HISTORY AND CULTURES OF COMMUNITY
by Justin Miera
The concept and importance of community are not new. Community has played a powerful role in every cultural manifestation and historical context since the time of early humans. Humans are primarily social creatures. Community is the context in which humans consistently socialize. The key to examining historical and cultural communities is through the frequency and depth of their interactions.
Rare and anonymous interactions are not the foundation of a community. Only when people choose to participate with others in a meaningful way does the fabric of a community take shape. Why do varied people come together? Some gather for recreation and entertainment. Others connect out of proximal interest. Still more are drawn by a spiritual communion. In each case, an individual brings their own perspective and vision to the the community which provides both a beautiful tapestry of interests, and the juxtaposition of divergent views. Every alignment comes with its difficulties and challenges. For individuals to sustain a community they have to find a way to overcome their differences and set aside their self interests in deference to the group.
Today's world is one of personal immediate pleasure. In our present context it is difficult to imagine that anyone would voluntarily delay their own gratification. Maybe it is a result of our prosperity, or simply a fear of loosing control. What ever the impetus, our society is made up of many people who avoid communal entanglements in preference to individual satisfaction. In contrast, there are many historical and cultural factors which have made the motivation for community involvement both necessary and attractive.
Humans have historically gathered in three basic geographic communities: bands of hunters and gatherers, villages based around agriculture, and cities comprised of trade specialists (Bankston, 1999, p.287). All three of these communities exist today, but the concentration has shifted to the cities.
In the earliest human experiences there were mostly small bands of nomadic people (Bankston, 1999, p.289). The members of these bands had many consanguine, or blood ties. There were often others in the band without the blood connection, but the relationships between all the members were primary, or familiar. There were no strangers. These familiar mixed member bands tended to have a conspicuous difference that set them apart from other groups. This is called salience in John Turner's self categorization theory (Harris, 1998, p. 141). Groups define their differences from the micro to the macro. The characteristics constantly in front of us are the ones that become most relevant. The members of a band shared similar cultural artifacts like cloths, music, food, and language, as well as uniform values and core beliefs.
Agriculture gradually became the primary means of sustenance, so diverse bands gathered together and settled in small towns and villages (Bankston, 1999, p.289). Within these villages the consanguine, or extended family became the heart of the community. A person's grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins often lived very close to her, if not with her. Agriculture was very labor intensive and everyone's hands were needed. These extended families worked, ate, and celebrated together, so customs and traditions played a powerful part in defining roles and expectations. "Freedom, romantic love, individuality, and the importance of developing a distinctive personality are seldom emphasized in consanguine extended families" (p. 290). The various extended families of the village came together as a community and depended on each other for such things as political governance, goods distribution, physical protection, joyful interaction, and general sustainability. These needs took the form of councils, stores, churches and schools. The longer the village lasted the more ingrained the norms and expectations became.
Eventually, small towns began to grow and various economic and social tasks became more specialized (Bankston, 1999, p.288). Rather than everyone in the family being needed for agrarian work, adults became efficient at growing, trades, distributing, and selling. The manufacturers, distributors, and sellers moved closer together which gave rise to the next grouping, the city. The preindustrial cities were actually a collection of many communities. These communities focused themselves on salient aspects such as locale, economics, and culture. Prior to mechanized transportation neighborhoods were a primary gathering point. Local businesses served people from a walking distance. These neighborhoods were often segregated economically and culturally. One neighborhood may have been classified "the wrong side of the tracks." Another neighborhood could have been an ethnic enclave of restaurants and shops. Each one had its own set of values, beliefs, and norms, usually evolved from the ancestral village and clan communities. Most relationships moved from primary to secondary, or non familiar associational interactions.
Industrial cities began to emphasize the conjugal family, the family of only parents and children (Bankston, 1999, p.291). Children no longer had to work, but a parent's job often required the family to relocate to the general work area. The new neighborhoods were more economically defined for they were based on localized work. Without the obligations and assistance of the extended family, the conjugal family became the primary focus. The conjugal family interacted with their communities through the salient focus on gatherings of convenience such as cook-outs or ball games. The consanguine community activities became infrequent anomalous events like weddings and reunions.
Now, in our post industrial technological cities, the conjugal family structure and their communities of convenience are giving way to individual private leisure (Bankston, 1999, p.291-292). People plug into their own music, video, and internet interests without regard to personal human interactions. The communities of convenience have transformed to families of convenience which have manifested as the odd meal together and an occasional movie out. Neighborhoods are now anonymous boxes of dwellings, shops are Wal-marts, and religion has become political moral tyranny.
The author has deduced a core set of motivations for community creation: protection, propagation, and preservation. Protection is the desire to keep the community members alive and healthy. The clans banded together to protect each other from the elements and the unpredictability of nomadic life. The villages used community for protection from other predatory villages and seasonal challenges. The city communities looked for protection from predatory nations and individuals within the community.
Propagation is the desire to expand and extend the blood line through children. The parents in nomadic bands doted over their children and valued them so much that they rarely left them alone, even on gathering expeditions. Agrarian villages needed greater numbers of children to help collect and grow more food. Large families also helped to offset tragically high mortality rates. These smaller communities developed systems of match making to prevent intrafamily marriage, and to provide another level of protection by intermingling rival communities. City communities required fewer children to maintain their values and lineage because of lower mortality and adult labor pools.
The preservation of lineage and culture by clans was passed on by oral traditions and ever present communal interactions. Villages persevered their culture through the general, often religiously based education of children with an emphasis on relevant community values. The educational system of the cities became more specialized in skills content to fulfill the demands of a compartmentalized work force. In modern times, the cultural preservation fell to prodigious events for amusement like a St. Patrick's Day parade, or Fourth of July fireworks.
