We tend to interchange the words ‘community’ and ‘society’,1)I should note that Community and Society is the name of an influential book by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. The original title of his work, however, was Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, which I personally think would be better translated as Fellowship and Partnership. The traditional translation of the title has unfortunately shifted the meaning of these terms in the behavioral sciences, and here I prefer to apply the more common usage of the words. but the two generally describe very different situations.
Consider the community and society pages in the newspaper. The community pages focus on people of different ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds coming together, working toward some goal, frequently targeting the young, the weak or the vulnerable.
In contrast, it is hard to imagine members of the social register holding a car wash, unless perhaps the media were present, making the event a chic publicity appearance. Because what we find in the society pages are the wealthy, the fashionable, and the powerful, networking in prestigious activities. Society functions are exclusive events, and their exclusivity reminds the rest of us that we are not one of the elect.
There is also the community center vs the society club. People gather at both, but the membership, the functions, and the goals of each are quite different. The community center is typically funded by the whole community, and everyone is welcome. Most of us, on the other hand, couldn’t afford the society club, even if for some reason we were invited.
We also find no ‘society organizer’ who corresponds to the ‘community organizer.’ This is interesting because in fact societies are strictly organized, while communities tend to comprise dynamic, fluid associations. And similar to what we noted in the community pages and community center, community organizers bring everyone together for some collective, and typically democratic, action.
Consider that in a society there are ‘important’ people – strongly implying that everyone else is unimportant. In the community, everyone is important, at least everyone who shares the goals of the group. I think of Otis Campbell, the town drunk in Andy Griffith’s fictional town of Mayberry. Otis holds down a job, he is kind and considerate of others, and he is honest – so honest that when he is drunk, he locks himself in the jail, and Andy keeps the keys within easy reach for him to come and go. In a community, people are measured for the content of their character, despite any human flaws or lack of social graces.
Finally, there is no ‘high community’ corresponding to ‘high society.’ This, to my mind, is the signal insight. In the community, people of all ages, ethnic and educational groups live and work together in an egalitarian setting. Anyone who wishes to contribute to the larger group is welcome. Society, of course, includes only a small number of people who exceed established criteria for wealth, beauty, fame, or similar superficial attributes.
If we look over the preceding, we can see that societies tend to be vertical hierarchies, and they are strictly organized by tier level. In contrast, communities tend toward horizontal networks.
From those two simple distinctions, widely divergent world views emerge. Horizontal communities tend to be inclusive, vertical societies exclusive. Community inclusiveness creates tolerance, while the exclusiveness of society mandates intolerance. Tolerance creates systems that are open: open to different people, open to different ideas, and therefore open to new possibilities – in essence, open-minded. Society requires a system that is closed: closed to those who are different, closed to new approaches (other than fashion), and ultimately, close-minded.
So communities are egalitarian and democratic, societies elitist and authoritarian. And vice versa: democracies encourage community, and authoritarians create societies.
These differences are important for understanding modern problems, as the world transitions from a situation of intellectual and social constancy, to rapid progress and change.
Tomorrow: Society vs Humanity.
Image courtesy of CityOfEvanston.org.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I should note that Community and Society is the name of an influential book by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. The original title of his work, however, was Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, which I personally think would be better translated as Fellowship and Partnership. The traditional translation of the title has unfortunately shifted the meaning of these terms in the behavioral sciences, and here I prefer to apply the more common usage of the words.|