Community is one of those concepts about which social and cultural geographers worry. It is a difficult term to tie down, and it is used in a myriad of ways by all spectrums of society. In his influential Keywords, Raymond Williams points out that unlike other terms for social relations, such as state and nation, and even society, the term ‘community’ is almost never used unfavorably. Its approbatory character and its abilities to prefigure metaphorical unity make the term valuable to all sides of political debate. Importantly from a geographic perspective, identities forged at other spatial scales, such as home or nation, are easily rolled into struggles over community. The problem for geographers is to decipher this struggle in terms of the ways community elaborates a politics of space.

This article begins with some common wisdom about what constitutes community as a form of social and spatial organization. Then it briefly traces some academic debates on place identity and community embeddedness, and counters these with contemporary problematization of the term as it is applied by neoliberal agendas. This is followed by a discussion of the ways some communities have been ‘emptied out’ and then ‘re placed’ in the last half century.

Tying Down Communities

In some of its traditional configurations, community engenders notions of spatial contiguity as well as a sense of nested belonging. Not all contemporary communities arise within spatially contiguous areas: the terms ‘community’ and ‘neighborhood’ are not always synonymous. Although its modern and postmodern configurations may elaborate communities without propinquity on the Internet and through mobile phone conversations, there are nonetheless important relational and geographic practicalities to these configurations. There is, however, a certain allure associated with the desire for groups of people to live in local arrangements of personal acquaintance, mutual aid, and governance. The continuation of this allure raises important geographic questions, not least of which is the fomenting of an exclusionary sense of place that prohibits access to certain people based on income, ethnicity, age, and so forth.

In that it is often sought after and chosen, community garners significant commodity power. This is perhaps best seen with the rise of so called neotraditional and gated residential communities at the end of last century in a variety of locations around the globe. In many places, these communities by design evoke person centered living and are advertised as immune from urban violence. A penchant for security guards and surveillance systems is hidden in a design that appropriates notions of village life around public space and recreational centers in settings that foster friendly and caring relations between families, and across social and economic classes.

Of further importance politically is the generally held conviction that a community can demand sacrifice of people’s time, money, sweat, and blood. At its more innocuousness, this may entail financial sacrifice to buy into the ideal family oriented community that fulfills desires for social wholeness and security, as well as good schools. Alternatively, undue self sacrifice may be demanded of residents of communities where spatial injustices such as the placement of noxious industries overwhelm the ability of local groups to address those problems. At the deepest level of commitment, political communities in war ravaged parts of the world may suggest an ultimate sacrifice from young suicide bombers.

The notion of individual self sacrifice raises important issues around community expectations and state intervention. Neoliberalism is a term now commonly used to describe particular forms of economic and political relations that favor self governance and a free market ethic applied to all sectors of society. It sets up individuals, communities, and cities – as well as corporations – as self seeking, responsible, economic agents that ensure their own means of survival and improvement. The notion of community in neoliberal parlance suggests increased mutual assistance and self sacrifice. In an essay entitled ‘The trapdoor of community’ in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Steve Herbert suggests that within contemporary neoliberal agendas local communities stand as recipients of devolved authority, and they may legitimate that devolution although, for the most part, and particularly in lower income areas, they cannot fulfill the obligations the state seeks to offload.

Imagining Community as Social and Spatial Organization

In his celebrated essay on ‘Community and society’, Ferdinand To¨nnies set the stage for twentieth century thinking about community with his distinction between modern society (gesellschaft) and premodern communities (gemeinschaft). This dualism informed the twentieth century modernist debate on what constitutes community in terms of social and spatial relations, influencing the thinking of famous social theorists, such as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel. The work of these theorists provides a foundation for contemporary philosophical debates between individualists, liberalists, and communitarianists as well as setting academic foundations for our understanding of urban social and spatial relations.

Gemeinschaft suggests that people are united by deep, horizontal social relations through familial and kinship networks. Place is valued as a primary loci for these networks and limited spatial mobility engenders intensive face to face relations. Place is seen as a circumscribed space within which people interact frequently in highly personalized ways. Gesellschaft does not include notions of place based community and, in spite of uniting factors such as spatial proximity and mutual needs, people live separate, individuated lives. Social relations are based upon efficiency and the contractual obligations of capitalist society. Individuals choose community in the form of special interest groups. Although people in gesellschaft society may live together in spatial proximate ways, these are limited liability communities wherein members share only a physical landscape and perhaps strive for similar material goals, such as the maintenance of property values.

