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Sense of community (or psychological sense of community) is a concept in social psychology (or more narrowly, in community psychology), which focuses on the experience of community rather than its structure, formation, setting, or other features. Sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, and others have theorized about and carried out empirical research on community, but the psychological approach asks questions about the individual's perception, understanding, attitudes, feelings, etc. about community and his or her relationship to it and to others' participation - indeed to the complete, multifaceted community experience.
In his seminal 1974 book, psychologist Seymour B. Sarason proposed that Psychological Sense of Community become the conceptual center for the psychology of community, asserting that it "is one of the major bases for self-definition." Quite a few studies have followed, and in addition to some treatment that has been characterized as fuzzy and atheoretical (cf., Pretty, 1990), some impressive theoretical and empirical development has emerged around this concept, which by 1986 had come to be regarded as a central overarching value for Community Psychology (Sarason, 1986; Chavis & Pretty, 1999).
Among theories of Sense of Community proposed by psychologists, McMillan & Chavis's (1986) is by far the most influential, and is the starting point for most of the recent research in the field. It is discussed in detail below.
For Sarason, Psychological Sense of Community is “the perception of similarity to others, an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them, and the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure” (1974, p. 157).
McMillan & Chavis (1986) define Sense of Community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”
Gusfield (1975) identified two dimensions of community, territorial and relational. The relational dimension of community has to do with the nature and quality of relationships in that community, and some communities may even have no discernible territorial demarcation, as in the case of a community of scholars working in a particular specialty, who have some kind of contact and quality of relationship, but may live and work in disparate locations, perhaps even throughout the world. Other communities may seem to be defined primarily according to territory, as in the case of neighborhoods, but even in such cases, proximity or shared territory cannot by itself constitute a community; the relational dimension is also essential.
Factor analysis of their urban neighborhoods questionnaire yielded two distinct factors which Riger and Lavrakas (1981) characterized as “social bonding” and “physical rootedness,” very similar to the two dimensions proposed by Gusfield.
Beneficial antecedents found in early work
Early work on Psychological Sense of Community was based on neighborhoods as the referent, and found a relationship between Psychological Sense of Community and greater participation (Hunter, 1975; Wandersman & Giamartino, 1980), perceived safety (Doolittle & McDonald, 1978), ability to function competently in the community (Glynn, 1981), social bonding (Riger & Lavrakas, 1981), social fabric (strengths of interpersonal relationship) (Ahlbrandt & Cunningham, 1979), greater sense of purpose and perceived control (Bachrach & Zautra, 1985), and greater civic contributions (charitable contributions and civic involvement) (Davidson & Cotter, 1986). These initial studies lacked a clearly articulated conceptual framework, however, and none of the measures developed were based on a theoretical definition of Psychological Sense of Community.
Primary theoretical foundation: McMillan and Chavis
McMillan & Chavis's (1986) theory (and instrument) are the most broadly validated and widely utilized in this area in the psychological literature. They prefer the abbreviated label "Sense of Community," and propose that Sense of Community is composed of four elements.
Four elements of Sense of Community
There are four elements of "Sense of Community" according to the McMillan & Chavis theory:
The first aspect of Sense of Community is membership in that community. Reviewing relevant literature on particular dimensions of membership, McMillan & Chavis identified five attributes:
- Emotional safety
- A sense of belonging and identification
- Personal investment
- A common symbol system
Boundaries are marked by such things as language, dress, and ritual, indicating who belongs and who does not. Especially in groups that have boundaries that are less than clearly obvious, deviants or outsiders may be held in lower regard or even denounced or punished. The authors acknowledge that "boundaries" is the most troublesome feature of the "membership" portion of the definition, but point out that "While much sympathetic interest in and research on the deviant have been generated, group members' legitimate needs for boundaries to protect their intimate social connections have often been overlooked" (p. 9).
