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The Problem of Community

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If you’re new to my blog, then welcome and I’m glad you’re here. I write about all sorts of health issues- fitness, nutrition and wellness.  This post is part of a series of long-form essays summarizing the classic work by Robert Nisbet, “The Quest for Community”, please see previous posts for the prior essays.  

I’ve been focusing on this because community health has such a big impact on individual health.  Just turn on the news if you don’t believe me! Picture Sports offer a fitting if imperfect metaphor of the problem of the quest for community. What if the various teammates had different or opposing goals, or no goals at all? What affect would that have on the game? ​In Chapter 3, entitled “The Problem of Community”, Nisbet dives deeper into defining what exactly the problem constitutes.  What does it mean and what exactly is the nature of the problem?  Nisbet is a talented and bright writer but I found this chapter difficult to summarize.  Entire books could be written elaborating on many of the points he brings up about the problem of community, particularly from a historical point.  He states that the problem of community is perennial, yet that our age is new and unique.  One of the main points he keeps bringing up is that there is a separation between function and ends.  With further reflection, I
 
I’ve found this to be particularly interesting.   Our goal will determine what our actions should be.  What is the ultimate purpose of life? What are we aiming for?  What are we trying to accomplish?  Without that answered we cannot fully express what we should be doing and more importantly, what roles we should be playing within a community to achieve the ends.  Remember community defined:
 
“The product of people working together on problems, of autonomous and collective fulfillment of internal objectives, and of the experience of living under the codes of authority which have been set in large degree by the persons involved.”  
 
Nisbet keeps coming back to function, roles, and authority. The community is defined by purpose, and so separated from any coherent purpose, people are often alienated from any life of significance.  They have functions, maybe make money, companionship, entertainment, and amusement, but lack an ends towards which they are moving, like playing a game without any way to win or putting together a puzzle that doesn’t fit.  This makes life become cynical and focused on utility and technological maximization instead of achieving ends.  

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I thought about sports in this respect.  A sports team is a community in microcosm.  There is a clear goal- to win, and hopefully in an ethical way.  There are roles- catcher, pitcher, outfielder, etc. There is authority- team captains, coaches, and so on.  There are rules, which are things you do and things you don’t do.  There are good teammates and bad ones, like there are good citizens and bad ones, ones who contribute and play by the rules and those who don’t.  It’s not a perfect metaphor but it’s very similar.  Perhaps that’s why sports is so popular, it’s one of the last coherent forms of community in western society, even though it’s only in microcosm, it has an inherent order and logos in it.
 
Nisbet states that community in our era is defined by 1) immediate problems of modern life and 2) timeless spiritual cravings that people have.  We’re social and we have souls and spiritual longings but the ways we connect in this realm are disconnected from the broader mass society.  He characterizes this as a “crisis of allegiances.”  Technocratic and scientific efforts to translate and solve the problem of community are fraught with difficulties, from bureaucratic overreach to the communist tyranny we already discussed.  Community is a moral, intellectual, social, and political problem according to Nisbet, but is primarily a problem between governments and people, between large groups and small groups.  This is again, because there is a disconnect between the ends of large groups like the government, and the ends of small groups.  We place our hopes and aspirations and longings on large groups and organizations but because of their nature in modern life, they can’t fulfill our communal longings:
 
“Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. Yet despite the loss of these manifest institutional functions, and the failure of most of these groups to develop any new institutional functions, we continue to expect them to perform adequately the implicit psychological or symbolic functions in the life of the individual.”
 
The general condition I am describing in Western society can be compared usefully with social changes taking place in many of the native cultures that have come under the impact of Western civilization. A large volume of anthropological work testifies to the incidence, in such areas as East Africa, India, China, and Burma, of processes of social dislocation and moral insecurity. A conflict of moral values is apparent. More particularly, it is a conflict, as J. S. Furnivall has said, “between the eastern system resting on religion, personal authority, and customary obligation, and the western system resting on reason, impersonal law, and individual rights.”2 This conflict of principles and moral values is not an abstract thing, existing only in philosophical contemplation. It may indeed be a crisis of symbolism, of patterns of moral meaning, but more fundamentally it is a crisis of allegiances.”
 
Going back to the sport metaphor, and the baseball team, imagine a team divided into cliques or tribes, each with different goals.  It’s not rocket science to think this would not bode well for the team outlook.  If team members have varied goals, say the catchers and pitchers, from the rest of the team, say the infield players, then the burdens increase, ironically, on the “families” of players and it turns into all-out war.  Nisbet states that family has suffered the highest toll in this crisis of allegiances because it’s goals are not necessarily in line with the larger ends, if these ends are even articulated.  The family finds itself separated from social, religious, or economic ends, may have no ends at all, and may be instead characterized by enjoyment, choice, companionship, or relationship.    There’s nothing wrong with these things, but they fail to create a strong enough bond and end to fulfill the quest for community.  
 
