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Community, Social Imaginaries and Capacity Building

On January 20, 2021, during his inaugural address, President Biden highlighted the need for unity among all Americans as a path forward in “our historic moment of crisis and challenge” (Biden, 2021). He viewed fear and othering as impediments to the nation’s residents ability to view each other as neighbors and not adversaries: “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart” (Biden, 2021). The President’s examples of the nation’s solidarity through the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and after 9/11 prompt one to ponder under what circumstances individuals overcome their innate fear, treat each other with respect and dignity and join forces to achieve a shared vision. This essay examines definitions of community and of the social imaginary. It also explores the process by which individuals and groups move from self-centered goals to a more balanced, longer-term view of the individual as a part of a broader community or communities whose members’ interests and perspectives also matter in social choice-making.

Tönnies (2002) differentiated between Wesenwille (natural will) and Kürwille (rational will) as he considered how to define “community.” Wesenwille varies in the degree of rationality it evidences and, “is derived from the temperament, character and intellectual attitude of the individual, whether it has its origin in liking, inclination, habit or memory” (2002, p. 5). Kürwille, meanwhile, as a product of thinking, “possesses reality only with reference to its author, the thinking individual” (p. 103) who “desires to order and define everything according to end, purpose or utility” (p.141). According to Tönnies, natural will manifests more broadly in Gemeinschaft (community) in which tradition and sense of solidarity rule, whereas rational will blooms in Gesellschaft (society). Since individuals’ conduct is neither wholly instinctive, nor completely reasoned in practice, all societies evidence elements of both kinds of will.  As a result, this continuum, compared to polar-type formulations, is very helpful in conducting a comparative analysis of social phenomena, including social capacities (Tönnies, 2002).

Tönnies’ ideal types of community and society have other counterparts in the social sciences. Another sociologist, for example, Émile Durkheim (2014 [1893]), has argued that mechanical solidarity “results from homogeneous beliefs and sentiments common to all members of the group” and organic solidarity “supposedly result[s] from heterogeneity, with different and special functions united by definite relationships” (pp. xxviii–xxix). Weber’s (2009 [1947]) formal rationality (simple means-ends rational calculation) and substantive rationality (in relation to past, present or potential value postulates), and Sorokin’s (1947) familistic (based on mutual love, sacrifice and devotion) and contractual (rooted in sober calculation of advantage) are among the most notable of other such related categorizations.

From another perspective, Gusfield (1975) has defined community as a geographical area recognizable by a set of attributes tied to its physical location or appearance, such as natural boundaries; an acknowledged history; demographic patterns; or the presence and work within it of particular industries or organizations.  Nonetheless, community may also refer to social attributes and interests—such as language, customs, class or ethnicity—that inhabitants share and commonly use to designate themselves as a collective entity, regardless of geographic proximity. These characteristics are not mutually exclusive and can arise in combination, especially in older cities/towns in which patterns of immigration and settlement form geographically distinct areas whose populations evidence unique sets of sociocultural characteristics.

Chaskin (2013) has added a third lens through which to view communities by incorporating both social and spatial dimensions. He has suggested that community is, “a political unit [used as] a basis for representation, collective deliberation, mobilization, and actions” (Chaskin, 2013, p. 112). Therefore, it follows that a community exists when it acts and “is defined in these instances by the range of actors and interactions collectively engaged toward some common purpose”(Chaskin, 2013, p. 112). There are two major challenges implicit in this description: first, whether and in what ways individuals and groups with differing values can negotiate and agree to shared purposes on which they are prepared to act. Second, how those who do develop a shared social imaginary first develop the capacity of coalescing to co-create that narrative. I follow Charles Taylor’s (2004, 2007) definition of social imaginary as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others” (2004, p. 23). Studying Taylor and Steger’s work on social imaginaries, James (2019) has concluded that,

[A]n imaginary is not the particular ideas or beliefs held by people, but the collation of those ideas in a larger social frame […] it is a lived and generalizing sensibility held by the many […] A social imaginary is determined by current ideas and practices constituted in relation to meanings and practices of the past […Finally] an imaginary is not totalizing, but rather a cultural dominant, layered across prior and emerging imaginaries (James, 2019, p. 41).

According to Chaskin, an a priori assumption concerning identity and cohesion can lead to romanticizing local communities based on a misplaced view of a past "golden age." Manifestations of such social imaginaries have been prevalent in U.S. presidential campaigns since at least 1940.[1] This penchant prevents the acknowledgment and appreciation of difference, underplays the intrinsic reality of conflict and segmentation amidst social pluralism and ignores broader questions, “of structure and agency that shape community circumstances from both inside and out, through the decisions and actions of political and market actors” (Chaskin, 2013, p. 109).