The other four attributes of membership are emotional safety (or, more broadly, security; willingness to reveal how one really feels), a sense of belonging and identification (expectation or faith that I will belong, and acceptance by the community), personal investment (cf., cognitive dissonance theorists), and a common symbol system. Regarding this fifth attribute, the authors quote Nisbet & Perrin, asserting that:
Understanding common symbol systems is a prerequisite to understanding community. "The symbol is to the social world what the cell is to the biotic world and the atom to the physical world.... The symbol is the beginning of the social world as we know it" (Nisbet & Perrin, 1977, p. 47).
The authors then go on to cite examples in the literature of various important functions that symbols perform at a number of social levels. At the level of the neighborhood, for example, symbols might be found in its name, a landmark, a logo, or in architectural style; the integrative role of national symbols is mentioned, such as the flag, holidays, a national language; citing Jung (1912), the authors even offer basic archetypes as symbols uniting humankind. Groups use symbols such as rituals, ceremonies, rites of passage, forms of speech, and dress to indicate boundaries of who is or is not a member.
In 1996, McMillan updated and expanded what he had written in 1986, and with regard to membership, placed greater emphasis on the "spirit" of community deriving from "the spark of friendship" (p. 315).
McMillan & Chavis (1986) point out that influence in a community is bidirectional: members of a group must feel empowered to have influence over what a group does (otherwise they would not be motivated to participate), and group cohesiveness depends upon the group having some influence over its members. The authors cite several studies that suggest that these two apparently contradictory forces can be at work simultaneously, and assert that:
People who acknowledge that others' needs, values, and opinions matter to them are often the most influential group members, while those who always push to influence, try to dominate others, and ignore the wishes and opinions of others are often the least powerful members (p. 11).
The authors refer to a review by Lott & Lott (1965) in which the major finding was a positive correlation between group cohesiveness and pressure to conform. On the other hand, the authors also discuss the "consensual validation" research, which "demonstrates that the force toward uniformity is transactional -- that it comes from the person as well as from the group" (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 11), providing members with reassurances that they are experiencing things similarly to other group members.
In 1996, McMillan discusses this element primarily from the standpoint of "trust," pointing out that it is the salient ingredient in influence (p. 318). He also summarizes the earlier (1986) discussion of the role of power and influence within a community in a single sentence: "This process [of bidirectional influence] occurs all at the same time because order, authority, and justice create the atmosphere for the exchange of power" (1996, p. 319).
Integration and fulfillment of needs
McMillan & Chavis employ the word "needs" here (as is commonly used among psychologists, though perhaps somewhat inaccurately) to mean more than survival and other needs as such, but to include also that which is desired and valued. Members of groups are seen as being rewarded in various ways for their participation, which Rappaport (1977) calls person-environment fit. Cited research indicates that this would include the status of being a member, as well as the benefits that might acrue from the competence of other members. "Shared values" is discussed as a concept that can give direction to the issue of which "needs" beyond survival will be pursued.
Sarason (1974, p. 157) originally conceived nearly this same construct as "an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them."
McMillan's 1996 update cites several studies showing that perceived similarity to others and homogeneity contribute to group interaction and cohesion, and McMillan confessed that he had become convinced he should give greater weight to the "search for similarities" as an "essential dynamic" of community development (p. 320-321). He also recharacterized this element as "creating an economy of social trade" (p. 322).
McMillan & Chavis's summary statement on shared emotional connection includes the assertion that "it seems to be the definitive element for true community" (1986, p. 14). They mention the role of shared history (participation in or at least identification with it). In 1996 (p. 322) McMillan adds that "shared history becomes the community's story symbolized in art" (in a very broad sense). McMillan & Chavis (1986) list seven important features of shared emotional connection, citing relevant research for each.
- a. Contact hypothesis. Greater personal interaction increases the likelihood that people will become close.
- b. Quality of interaction.
- c. Closure to events. Ambiguous interaction and unresolved tasks inhibit group cohesiveness.
- d. Shared valent event hypothesis. Increased importance of a shared event (i.e., a crises) facilitates a group bond.
- e. Investment. Beyond boundary maintenance and cognitive dissonance, the community becomes more important to someone who has given more time and energy to it.
- f. Effect of honor and humiliation on community members. Someone who has been rewarded in front of a community feels more attracted to that community, and if humiliated feels less attraction.