”The current problem of the family, like the problem of any social group, cannot be reduced to simple sets of psychological complexes which exist universally in man’s nature, or to an ignorance of sexual techniques, or to a lack of Christian morality. The family is a major problem in our culture simply because we are attempting to make it perform psychological and symbolic functions with a structure that has become fragile and an institutional importance that is almost totally unrelated to the economic and political realities of our society. Moreover, the growing impersonality and the accumulating demands of ever larger sections of our world of business and government tend to throw an extraordinary psychological strain upon the family. In this now small and fragile group we seek the security and affection denied everywhere else. It is hardly strange that timeless incompatibilities and emotional strains should, in the present age, assume an unwonted importance—their meaning has changed with respect to the larger context of men’s lives. We thus find ourselves increasingly in the position of attempting to correct, through psychiatric or spiritual techniques, problems which, although assuredly emotional, derive basically from a set of historically given institutional circumstances. Personal crises, underlying emotional dissatisfactions, individual deviations from strict rectitude—these have presumably been constant in all ages of history. Only our own age tends to blow up these tensions into reasons for a clinical approach to happiness.”
 
This preceding paragraph summarizes this point nicely.  The nuclear family, where it still exists, can’t carry the psychological load necessary for most people and for a healthy society, all by itself.  In the past, there were extended families and other groups to belong to, even neighborhoods.  I remember going to family reunions that were really big, 30 years ago in the 1980s, and these have declined.  It’s only anecdotal but a great example of what he’s talking about.  
 
I also had to laugh a bit at the last sentence about a “clinical approach to happiness”.  Because I work in the health field, it’s easy to see where a lot of things we do veer off into the “therapeutic” side of things.  We all gravitate more towards “happiness” than character, community, or morality these days.  But it does seem like these happiness things are self-defeating.  Ironically, belonging to a group, a civic, familial, religious, social, work, or other group, one without easy on-and-off ramps, that makes demands on us, will often make us happier than going to therapy, or reading books about happiness.  This concept is as old as Western culture. Aristotle taught that goodness of soul led to happiness.  
 
Another fascinating thing that Nisbet touches on at the end of the chapter is the emerging reality that you can’t separate individual behavior and choices from group realities.  When the book was published in the 1950s, the modernists and rationalists believed you could analyze people as isolated automatons and deal with them as such, discounting how social and group-oriented behavior and choices are.  In other words, there are strong social reasons people do things, and which motivate people even if we aren’t aware of it.  You can never consider a person outside of his or her environment and it was a mistake to ever think otherwise.  
 
”The point is that with the decline in the significance of kinship and locality, and the failure of new social relationships to assume influences of equivalent evocative intensity, a profound change has occurred in the very psychological structure of society. And this is a change that has produced a great deal of the present problem of incentives in so many areas of our society. Most of our ideas and practices in the major institutional areas of society developed during an age when the residual psychological elements of social organization seemed imperishable. No less imperishable seemed the structure of personality itself. Educational goals and political objectives were fashioned accordingly, as were theories of economic behavior and population increase. But we are learning that many of the motivations and incentives which an older generation of rationalists believed were inherent in the individual are actually supplied by social groups—social groups with both functional and moral relevance to the lives of individuals. Modern planners thus frequently find themselves dealing, not simply with the upper stratum of decisions, which their forebears assumed would be the sole demand of a planned society, but with often baffling problems which reach down into the very recesses of human personality.8″
 
To sum it up, Nisbet focuses on the disconnect between the goals and ends of large groups and small ones.  He says that there are other problems with the quest for community, but that this disconnect between authority, ends, and function is the biggest problem because it leaves people alienated, disconnected, estranged, purposeless, confused, isolated, and even nihilistic in regards to their own life and behavior.  Without meaningful roles within smaller groups, that are connected the broader purposes of society as a whole, we’re thrown back onto ourselves alone to find meaning and ends in life.  This is a big load to bear for most people, perhaps most critically for those with less advantages in life.  
 
”The real problem is not, then, the loss of old contexts but rather the failure of our present democratic and industrial scene to create new contexts of association and moral cohesion within which the smaller allegiances of men will assume both functional and psychological significance. It is almost as if the forces that weakened the old have remained to obstruct the new channels of association
 
What is the source of this failure? The blame is usually laid to technology, science, and the city. These, it is said, have left a vacuum. But the attack on these elements of modern culture is ill-founded, for no one of these is either logically or psychologically essential to the problem at hand. Neither science, nor technology, nor the city is inherently incompatible with the existence of moral values and social relationships which will do for modern man what the extended family, the parish, and the village did for earlier man. 
 
Here, our problem becomes inevitably historical. For the present position of the social group in political and industrial society cannot be understood apart from certain historical tendencies concerned with the location of authority and function in society and with certain momentous conflicts of authority and function which have been fundamental in the development of the modern State.”
 
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute

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