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What is Community?

An illustration.

Seth Kaplan
Seth Kaplan
Seth D. Kaplan is a lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on fragile states and societies. He is working on a book on reversing social breakdown.

Community as an ideal gets thrown around a lot these days, but fewer and fewer are experiencing it. It tends to get conflated with “sense of community,” which can emanate from friendships and certain kinds of social networks, the experience of working with a dedicated group of volunteers or in a close-knit organization, serving a social movement or being part of a dynamic chain of individual relationships. All these provide psychic and civic benefits, but they fall short of a true community’s demands and rewards.

An actual community is much harder to create and, especially in the modern West, still harder to sustain. It requires commitment to a certain social order—and, crucially, a place—that by definition must constrain individual choice. In return for security, support, and belonging, members surrender some of their freedom.

In a North American context increasingly allergic to constraints imposed from beyond the self, there are fewer and fewer examples of the rich kinds of community we crave—few want to compromise their privacy and surrender their freedom. Aside from the military, interestingly, most of the reigning examples of covenantal commitment tend to be religious. In my own Orthodox Jewish community, the great practical, moral, and personal support each member treasures comes at a price woven into the very fabric of our interdependence. Each one of us is expected to adhere to a particular lifestyle and uphold certain responsibilities. We must live within walking distance of our place of worship, keep the Sabbath and frequent holidays, and send our children to one of the community’s schools. We must also be available to help others—mentoring youth, donating money, volunteering for work. To earn acceptance and respect, we must model good behaviour at all times.

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