Weber suggests that gesellschaft arises from so called rational capitalist forces, which creates communities for the market where none were previously known. Weber points out that these new communities are increasingly managed bureaucratically, which ‘dehumanizes’ the emotional context of their existence. More darkly, Durkheim’s famous notion of anomie refers to breakdown of social norms in modern urban society to the extent that these norms (such as community based kinship ties) cannot be contextualized by bureaucracy. He argues that individuals cannot find their place in society without clear rules, and changing conditions through modernization as well as adjustment to urban life leads to conflict, deviance, and social pathology. The influence of Durkheim and Weber led Simmel, in his Metropolis and Mental Life, to postulate that a huge burden of urban society was its focus on organization and rationality over emotion and irrationality, and homogenization (through, among other things, bureaucracy), over differentiation and heterogeneity.

Gemeinschaft thinking translates lightly into modern notions of communitarianism, which began in the late twentieth century. Communitarians claim that values and beliefs exist in public space, and take form from debates that take place publicly. They argue that becoming an individual means taking a stance on the issues that circulate in public space. Alternatively, individualism – loosely arising out of gesellschaft – describes a moral, political, and social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of self reliance. Classical liberalism also supports individual rights, and extends this to laissez faire economic policies. Many aspects of classical liberalism are reworked in contemporary neoliberalism, which joins with communitarianism to counter what is seen as individualism’s and liberalism’s emphasis on rights based philosophies over the importance of communal associations in creating morally responsible citizens (note the rise of governmental support for so called faith based social initiatives and ideological pronouncements such as ‘it takes a village to make a child’). As Herbert points out ‘‘the neoliberal move to devolve state obligations resonates with long standing desires to make communities effective sites of moral development and political activity.’’ As pointed out later, local places are increasingly burdened with this moral responsibility at a time when their power (and place) is emptying out.

Simmel’s observations on the fleeting, intense, and diverse nature of modern social and spatial relations presages, to a degree, contemporary globalization, mass air travel, and Internet based virtual communities. Some commentators on the rise of virtual communities as evidenced through websites such as MySpace suggest that digital technologies give rise to a gesellschaft utopianism, precisely because ‘no place’ is ‘every place’. In an important twist to a problematic dualism, Kevin Robbins probes the reasons for the development of these kinds of communities, and questions the nature of a desire that constantly seeks satisfaction through the ‘other’ of any place, which cannot be satisfied by a material place. He suggests that in a move from the modern to the postmodern there is an increased depthlessness to social and spatial relations, which sandwiches individual need for community between the development of war technologies and a growing consumerist needs for inventions like reality television. The latter, Robbins argues, develops as a consequence of need for material connection that is corroded by marketing ‘presence’ (here, now, and immediate). Material presence (not only kinship ties but also violence and terror) is denied by the presentation of images that can be engaged viscerally but do not require reason, analysis, or reflection. For Robbins, the postmodern moment is a precise tension between disengagement and withdrawal on the one hand, and a search for belonging and community on the other.

The Emptying Out of Place-Based Communities

Like Simmel, Durkheim developed To¨nnies’ concepts of community and society in terms of changes in social and spatial organization. In his hugely influential The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim emphasized a progressive division of labor. His notion of organic solidarity as a form of social cohesion grows with increased division of labor in the workplace. Organic solidarity is based upon differences and is distinct from mechanical solidarity that is rooted in families and neighborhoods. Durkheim believed that the loss of mechanical solidarity with modernization is compensated with increases in organic solidarity. In later work, he traces a change from embedded community ties in premodern times to a spatial form of community characterized by what has been termed an ‘emptying out’ of places and their replacement with the formation of new political associations/communities. These new communities are an important move away from earlier romanticization of gemeinschaft, suggesting, for example, new forms of solidarity on the factory floor. Although problematically dualistic, the work of Durkheim suggests a breakdown of categories that presage Henri Lefebvre’s project on The Production of Space. With modernization, Lefebvre argues, we lost the categories that not only comprise everyday ways of apprehending ‘commonplaces’ such as town and community but also common concepts such as history, paternity, and traditional morality. Durkheim’s anomie describes the rootlessness in contemporary social life and then his later work suggests that the loss of embedded communities may be replaced with a new kind of workplace solidarity. For Lefebvre, 80 years later, all that is left with the disintegration of the material conditions of social life are floating, hollow, and abstract metaphors and myths. Robbins post structural perspective on community challenges the hollowness of these myths, but there is still a concern that although contemporary communities may not be hollow, they are placeless.

