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What is a community?


Different kinds of communities can exist even within the boundaries of one city. But what exactly is a community? Most definitions of this construct include the following attributes:

  • same location (not always, e.g. online communities)
  • same basic values and social norms
  • same interests (e.g. economic or political)
  • a shared sense of belonging and identity

To identify, analyse and “cure” health problems within a community, the community must first be “diagnosed”. Just as a physician has to diagnose various systems within a patient (e.g. respiratory system), we need to look at five different systems within a community to come to a diagnosis:

(1) Social system: Defines basic units (e.g. family) and their roles in the community
(2) Political system: Defines power relations between groups and leadership roles
(3) Cultural system: Defines the basic beliefs, values and norms of the community
(4) Economic system: Defines how resources are distributed and incomes are generated
(5) Geographic system: Defines where resources are located and how available space is used

Community maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) today play an important role in community diagnosis. They can help to identify different social groups, find out who has access to which resources and what infrastructure is available. It is preferable to include the communities in the process of map-making to find out how people within the community see things.

Four important characteristics of communities are:

(1) Identity: Identity is defined as a sense of belonging and sharing a common destiny as well as a common set of values and norms. In a community with a strong identity, people tend to trust each other, get along well and are able to work towards common goals.

(2) Integration: A high level of integration is reached through interaction within a community. Such interaction can be observed on self-organized markets or at cultural festivals.

(3) Group orientation: In a community with high group orientation, the needs of the group take preference to the needs of single individuals. A sign for a high group orientation can be a strict system of social control.

(4) Linkages: Linkages are defined as the connections of the community to the outside world through individual or institutional channels. A community which is represented in the national government by representatives out of their own midst is, for example, a well-linked community. Thus, the linkage of the community defines whether they are more or less cut off from the outside world or whether they have the ability to communicate their needs to journalists and politicians.

By analysing these basic characteristics, we can identify six basic community types:

(1) Integral community: An integral community has a strong sense of identity and a high level of integration while also being highly linked to the outside world.

(2) Parochial community: A parochial community has a strong sense of identity and a high level of integration. Links to the outside world are, however, minimal, thus the community is cut off.

(3) Diffuse community: A diffuse community is characterised through a strong sense of identity and belonging as well as a low level of integration. In these communities, which often consist of a strong and homogeneous middle class, outside linkage takes preference to inside integration. As a result, diffuse communities exhibit a low intensity of community life and activities.

(4) Stepping-stone community: Most members of a stepping-stone community are looking to move forward to other communities with a higher socio-economic status. Thus, the identification with the current community is rather weak while outside linkage is high.

(5) Transitory community: A transitory community is a community where a population change is currently under way. Due to the changes within the community, there is usually little community organization and integration. If changes occur too fast, the community might break up into “newcomers” and people who have been living in the community for a longer period of time.

(6) Anomic community: An anomic community is pretty much a failed community. It is weak on all points: identity, integration, group orientation and linkage. Anomic communities are usually not able to mobilize strength for common action without outside intervention.

These lecture notes were taken during 2012 installment of the MOOC “Community Change in Public Health” taught by Prof. Dr. William R. Brieger of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at Coursera.org. Prof. Brieger blogs under www.malariamatters.org and can be found on twitter as @bbbrieger.
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