When an outsider examines a different community her reactions may range from clinical analysis, through interested bemusement, to repulsive disdain. Again, the values of communities will differ, it is the nature of salient group identity. Our challenge, as humans endeavoring to improve our interpersonal interactions, is to look beyond the external trappings and into the deeper inspirations. Here are a few examples of communities referenced to the above historical contexts: nomadic bands, small villages, and large cities. This is a superficial examination of their cultures and some motivations for why they maintained their communities. These are not the only examples, nor should they be judged as the best examples. Simply, they are a perspective.
The Khosian, Khoi-San, or San people of Southern Africa are often referred to as Bushmen. They were a large tribe divided into smaller nomadic bands (Schapera, 1930, p. 77). Each band had an exclusive territorial boundary until the Bantu herders of East and Central Africa displaced many San (p. 30). The separate bands had very little contact with each other except for purposes such as marriage. Any disputes that arose were usually over gathering territories. They used temporary encampments along their nomadic trek such as crude wind screens or natural shelters, and carried few possessions (Swaziland, 1999). Members had specific roles like women as gatherers and men as hunters. Their motivation for cultural preservation took the form of freedom from possessions. This freedom perspective was challenged by the intruding Bantu who "owned" cattle and land. "This was quite unlike the Bushmen's view who had trouble conceiving that an animal could belong to anyone. Do people own the clouds? How can you say that this stretch of river is yours when it is an endless flow (Swaziland, 1999)?" Because the various bands had only loose affiliations they could not protect themselves from the Bantu. There are still some scattered San, mostly in Namibia, who try to propagate and extend their beliefs, but many have recently been forced into the life of sedentary agriculturalists (Encarta, 1999).
The Doukhobors, or Spirit Wrestlers, were outcasts of the Russian Orthodox Church (Androsoff, 1999). They fled from Russian religious and political persecution at the end of the 19th century.
Aspiring to pacifism, they made a decisive stand against militarism and all forms of violence. In 1895 they burned all of the arms and weapons which they possessed, as a symbolic act marking their total renunciation of the taking of life. Believing that the killing of animals also brutalized the human sensibilities they resolved henceforth to abstain from the consumption of animal flesh as food. The habits of alcohol and tobacco were rejected because they serve to harm the human body, created by God to be pure and respected (Androsoff, 1999).
The Doukhobors' escape was motivated by protection. With assistance from the Quakers they migrated to British Columbia, Canada. There, they sought to establish a rural agrarian village community based on non-violence and pacifism. This is the motivation of propagation. Pressured by the great depression, the Doukhobors' community came close to collapse when members had to enter the industrial world for work. Through preservationist motivations the group began holding youth programs, prayer meetings, language classes and Russian festivals for those outside the physical community. These efforts have sustained the Doukhobors to the present.
One ethnic and religious community that has endured for thousands of years is the Jews. The Jews are one tribe out of the greater family of Israel. They have sustained strong community values through the most difficult tribulations in history. These values and norms are codified in their religious doctrines which provide great clarity for community expectations. One expectation is that of Shabbat, the sabbath, which is a day of remembrance and observance that lasts from sunset Friday till sunset Saturday (Rich, 1999). According to orthodox interpretation there are 39 acts of labor that are forbidden on the Shabbat, as well as a prohibition against touching the tools used for these acts. For this reason, many orthodox Jews do not drive a car on Shabbat and therefore have to walk to temple on this day. The need to live close gives rise to a whole host of businesses, schools, and centers run by members of the community. For this reason, there are thriving Jewish enclaves in large cities throughout the world. Walking on Shabbat is only one example of how people's expectations have sustained their community. In places like the nation state of Israel, the codified community standards of Jews have all three motivations: protection (e.g. from genocide or Arab invasion), propagation (e.g. to sustain the Jewish blood line by disapproval of interfaith marriages), and preservation (e.g. maintaining a host of traditional celebrations like Hanukkah).
For every historical culture there are a number of community characteristics. The values, beliefs, customs, traditions, and trappings of communities are widely varied, but the motivations that draw people together are more universal: protection, propagation, and preservation. Even beyond motivation, people have to act clearly and consistently to make a community work. In most cases, the significant action is selflessness. Whether it is the ownership of personal possessions with the San, the modification of diet with the Doukhobors, or the geographic constraints of the Jewish Shabbat, individuals have sacrificed their own desires in deference to the group's needs and norms. Grammatical experts insist that groups do not have identities, that they are reflective of their members. That is why schools do not educate children, the teachers within a school educate children. However, in the case of sustainable communities it might be argued that groups do have an identity, and that sometimes it does supersede the individual's identity.
Androsoff, Ryan (1999). Who are the Doukhobors? [Online]. Available: http://www.dlcwest.com/~r.androsoff/doukwho.htm [2000, March 1].
Bankston III, C. L. (ed.) (1999). Encyclopedia of family life. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc.
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Encarta (1999). San. [Online]. Available: http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/26/0260B000.htm [2000, February 28].
Harris, Judith Rich (1998). The nurture assumption. New York: The Free Press.
International encyclopedia of the social sciences (1968). USA: Crowell Collier and Macmillan, Inc.
Rich, Tracey R. (1999). The nature of Shabbat. [Online]. Available: http://www.jewfaq.org/shabbat.htm [2000, February 24].
Schapera, I. (1930). The Khoisan peoples of South Africa. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.
Swaziland Digital Archives (1999). Pre 1880. [Online]. Available: http://www.sntc.org.sz/sdphotos/pre1880.html [2000, February 28].
A survey of literature in partial fulfillment of the course Community Roles in Education, MLS 654 J; Course Consultant is Patt Linden, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY; March 4, 2000
Justin's Regis Papers Page