Placing Communities

Although the twentieth century witnessed the creation of modern communities by design, it was the less tangible ideas of planners and social activists such as Herbert Gans, Jane Jacobs, and Kevin Lynch that influenced debates on what constitutes community. Lynch argued that most important aspect of communities was how they were imagined by those who lived and worked within their borders. His work was primarily at the urban scale but influenced a generation of planners who were disenchanted with efficient, optimized, and people less planning practices. At a smaller scale, Jacobs recognized the virtues of locally based community ties as an important source of satisfaction with day to day life. Inparticular, Jacobs focused on the functioning of localities around key people such as store owners, priests, local politicians, as well as elderly residents who provide ‘eyes on the street’ because they are around so much.

Herbert Gans popularized the term ‘urban villages’ to celebrate the intense social cohesion he witnessed in inner city Boston. This cohesion, he averred, is based upon varied cultural pluralisms that revolve around residents’ varied ethnicities, kinships, occupations, and lifestyles. He described tight territorial based local kinship networks in poor communities that moved across ethnic and lifestyle lines. When Gans extended his work to peripheral suburban communities with his study of Levittown, he encountered a much different style of community. Gans concludes that people in Levittown were unable to reconcile cultural pluralisms because they comprised young families that are inward looking and unable to establish a meaningful relationship between family and community. In an essay on ‘The myth of community studies’, British sociologist Margaret Stacey was one of the first to capitalize on what she saw as the universality of Gans’ work. In Tradition and Change, using Banbury, England, as an example she showed how local patterns of mutual aid and community are disappearing as young families become more affluent and need no longer rely on each other. Countering the work of Simmel and Webber, she nonetheless charged that local community systems, where they existed, were viable cultural products. Her modernist detractors labeled Stacey a romantic with gemeinschaft utopianism for older and mythical community living.

Nonetheless, the dream of suburban community living is still pervasive in Western culture. In a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Michael Dear and Steven Flusty coined the term ‘dreamscapes’ to describe the community based ramifications for middle class consumers of the postmodern esthetic. Described as places for concentrating ‘like activities’ and ‘like people’ in a society of increased interest and commodity specialization; peripheral ‘dreamscapes’; and protected, gentrified, downtown communities create places for affluent groups who can afford to secure their investments against outside influences. They display characteristic forms of architecture, landscaping insurance, surveillance, and security. Part of comfortable middle class living are ‘third places’ that are neither home nor workplace, but somewhere in between that provide another context of community. Third places are places to meet, socialize, relax, work away from the office and places to eat and drink without pressure to consume or move on. The third place is epitomized by the modern coffee shop, with its sofas and newspapers – a revival of its eighteenth century role in community – or by the Internet cafe.

Community as an Impediment to Social and Spatial Justice

Iris Marion Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference brought to the attention of geographers the ways that community as a political category reifies difference. She pointed out that although contemporary society is discursively committed to equality, at the ideological level injustices to those categorized as ‘other’ are veiled in everyday habits and cultural meanings that are embedded in the standard practices of local politics and planning. Sidestepping patterns, Young focuses on variable vectors of power and the oppressions they produce. She takes explicit axes of oppression such as racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia and reformulates them into five broader modalities of power that involve issues of justice beyond distribution; these she labels exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. By so doing, Young is attempting to move beyond neat categories of difference and singular alignments between oppressed and oppressor. By pluralizing the category of oppression in this way, Young opens methodological possibilities that avoid the exclusive and oversimplifying effects of denying difference within groups or leavingout important ways that groups are oppressed. It addresses the problem, for example, that feminists and antiracist theorists have with Marxism’s reduction of all oppressions to class oppression that leaves out the very specific oppressions of Blacks and women.

