Community vs Society: we tend to interchange the two terms, but they are different— inclusive vs exclusive, tolerance vs intolerance.
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.
Community Pages, Society Pages
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.
Organization of Community vs Society
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 important, because in fact societies are strictly organized, while communities tend to comprise dynamic, fluid associations. Which perhaps explains the difference: societies do not need organizers, and communities, being so eclectic in diverse, do.
The ‘Important’ People
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.
As an example, 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: verticality. Society is a vertical hierarchy, where everyone understands their ‘place’. The community, by contrast, is horizontal, egalitarian. In the community, people of all ages, ethnic and educational groups, live and work together in a collegial atmosphere. Anyone who wishes to contribute to the larger community is welcome. Society, of course, includes only a small number of people who exceed established criteria for wealth, beauty, fame, or similar superficial attributes.
Community vs Society
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 are 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.
And we inherit the problems of the society from the authoritarian régimes of the past.
Next: Society vs Humanity.
Image courtesy of Pexels.
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.|