on community, and why we need each other

Belonging (noun)

A close or intimate relationship // a sense of belonging

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of belonging for a long time and not only because the word starts to sound kinda funny if you keep saying it over and over again. Wanting to be popular and sit with the “cool kids” at recess is the exact need to belong that follows us into adulthood as we try to find our tribe in college, find jobs where we get along with coworkers, and find a life partner who’s friends and family we get along with. It means more than just survival, accomplishing tasks, self-fulfillment, and actualization. Humanity’s need to find belonging transcends these basic requirements to live a fulfilled life, it’s indeed the most visceral thing we do.

But here’s the kicker - that sense of belonging is always attached to a specific group of people that you want to form a close or intimate relationship with. Your community.

I know. I know. I’m probably the 473937874th person in the tech world that has opined on community as if I was a reincarnation of Aristotle. Actually, I’m not even going to pretend to know more than one of the greatest philosophers of all time. How contrarian of me right? Because everyone in Silicon Valley acts like….they’re the greatest philosopher... forget it, why do I always ruin the joke by explaining it?

I digress.

Instead, by sharing key learnings from luminaries such as Aristotle, Hegel, German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, and the father of sociology Max Weber, maybe we can create a framework with which to evaluate and understand this incredibly abstract concept and its place in modern society?

Let’s find out.

Finding Meaning in The Word

It’s often hardest to define the things we cannot touch. Community is one of those things: you know it exists only when you experience it (kind of like product-market fit, but for the sake of all of our sanities, I’m not going there). However, words are powerful and there’s a lot of meaning we can draw from the word itself. Derived from the Latin “communitas”, the word community literally means “public spirit” (the Latin root word is communis which means common). Community is rooted in a shared sense of belonging, what the Romans called the “public spirit”, that brings people together. A “public spirit” denotes that to uphold it is fundamentally a shared responsibility amongst those who have created it, to begin with.

Ultimately what creates a public spirit is a commonality - something that brings people together. That “thing” can be defined as:

  • The geographic boundaries where people live. This means that communities are synonymous with neighborhoods and people have a shared sense of belonging purely based on the fact that they live in the same place

  • A social fabric that binds people together who interact mainly because they have common traits who interact socially

One can experience connectivity through shared social traits with those they have geographic closeness with. In contrast, one can have nothing in common with someone else outside of the fact that they live in close proximity to each other. Geographic proximity is interesting because the utility of a community is equated with that of a neighborhood - this is a separate post in and of itself but an interesting conundrum to think about nonetheless. I say this because being in a community is one of the benefits of being a part of a neighborhood - the physical and social closeness that comes from living next to one another.

Understanding and evaluating the social fabric that constitutes a community is much more difficult though. To accomplish this, here are a few frameworks that we can use:

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (and other complicated German words)

Coined by German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, the concept of community can be characterized by the dichotomy between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. In the gemeinschaft school of thought, community is rooted in traditional society. These are social ties that can be categorized as belonging to personal social interactions and the roles, values, and beliefs that come from those interactions. Gemeinschaft is characterized by social interactions that are simple, direct, and face-to-face mainly driven by emotions and sentiment. On the other hand, Gesellschaft, rooted in rational will, comes from indirect and impersonal interactions and roles and the formal values and beliefs that come from them. In the Gesellschaft, human interactions are more impersonal and direct and are mainly driven by the need for self-preservation, efficiency, or other economic and political considerations. They are understood to weaken the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that typify Gemeinschaft’s social structure.

A natural extension of this is to examine how this dichotomy plays out in society today, especially in the context of the geographical distribution of society. As population density and economic activity grows due to some wave of technological innovation, societal bonds also transform. This means that we can associate gemeinschaft with rural society and Gesellschaft with more urban developments. As society gets more urbanized due to a larger undercurrent of globalization and interconnectedness, this framework suggests that we are moving towards a more permanent state of Gesellschaft, which British historian Eric Hobsbawm confirms.