- g. Spiritual bond. The authors admit that this quality is difficult to describe, but maintain that it is "present to some degree in all communities" (p. 14), and give the example of the concept of "soul" in the formation of a national black community in the U.S.
Dynamics within and between the elements
After defining the four elements in detail, McMillan & Chavis (1986) go on to discuss the dynamics within and between the elements. Some of the discussion of dynamics within the elements is similar enough to definitional points raised above that it does not seem necessary to go into furthur detail here except to mention two points. With regard to the first element of Sense of Community (membership), the authors argue that the five attributes of Membership (boundaries, emotional safety, sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, common symbol system; see above) fit together in a "circular, self-reinforcing way, with all conditions having both causes and effects" (p. 15), giving examples of causal and reinforcing influences among the attributes.
The dynamics within shared emotional connection are summarized by the following "heuristic" formulae proposed by the authors (p. 15):
Formula 1: Shared emotional connection = contact + high-quality interaction
Formula 2: High-quality interaction = (events with successful closure - ambiguity) x (event valence x sharedness of the event) + amount of honor given to members - amount of humiliation.
Dynamics between the elements are illustrated by the authors primarily through examples, as it is "difficult to describe [their] interworkings...in the abstract" (p. 16). The first example presented is in a university setting:
Someone puts an announcement on the dormitory bulletin board about the formation of an intramural dormitory basketball team. People attend the organizational meeting as strangers out of their individual needs (integration and fulfillment of needs). The team is bound by place of residence (membership boundaries are set) and spends time together in practice (the contact hypothesis). They play a game and win (successful shared valent event). While playing, members exert energy on behalf of the team (personal investment in the group). As the team continues to win, team members become recognized and congratulated (gaining honor and status for being members). Someone suggests that they all buy matching shirts and shoes (common symbols) and they do so (influence) (p. 16).
In their conclusion section, McMillan & Chavis suggest ways in which a well-defined, empirically validated understanding of Sense of Community might help creators and planners of programs of various kinds, including the positive impact of a high-quality community on processes that might normally unfold in a one-on-one context or in a context where the community dimension is largely ignored.
Chavis et al's Sense of Community Index (SCI), originally designed primarily in reference to neighborhoods, can be adapted to study other communities as well, including the workplace, schools, religious communities, communities of interest, etc.
- Chavis, D.M., Hogge, J.H., McMillan, D.W., & Wandersman, A. (1986). Sense of community through Brunswick's lens: A first look. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 24-40.
- Chavis, D.M., & Pretty, G. (1999). Sense of community: Advances in measurement and application. Journal of Community Psychology, 27(6), 635-642.
- Jung, C.G. (1912). The psychology of the unconscious. Leipzig, Germany: Franz Deutiche. (hardcover)
- Gusfield, J. R. (1975). The community: A critical response. New York: Harper Colophon.
- Lott, A.J. & Lott, B.E. (1965). Group cohesiveness as interpersonal attraction: A review of relationships with antecedent and variables. Psychological Bulletin, 64, 259-309.
- McMillan, D.W. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24(4), 315-325.
- McMillan, D.W., & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. American Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.
- Nisbet, R. & Perrin, R.G. (1977). The Social Bond. New York: Knopf. (Out of print. See The Quest for Community.)
- Pretty, G. (1990). Relating psychological sense of community to social climate characteristics. Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 60-65.
- Rappaport, J. (1977). Community Psychology: Values, research, and action. New York: Rhinehart and Winston. (Out of print. See Handbook of Community Psychology.)
- Riger, S. & Lavrakas, P. (1981). Community ties patterns of attachment and social interaction in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 55-66.
- Sarason, S.B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Out of print. See American Psychology and Schools.)
- Sarason, S.B. (1986). Commentary: The emergence of a conceptual center. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 405-407.
"Community" in sociology:
- Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (Community and Society, Ferdinand Tönnies)
- Anomie, (The Division of Labor in Society, Émile Durkheim)
- Communitarianism, (The Spirit of Community, Amitai Etzioni)
- Psychology Resources includes information about Community Psychology and related topics.
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