The concept of community developed mostly in sociology to refer to an organic whole whose components are tied together by a common and innate moral order. Classical literature on community emphasizes its homogeneity in terms of the beliefs and activities of its members, who are interrelated in face-to-face relation-ships and whose allegiance and belonging are clearly defined. Seminal studies across social sciences depict community in a nostalgic fashion (“Oh, the good old days”), while the nature of modernity is presented as impersonal and bureaucratic. Anthropology, to a certain extent, has contributed to this view because of anthropologists’ strategic insertion and approach to the field as a unified and self-contained whole. From the rise of anthropology as a discipline in the 19th century until recently, the most privileged areas carved for ethnographic investigation remained the “exotic others” living in non-Western societies, where ecology and social organization combined with research interests to generate a particular unit of analysis conceived of as “community,” endowed with a quasi-ontology. It is within this paradigm that after World War II, community studies in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even in the United States became popular among anthropologists in their quest to grasp discrete worlds (communities) that could escape the capillary power of the nation-state.
During the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the rising voice of multiple currents within anthropology and cultural studies culminated in the concept being reevaluated. This reevaluation resulted from the effect of sociopolitical movements that gave voices to different segments of society and expression of identities. The idea of “community” as an organic whole disallowed thinking about community as a site of violence, political struggle, or multiple hierarchies. Feminist critics questioned how traditional analysis embedded gender inequality to romanticize oppressive structures and omit in its narrative sites of contestation, including the arbitrariness and fixity of the ideas of belonging and allegiance of members to “their” community, as constructed in analytical texts. Critical race theorists brought into the debate the issue of exclusion when it comes to fulfilling the idea of freedom and equality for all in the nation. Postcolonial theorists questioned the oversimplification and the inequality of relationships embedded in the imposition of the concept of community to refer to large complex processes (for example, community of nations, Caribbean community); this oversimplification, they contend, masks new modes of alienations and oppressions implicit to these impositions (for example, economic exploitation and political dominations exercised by powerful nations over weaker ones within the same regional or international community).
Today, new patterns of circulation of people and capital have led to the development of new forms of identity communities and political struggles where articulated movements of networks give way to new modes of belonging and allegiance (for example, experiences of identities among diasporic populations). Given these dynamics, anthropologists as well as some currents in social sciences have come to view alternative narratives of experiences of communities as occurring in a complex web of shifting power relations. As such, the concept of diaspora constitutes a creative medium to give account of immigrants’ experiences of differences, marginalization, place, and mobility as well as their political implications in a wider transnational process. Central to this approach is the critical role of complexity in the processes of belonging to multiple communities or larger collectivities. Emerging ways of understanding “communities” call upon anthropologists to reevaluate the classical categories that used to sanction totalities and modes of relationships that used to fall outside anthropology’s domain of appreciation. Contemporary anthropology attempts to grasp and render meaningful these emerging strategies of fluid relationships in ever-reconfiguring settings by recalibrating its conceptual tools and incorporating ideas of hierarchies, power, and diversity in its perspectives.
- Anderson, B. R. O’ G. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York: Verso.
- Brubaker, R. (2004). Ethnicity without groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Redfield, R. (1962). The little community: And peasant society and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.