At a high level, I think this makes sense because today’s social behavior in cosmopolitan cities reflects exactly this. People move to big cities in search of something bigger they think that they can experience, which could, in theory, change the direction of their life. The cost of that though is the unencumbered focus on becoming the best at their vocation of choice. With that, naturally comes a tendency to prioritize one’s own well being in relation to others, and partake in only those interactions that serve some type of tangible benefit to the individual.

The results of a bunch of studies by a bunch of smart dudes

There are a lot of interesting studies that help us understand the WHY and WHAT of community - why do we feel a sense of belonging with those in our community? What (if any) are the commonalities in how humans behave in different communities? Why does this even matter?

A 1986 study conducted by David W. Macmillan and David Chavis helps answer the first question pretty well. The below framework outlines 4 factors that contribute to that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you’re a part of a community that you care about:

  1. Membership: This refers to the shared sense of belonging knowing that you are personally related to members of this community

  2. Influence: Knowing that you matter and that people care about what you think and feel

  3. Reinforcement: This is the integration and fulfillment of needs

  4. Shared Emotional Connection: An emotional intimacy that a member shares with another person in the group or the group at large as a result of shared experiences or opinions.

Macmillan and Chavis breaking this concept down in this way makes a ton of sense because it helps put structure around a feeling. In practice though, there is a lot of interconnectedness in the above. For example, feeling a shared sense of belonging is a direct result of the emotional intimacy that you develop with others. Emotional intimacy leads to care, knowing that other people care about you, your opinions and your well being is one of the key building blocks of a community.

To answer the second question, Scott Peck outlines some of the commonalities in the lifecycle of the behaviors of members in a community:

  1. Pseudocommunity: Reflects how people behave when first entering a community - they put forward what they think are their most personable & likable characteristics

  2. Chaos: This is the phase when people feel comfortable enough to move beyond the inauthenticity of pseudocommunity and present their “shadow” selves.

  3. Emptiness: The process of healing and converting from the chaos stage, when everyone acknowledges the reality of their imperfections and woundedness, which is the ultimate commonality among human beings.

  4. True community: The phase of true acceptance comes from a deep respect and true listening for the needs of other people in a community.

Do all communities go through this lifecycle? Certain phases are interchangeable and disposable especially when you’re a part of what I like to call, “non-intimate communities.” I define non-intimate communities as those that bring people together based on non-intimate shared values ie. professional associations, love of sports or music, hobbyists of any kind, etc. Here, chaos and emptiness are phased out because members don’t put their full selves into these communities for them to go beyond their shadow selves and share the most intimate parts of their life.

I discovered the answer to the last question in understanding socialization and communitarianism (two words that sound a lot more complicated than they actually are). Understanding and critically evaluating community is key to understanding people, and how their identities are influenced by who they surround themselves with. This is the exact idea that socialization tackles. Under the socialization theory, people eventually start to learn to adopt the behavioral patterns shared by a community. The existence of community in and of itself is important as it develops a shared emotional intimacy with those that are a part of it. It is this shared emotional intimacy that is reflected in shared behavioral patterns. This can apply to something as superficial as the hand gestures you use when the way you talk and something as core to who you are, as your values, and identity. When something as seemingly simple as who you spend your time with can impact how the world perceives you and how you perceive yourself, the type of communities and the level of your involvement becomes paramountly important.

And there we have it friends, in classic me fashion, it took me an unnecessary amount of time to get to the core of what I was trying to say (but are you really surprised?). All this to say that all the things that bring people together and keep them close are what makes society tick. All too often, we spend hours pontificating on the implications of something as intangible and abstract as community and redesigning new ones from the ground up. Here I offer an alternative - let’s first gain a deep understanding of what it is that drives human connection and how it is created, and then dream about what a reimagined, equitable community could look like.

If you liked what you read (or even if you didn’t idc), I’d love to hear from you! Hit me up on Twitter @pranc_ or at pranavi@acceleprise.vc.