To assume that communities can and do act as collectivities is problematic for several reasons. First, empirical studies have documented serious gaps in local social organization and a relative dearth of truly community-oriented action (Wilkinson, 1991), especially in rural areas. Localities do act, of course, but they typically do so intermittently and primarily in reaction to perceived crises (Luloff, 2019). Even in communities that can be characterized as active, there tends to be relatively little coordination among actors and actions; that is, and typically, different groups pursue specific objectives largely in isolation in most communities most of the time.

 Second, the available data concerning economic development efforts—an aspect of local governance that surely plays an important role in strategies to create sustainable communities—suggests that leadership and participation in such initiatives is limited primarily to elites whose interest in development often has more to do with private profit than social well-being (Logan and Molotch, 2007). Finally, and importantly, historical developments, such as increasing contact with, and reliance on, extra-local institutions and sources of income and employment amidst ongoing economic and social globalization, have eroded local autonomy. With the solidification of this trend, "… the locus of decision-making … often shifts to places outside the community” (Phillips, 1969, p. 368).

In response to such challenges, Anheier has suggested that “to achieve a healthy functioning of community the interplay between involvement and trust in civil society is central” (2014, p. 91). Other scholars have similarly contended that communities develop and their populations’ well-being is enhanced when residents work together to address shared concerns and problems. For example,  Robinson and Green have observed that, “community agency and corresponding development can be seen as the process of building relationships that increase the capacity of local people” to unite and act (2011, p. 90). Give its significance, it is important to seek to understand the processes by which community capacity develops within communities. Chaskin has defined community capacity as,

the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of that community … through informal social processes and /or organized efforts by individuals, organizations, and social networks that exist among them and between them and the larger systems of which the community is a part (2001, p. 7).

In this definition, human capital consists of individual skills and knowledge that are relevant to community circumstances. Organizational resources refer to groups and institutions capable of coalescing, supporting and producing services and also able to represent a collectivity to outside actors. Social capital refers to ties or relationships within and among community members and organization employees in all sectors of the political economy that might lead to a locality’s well-being. The following section discusses social capital in more detail.

In operationalizing the community capacity concept, Chaskin (2001) has contended that localities have four common characteristics: sense of community/social capital among members so they are aware of the ways in which they share values and circumstances (which one can interpret as social imaginaries), a threshold level of commitment among some members sufficient to make them willing to act on behalf of the collectivity and individual and common capacity to access useful resources and address shared problems at both the individual and community scales.

Lasker and Weiss reviewed the literature concerning the factors that undermine collective problem-solving within United States communities and found, “the politics of interest groups, the eroding sense of community and the limited involvement of community residents in civic problem solving” to be the major hurdles at play (2003, p. 19). In other words, the dominant neoliberal, individualistic social imaginary is now hindering the formation of relevant social capital linked to the potential for collective action and realization of shared aims in communities. As these scholars have also contended,

when the politics of interest groups goes too far and winning a fight and/or beating opponents become more important than finding solutions, communities lose the opportunity of having the discourse required for identifying and addressing the complex issues confronting them (Lasker and Weiss, 2003, p. 20).

To sum up, Chaskin’s community capacity framework suggests that communities can intentionally build/increase their capacity through planned interventions. Capacity building as “the ability of becoming active agents of change” (Green and Haines, 2015, pp. 8–9) therefore first requires a (re)creation of deeper normative notions and imaginaries underlying assumptions and expectations. As President Biden put it, “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes” (Biden, 2021).


[[1]] “What is the way? Here is America. There are 130,000,000 of us. America needs a leader who can coordinate labor, capital, and management; who can give the man of enterprise encouragement, who can give them the spirit which will beget vision. That will make America great again." From Republican senator Alexander Wiley’s speech at the third session of the 76th United States Congress in anticipation of the 1940 United States presidential election (Congress, 1940, p. 12393).  


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Neda Moayerian

Neda Moayerian is currently serving as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) and Center for Economic and Community Engagement. Neda’s research interests include international development, art-based community development and sustainable tourism, peacebuilding and refugees/immigrants. Neda holds a Ph.D. in Planning, Governance and Globalization from Virginia Tech. She obtained a Master of Science in Urban Management from the University of Tehran (2014) and a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning (2011) from the Art University of Tehran, Iran.