What is a community?

Malachy Tallack asks what the essential elements of a community might be, and why it is that people come to these islands to find one.

A community is “a group of interacting people living in a common location”.

Ask any recent arrival in Shetland why they have chosen to come and live in this cold, northern place and it is almost guaranteed that somewhere in their list of motivating factors will be the word community. Immediately preceding it in most cases will be an adjective: strong, real, or occasionally even tight-knit. But ask what exactly it is they mean by that and suddenly the answers will diverge. Vague depictions of safe and friendly neighbourhoods will be forthcoming, but rarely anything more concrete than that.

Given the attraction that communities still have for many people, and the widely accepted belief that they are somehow under threat or diminishing in number, it seems odd that there is such a tentative understanding of what we are talking about when we use the word. Or why, specifically, people come here to find one. It is particularly odd when you consider that each of knows, instinctively, what one looks like, and we know what it feels like when we are part of one. Since childhood, we have been bombarded by stories and images of good (usually fictional) communities; they are familiar to us – part of our cultural knowledge. So what, then, are the essential elements of a community? What exactly is it that distinguishes one from, say, a village or a neighbourhood?

In seeking answers to these questions, we can find clues, I think, within the word itself, closely related as it is to words such as communicate, communion and common (as in common ground). There is a clue, too, in that adjective: tight-knit. Each of these words suggests something shared, an interaction or connection: a relationship.

In today’s society, most of our relationships are financial or functional. The man who sells us our newspaper in the morning; the person who fixes our car; the people who pay our wages; even the colleagues who share our office with us: these relationships are generally one-dimensional, and often we do not even know the name of the person with whom we are dealing. Entrenched in this economic system of function and anonymity, we have become – in that most horrifying of phrases – “human resources”: useful to each other, but always distant.

A community too is an economy, but it is an economy in which relationships are, necessarily, multidimensional. It is made up of people who do not simply live near to each other; their lives are not just connected by proximity, they are interwoven. Within a community there exists a complex web of work, friendship, family, trust, and a recognition of worth and value. The skills we have and the roles we perform are acknowledged and understood by those around us. And this acknowledgement, this mutual recognition of each other, is, I think, a key element of any community.

But there is more to it than this, of course. After all, a community is greater than the sum of its constituent parts – of the individuals that live within it. A community exists, at least in a sense, independently from the lives of its inhabitants.

This independence resides, I would suggest, in that thing which all members of a community share. If we speak of the Jewish community, for instance, it is clear that that shared thing is faith; in the case of the gay community, it is sexuality; and so on. But when we speak of a geographical community, we are talking of something a little different. For while there is very often a sense of common principles and purpose, and a shared framework of value and values, the central shared factor is neither an interest nor a belief – it is something more solid, yet somehow more complex than that. It is locality: place.

It is a serious error, I think, to underestimate the significance of place in any discussion of community. It is crucial to the entire question. To say that living in a community means living together in a shared place is not to needlessly state the obvious; place is the foundation upon which a community is built; it is the soil into which that community’s roots will reach.

The American farmer and writer Wendell Berry attempted a simple definition when he stated that a community is “a group of people who belong to one another and to their place.” This is certainly a more pleasingly constructed definition than the one offered by Wikipedia, above. But Berry would go further. For him, the land was the crucial element of a community. It was what held the people together, focused and sustained them.

A community must be centred on its place. It must not be a mere satellite to another location. A commuter town, therefore, is not a community. And a village where all residents drive elsewhere to shop in Tesco is not much of a community either.

This is an important point, I think, and one that tends to contradict our instinct to assist remote parts of Shetland by giving them better access to Lerwick. A quick look at the varying situations of our outer islands, for instance, confirms that ease of access, or regularity of transport, is not necessarily a key to success. Indeed, by making any place completely reliant on access to Lerwick, we may in fact be damaging its long-term viability. “The destruction of a community” wrote Berry, “begins when its economy is made – not dependent, for no community has ever been entirely independent – but subject to a larger external economy.” If an island becomes home only to commuters, then its community is already dead.

The significance of the land in this discussion goes far beyond its role as a geographical background, of course. The land is absolutely fundamental to the life of a community and to the shape that community takes. It is no surprise then, and certainly no coincidence, that rural, and particularly agricultural areas are today more associated with community life than are cities or suburbs. For it is here that the ties to the land are still strongest, and the strength of those ties is reflected in the relationship between the people that share that land. In Shetland, it is those areas where crofting still plays a central role in the landscape and lifestyle that communities have truly retained their vitality.

