The core definitional components of community

Just aggregating the definitions of community in the literature over the last sixty years only serves to confound rather than clarify an understanding of what community comprises. The sociologist Hillery (1955) sought to determine the common definitional components of community. His research determined that four common components occurred in 69 of the 94 definitions of community; people, common ties, social interaction and place. Interestingly the only component common to all 94 was people. Hillery’s simple set of four components still held true when applied by subsequent researchers and commentators (Hamman, 2000; Poplin, 1979) many years later. The validity of these definitional comments was further confirmed in my research with an examination of a pool of twenty five definitions collected from recent community, online community and CoP literature. Issues not considered by Hillery were readily able to be subsumed as attributes of the main four components. New definitional attributes found in these recent definitions largely related to temporal and developmental issues of community. Hillery’s set of four high level definitional components became, the core of a conceptual framework, the lens through which advice from disparate domains, research works, methodologies and community case studies could be viewed.

How are each of these components themselves described? Explore this table of the Association of recent definitional components to Hillery’s four themes.

An analysis of the definitions did reveal, as Poplin had noted, new language and terms have been applied in recent descriptions. While the concepts in the definitions were found to be highly interrelated and interdependent they were able to be associated with the four Hillery components. While not meant to represent a mutually exclusive categorization, the table linked above offers an association of concepts around the Hillery themes and represented in this way it serves as a snapshot of community that might be used to begin recognizing it.

Each component was considered to be associated by being a motivator for, contributor to, or result of the theme in question. For instance a shared history can be considered a common tie in community whether the history is developed within or before joining the community. A shared history with others in a community might serve as much as an attractant to joining the community as it could be a product of the community. Likewise, participation structures may be a mark of place in an online community or may be the vehicle through which the place is created.

Hamman, R. B. (1999). Computer networks linking network communities: A study of the effects of computer network use upon pre-existing communities

Hillery, G. (1955). Definitions of community: areas of agreement. Rural Sociology, 20, 111-123.

Poplin, D. E. (1979). Communities: a survey of theories and methods of research (2nd ed.). New York: MacMillan.


Cultivating community in IMCoPs

Ok so this is happening later that I would have liked but here goes…

In the next three weeks I will unpack some of my research findings about the common factors found in the cultivation of community in successful Internet-mediated communities of practice (IMCoPs). And in July we begin the first of a series of case studies that will bring to life exemplar communities and the management and design issues they exemplify.

Almost weekly I am introduced to people charged with intentionally developing an Internet-mediated community even while just as many believe that community development is an organic process and cannot be managed or orchestrated. Stories of failure to develop community are abundant, especially in the education sector. One problem that I have first hand experience of, in ‘failed’ attempts at community development, is the seductiveness of a front-loaded design process. Such a process puts in place tools and technical architecture before social infrastructure. It implicitly expects the members to grow into the fully-formed design delivered up to to them rather than a preparedness to grow and take direction through member demand. It was a personal failure of this very nature propelled me into my case study research and this attempt to understand the management role and value in community.

Many experienced in community management would agree that we cannot actually design the community, what we do is design for community. I can say that I came to understand the management role as a true enabler; constantly providing and sustaining opportunity for its membership to build community. How that enabling happens, in what contexts and under what conditions is the purpose of my ongoing research and this blog.

The four blog posts to follow this will summarize key insights drawn from the findings and as they relate to management’s contribution to the development of PEOPLE, COMMON TIES, SOCIAL INTERACTION and PLACE as components of community (Hillery, 1959).

Community components in the IMCoP

These insights, gleaned from case study of 12 heterogeneous exemplar communities, represent the understandings, practices and design developments that community management need to be mindful of and act upon in order to cultivate community in an Internet-mediated community of practice.

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