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Concepts of Community

There are many ways to think about community. We will explore four of the most relevant, each of which provides different insights into the process of community engagement.

Systems Perspective

From a systems perspective, a community is similar to a living creature, comprising different parts that represent specialized functions, activities, or interests, each operating within specific boundaries to meet community needs. For example, schools focus on education, the transportation sector focuses on moving people and products, economic entities focus on enterprise and employment, faith organizations focus on the spiritual and physical well-being of people, and health care agencies focus on the prevention and treatment of diseases and injuries (Henry, 2011). For the community to function well, each part has to effectively carry out its role in relation to the whole organism. A healthy community has well-connected, interdependent sectors that share responsibility for recognizing and resolving problems and enhancing its well-being. Successfully addressing a community’s complex problems requires integration, collaboration, and coordination of resources from all parts (Thompson et al., 1990). From a systems perspective, then, collaboration is a logical approach to health improvement.

Social Perspective

A community can also be defined by describing the social and political networks that link individuals, community organizations, and leaders. Understanding these networks is critical to planning efforts in engagement. For example, tracing social ties among individuals may help engagement leaders to identify a community’s leadership, understand its behavior patterns, identify its high-risk groups, and strengthen its networks (Minkler et al., 1997). Chapter 6 explores this approach to understanding a community in greater depth.

Virtual Perspective

Some communities map onto geographically defined areas, but today, individuals rely more and more on computer-mediated communications to access information, meet people, and make decisions that affect their lives (Kozinets, 2002). Examples of computer-mediated forms of communication include email, instant or text messaging, e-chat rooms, and social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (Flavian et al., 2005). Social groups or groups with a common interest that interact in an organized fashion on the Internet are considered “virtual communities” (Rheingold, 2000; Ridings et al., 2002). Without question, these virtual communities are potential partners for community-engaged health promotion and research. Chapter 6 focuses on social networking and expands on the virtual perspective.

Individual Perspective

Individuals have their own sense of community membership that is beyond the definitions of community applied by researchers and engagement leaders. Moreover, they may have a sense of belonging to more than one community. In addition, their sense of membership can change over time and may affect their participation in community activities (Minkler et al., 2004).

The philosopher and psychologist William James shed light on this issue in his writings. James thought it important to consider two perspectives on identity: the “I,” or how a person thinks about himself or herself, and the “me,” or how others see and think about that person. Sometimes these two views agree and result in a shared sense of an identity, but other times they do not. People should not make assumptions about identity based on appearance, language, or cultural origin; nor should they make assumptions about an individual’s perspective based on his or her identity (James, 1890). Today, the multiple communities that might be relevant for any individual — including families, workplace, and social, religious, and political associations — suggest that individuals are thinking about themselves in more complex ways than was the norm in years past.

The eligibility criteria that scientists, policy makers, and others develop for social programs and research projects reflect one way that people perceive a group of proposed participants, but how much those criteria reflect the participants’ actual view of themselves is uncertain. Practitioners of community engagement need to learn how individuals understand their identity and connections, enter into relationships, and form communities.

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