The principles of agriculture – of continuity and improvement, of hard work and sustainability, of “the long view” – these are also the principles of our communities. Indeed, the desire to work together with these things in mind could very well be translated as “community spirit”. A commitment towards home, towards your place, can (and should) develop, quite naturally, into a commitment towards those people that inhabit that place with you. It can grow further, too, into a sense of responsibility and, to return to Berry’s word, belonging.

At its core, then, a community is an entirely natural order. It is, fundamentally, a social group, of the kind that we as social animals have an instinctive disposition towards. Our inclination is to try to a part of, rather than apart from, a community, and to participate both socially and in its widest sense economically.

Moreover, any naturally-functioning social group will always tend to work towards its own preservation and the protection of its interests. This means that within a community there exists a kind of innate compulsion towards sustainability. A community strives to sustain itself, and to do so it must conserve the health of the land and the well-being of the people who share it. It must take “the long view” – how will these actions affect us in the future: not just tomorrow or next year, but five, ten years from now? If it does not, it cannot survive.

Here, then, are the roots of our communities’ common values, rising straight from the earth around us.

What has gone wrong?

While a definition of the word community is inevitably difficult to settle upon, an understanding of why our communities seem to be under threat or in decline is somewhat easier to come by.

In the first place, it is obvious that life today is different from the way it has been for most of our ancestors. No longer are people tied to the land in the way they once were. No more is it absolutely necessary to take “the long view” to guarantee our success and our survival (indeed, we are more likely to achieve financial success by entirely ignoring “the long view”). And no more are our communities the healthy, natural, thriving things they once were. These changes are entirely connected.

It seems clear that one of the most significant changes in our society over the past century, and certainly the most significant factor in the destruction of our communities, has been the rapid shift in focus from the social group to the individual. Personal aspiration and ambition today are everything. The “me first” philosophy is not only encouraged among our youth, it is hammered into them from an early age. And while the old adage about being nice to your neighbours is still given some deference, the contradiction between this and the way we are expected to live our lives is palpable.

The key factor in this cultural change is clearly the economy. To “succeed” within a capitalist system we are asked to focus upon our own personal goals, and how best we can achieve them. Without the drive to succeed as individuals, we risk failure – financial and personal failure. Nowhere in this mindset is there so much as a nod towards the social side of our natures. Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that there was “no such thing as society, only individual men and women”. From a statistician’s perspective that may be correct, but for our communities this attitude has been devastating.

The focus on individualism (and its false conflation with individuality) has resulted, too, in a cultural suspicion that, by joining a community, we must be prepared to sacrifice something of ourselves, of our individual identity and self-interest. We must conform, in other words, to a model created for us by that community. Think of the Ira Levin novel, The Stepford Wives, and the Hollywood films of the same name. In it, the apparently perfect, suburban community of Stepford proves to be something far more sinister. This perfection, we learn, has only been achieved through the loss (quite literally)of the individuality of Stepford’s wives. This is only one extreme example of the suspicion with which communities are viewed by many. And of course it is a suspicion that is entirely baseless. Communities thrive on difference and individuality; indeed, they could not function without them. But still the suspicion lingers.

This steady move towards rabid individualism within society has been accompanied also by an increasing specialisation in the world of work. And this too has had its effect. Where once people in rural communities might combine various jobs and skills, and those they didn’t have could be sought from their neighbours, today most of us are paid to do one thing, and one thing is all we do. For all other tasks we pay someone else to complete them – most often someone we do not know. In doing so, we have “delegated” ourselves out of our communities. The interaction between neighbours – the “working together” – has largely been lost. (Naturally, because of its limited size, Shetland still retains a greater degree of this kind of interaction, which is another reason why communities seem stronger here than elsewhere.)

The list of culprits in this story could be debated endlessly, and some of the factors towards which I might point a finger – television, for example, or our mindless passion for “progress” over sustainability – would perhaps be more controversial than others. But in terms of their significance, two factors stand out. Firstly, there is the move away from the land, away from small family-based agriculture, towards another kind of economy – a rootless, squalid struggle for money. And secondly, there is capitalism itself, with its obsessive individualism and inherent need for conflict and competition, both of which are antithetical to the very idea of community. A simple-minded reading of Darwinian natural selection – “the survival of the fittest” – has for decades now been used to justify an entirely unnatural order of things, in which individuals fight against each other to gain more than they need, at the expense of those around them and of the place in which they live. It has been a pointless exercise, and it has failed.

Communities are at the heart of what it means to be human, and in our efforts to become richer, more successful than our neighbours, we have almost destroyed them. The job of repairing and rebuilding these communities would be a difficult one, but that does not mean it is not worth trying. And if it is to be done, it must start from the bottom – from the roots – and work upwards. If we fail, the loss will be borne not only by ourselves, but by those who will inherit these places from us.

Malachy Tallack


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