echoes of today’s issues Wilson says it was his opinion that “Americans believed too thoroughly in democracy, put too much faith in the judgment of the average man. They even thought they could export democracy immediately to any country.” (p. 80)

Edward Alsworth Ross, a sociologist, approached the problem through what he saw as the issue of natural man. Accepting Darwin he saw man as having lost his innate conscience. He was a product of the Midwest and longed for the small town atmosphere which he saw threatened by the urban environment of both coasts and their immigrant populations. In a noted case he was fired from Stanford University for objecting to the use of Chinese immigrants in building the Union Pacific railroad. He spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin.

In his idealized Midwest community there was a proper balance between the individual and the community, for here there was both morality and organization. Following Darwin he did not see man as innately moral but rather as someone on whom morality had to be imposed. The answer was social control. This was the title of his most famous book.

Since the modern world was chaotic he committed himself to the idea of reform. The university was to be a reforming institution and the professor a reformer. The sociologist was to be an activist but also objective. While the self was developed socially and religion was important for its social effects the aim was to have man united in a brotherhood under the fatherhood of God. He never did find a satisfactory answer to the relationship between the individual and the community.

Granville Stanley Hall was a psychologist and he thought in terms of a genetic community. He spent 35 years as president of Clark University. He yearned for the ethical pre-industrial world. His approach to solving this problem was to use the evolutionary theory of recapitulation, which he saw as a program for good conduct. The source of evil was individual needs bred by the consumerism of an industrial world. Adolescence was the high point of recapitulation in human development. Adolescence was also the title of one of his major works. He eventually became more of a philosopher than a psychologist and never did achieve his dream of creating a synthesis between individual, community, and biblical ethics.

Josiah Royce was a philosopher, an idealist, who sought a moral community to solve the problem of the individual and society. He was also enough of a realist to believe that the good of community would control the evil of individualism but never completely conquer it. Royce was a Californian who spent most of his career at Harvard. Idealism means that the only facts are ideas. Much of Royce’s work centered on his effort to project his idyllic view of the California of his youth against what he saw as the alienation present in American life because of individual desires. Influenced by Darwinism he saw man’s soul as socially created through imitation.

To him science was deterministic and therefore scientists do not have desires. Ethics consisted of novelty and chance. The ethical person dealt with life’s uncertainty. Since science could not describe the real world his universe had both novelty and order. He later realized that such an absolute view couldn’t hold so in the name of community, loyalty became the key to creating a harmonious world where both the individual and community were at peace. It was a reluctant solution since he saw also saw men as doomed to be individuals.

Each of these thinkers struggled to develop some understanding of how individual and society could peacefully co-exist. While they had varying degrees of relationship with organized religion they all were concerned with morality and having some understanding of God’s role in the world. In one way or another they all reluctantly concluded that you could not completely do away with individualism even though it was variously viewed as evil or dangerous. The sense of membership, though greatly desired as a moral good, was simply not enough to have a peaceful progressive world.

What stands out is that they held as the ideal the small town community that was disappearing even in their day. We have never developed a satisfactory ethic for urban for urban life. Historically the city has been depicted as a center of sin. It is the home of music, art, theater, and all sorts of individualist expression. These things have always been viewed with suspicion by traditionalists.

When social workers today talk of creating communities are they also looking for a morality and a way of life that no longer exists and is not compatible with urban living? I don’t have the answer to that question but I do think we need to examine the implications of current definitions of community. For example, the largest recent effort at community organization was during the War on Poverty. Structures were created and people were supposed to be able to express themselves through these organizations. The only problem was that they did not use the opportunity. Was this a failure of the people or the conception of community that was presented to them?

Another example concerns the New York City school system which tried to have local boards of education. This experiment was marked by strife and corruption and did not improve the children’s education. Once again the question is was this a failure of the people or the conception of community that was presented to them.

Wilson’s work offers excellent heuristic structures for analyzing the assumptions behind the definitions of community social workers use and the types of programs which are set up and based on the assumptions implicit in these definitions. The tension between society’s rights and individual rights has never been resolved. It shouldn’t be. The continual effort to balance community and individual rights is what keeps democracy alive.


Wilson, R. J. (1970). In quest of community: social philosophy in the United States, 1860-1920. London, New York, Oxford U.P.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). Defining community. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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