Young’s argument is also about embodiment and community. By highlighting spaces of local activities as community, identity becomes conflated with a scale of the body that denies difference. The scaling of bodies (what is seen and represented) within community and local activism is criticized by Young because it expresses a desire for the fusion of subjects (such as in dreamscape space and third places) rather than honoring situated selves. The scaling of bodies in so called neotraditional and lifestyle communities reifies racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism. The problem with the search for locally based community is that it is often based on a desire for unity and wholeness, which, in turn, generates borders and exclusions. This desire denies difference in two ways: first, it does not allow a recognition of difference between and within subjects and, second, in privileging face to face relations, it establishes a model of social relations that are not mediated by space and time. Suggesting that the only authentic social relations are in face to face communities detemporalizes the process of social change into a static, before and after structure much like that proposed by To¨nnies. A mythic and romanticized gemeinschaft with nurturing face to face relations is set in opposition to the present gesellschaft of alienation and anomie. This is wholly utopian because it fails to recognize that social relations in both gemeinschaft and gesellschaft are mediated in space and through time. A nurturing notion of community denies difference because it denies the contradictory and ambiguous nature of social and spatial life.

The communitarian model is potentially conservative because its basis in social constructivism collapses to radical relativism if all political positions (and all communities) have the equal status suggested by a neoliberal agenda. Some feminists argue that a communitarian elaboration of community and the so called unitary (or Habermasian) public are problematic in this sense because they suggest a monolithic public sphere to which all communities have access. Rather, they argue ‘for various publics’ that deny a homogenized, mechanistic, and institutional space for democracy and justice wherein communication and consensus may evolve, because such a space denies the practical implications of a social and hierarchical construction of scale that makes access from one scale to another or, alternatively, from a weak to a strong public, difficult. The intractable issue that is broached here highlights the ways political acumen pivots on how local community issues become politically charged at other scales so that they cannot be dismissed as something akin to public housekeeping. Two points are important here: scale as conceptualized here is political, not Cartesian; the local community may not be the most appropriate place for devolved politics.

Durkheim points out that the scale of larger cities means more diversity. This not only may produce anomie but it also means that diversity has more of a chance of being politically charged rather than being suppressed into communal norms or forced underground. Young believes with Gans and Jacobs that larger cities are not oppressive but, rather, they liberate people from conformist pressures. The uncontrived scale of the city celebrates difference because it is about strangers being together and it is about the creation, through the recognition of contradiction and ambiguity, of social justice through the recognition of diversity. The geographic form of Young’s social justice challenges the democratic and neoliberal models of small, decentralized communities for urban decision making. Instead, she prefers as form of social justice at a larger scale, in regional units with mechanisms for incorporating and representing smaller communities. Her regional solution elaborates an important form of mobility through ‘‘ydiverse and unequal neighborhoods, towns and cities, whose residents move in and out of one another’s locales and interact in complex webs of exchange, only a sovereign authority whose jurisdiction includes them all can mediate their relations justly.’’

Reflexive Communities

Young’s regional solution is important in the sense that she produces scale as a deliberate political act. In taking the scale issue out of geography, some have suggested the need for a ‘flat ontology’ that focuses on social and spatial relations rather than scalar hierarchies. In this sense, the notion of communities nested within cities or societies loses its power. Implicit within this redirection of a previously given geography is the loss of traditional divisions between neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions. The importance of this to the geography of community is that it destabilizes current neoliberal rhetoric that assumes the fiscal and legal autonomy of ‘community development block grants’, ‘neighborhood watch’ programs, and associated measures of ‘community policing’, and so forth. Neoliberal support for autonomous local communities ties into their ability (1) to evaluate and act upon policies based upon day to day experience, and (2) to act collectively in a noncoerced way. Herbert counters this empirically, arguing that citizens for the most part do not see their community as a communal mechanisms for political action. Rather, residents across economic classes want to ‘‘locate themselves firmly in a known and supportive locale wherein they can understand their place and minimize their vulnerability to the unexpected and undesirable.’’

In his rendering of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson famously states that ‘‘communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined,’’ and this imagination is sufficient to build nations and statehood. The chimera of how we imagine community politically is precisely its usefulness for geographers. However vague, the notion of community elaborates generally nurturing meanings, and is almost always something people desire. It is the tension between imagination, desire, and political manipulation that sets the most important stage for geographic inquiry.