Community integration is a compound concept derived from sociology that addresses the two central questions of (1) how communities are formed, reproduce, grow, and change; and (2) what continually integrates or binds them together. The field of communications adds a third dimension, asking (3) what role communication plays in forming, sustaining, and integrating communities. Through much of the twentieth century, scholarship on community integration was primarily concerned with communities in geographic space. But, as virtual communities began to grow at the turn of the millennium, a fourth dimension of scholarship began to inquire about (4) the relationship between place-based and virtual communities.
The original questions on community integration draw directly from sociology’s classical scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – Tönnies, Durkheim, and Simmel. These questions were directly taken up and developed by the research program of the Chicago School of sociology in the first third of the twentieth century, especially by Robert Park, through the elaboration of the concept of the urban community as an ecology.
Communication scholarship has more often focused on specific processes that contribute to or predict local community integration, usually understood as the relationship between community integration and interest in local issues and civic participation. Beginning in the early 1970s, community began to be reconceptualized in network terms, which reshaped core understandings of community integration. Further, the concept of the community as a “network of networks” laid the ground for the study of virtual community that would begin in the mid-1990s, as well as the relationship between communities grounded in space and place, and virtual communities.
The idea of community forms the cultural background of our understanding of who we are (identity) and how we should relate to one another (solidarity). At the same time, “community” is a series of social structures with multiple, complex, and changing boundaries. From these elements – the cultural and normative understanding of community identity and solidarity, and the physical, spatial, and social-structural frameworks in which we live – humans develop a larger sense of community.
In his classical statement, Tönnies (1887/1963) distinguished between Gemeinschaft, the densely knit realm of intimate, private, and personal relations of family, kin, neighborhood, and traditional community, and Gesellschaft, the arena of society in which social relations are constructed from impersonal ties of contract and association. In the web of Gemeinschaft, individuals “remain essentially united in spite of all separating factors, whereas in Gesellschaft they are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors” (Tönnies 1887/1963, 65). Tönnies deployed these types historically, seeing modern social development as a movement from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or from tightly integrated unitary societies to those based on looser ties of contract. Integration of Gesellschaft-like societies is directly dependent on both microand macro-social communication processes.
Integration refers to the process through which social groups form and continue (or fail) to be bound together. Integration theory derives from the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who proposed the distinction between “mechanical” and “organic” solidarity (Durkheim 1893/1960). Mechanical solidarity is produced in elementary societies, in which social groups are segmented and similarities rather than differences among groups predominate. Religious life forms what Durkheim calls a “collective consciousness,” which reflects core group values. As segmented societies develop, they become more complex, particularly driven by the development of towns and cities. A new division of labor develops, in which groups become more specialized. This leads to a new type of organic solidarity, in which groups function analogously to organs in the body: as living systems that have a distinct identity, but are defined and coordinated by higher level organic systems.
Integration, then, for Durkheim is closely tied to the division of labor, understood here as a system of specialized functions that can exist in science, politics, or religion, as well as the economy. This differentiation drives modern societies, as well as binding them together into a system of mutual dependencies. Further, integration for Durkheim has a moral dimension, as the division of labor integrates, but does not entirely displace, earlier forms of the collective consciousness. The fundamental ideas that groups hold about society and each other are generated through social integration. Integration is the central process holding society together.
Community Integration and The Role of Media
A central question is whether types of communities themselves correspond to forms of integration. Broadly, are all small towns of the Gesellschaft type, characterized by high levels of “mechanical” integration? Are large cities inherently subject to Gemeinschaft-like forms of division, integrated by an organic division of labor? Bender (1978) has cautioned that these are types of social relations that can be found, with variations, in all formations of modern societies, even in highly individuated societies of the postmodern type. Both Tönnies and Durkheim recognized that communication played a central role in shaping the form of community and integration, but neither placed it at the center of analysis. That was left to Robert Park and the Chicago School of sociology.
Park’s classic work “The city” (1915) founded the Chicago School of urban ecology. For Park, the driving force of urban ecology was the competition for land and the spatial patterns it generated, but he believed that cultural values – group norms and moral organization – should be studied for their contribution to community integration. Following Cooley (1909), Park observed that primary communities of face-to-face relations were being replaced by secondary relations of association, which are maintained through looser communication networks. Park’s work can be considered as the major source and foundation for the study of local media and community integration. Park held that communication makes consensus possible among independent social groups, both within the culture of a given society and between generations. He also viewed public opinion as a source of social control and rated the newspaper as the foremost agency to “control, enlighten and exploit public opinion” (Park 1915). However, for Park, change took place largely through shifting ecological forces among the natural areas of the city.
While making the general theoretical link between communication and integration, the Chicago School left no clear and unambiguous guidelines for later empirical research in this area. Janowitz (1952/1967), of the postwar “Second Chicago School,” more carefully located the media sources of community integration. He considered the metropolitan daily newspaper as being incapable of integrating the diverse interests and views of the modern urban community. Instead, it was the local urban weeklies covering more homogeneous neighborhoods that performed this function. If the local neighborhood press promoted consensus, then conflict and change in the city was worked out through associations and institutions bridging areas of the community. Building on Park, Janowitz provided a clearer path that mass communication scholars could follow.
Mass Communication and Community Integration
The concept of community integration entered the mass communication research field in 1960 with studies that examined the weekly press and a sense of urban communities (Edelstein & Larsen 1960). Based on the earlier work of Janowitz, the intensity of reading an urban weekly newspaper was related to various assumed indicators of social integration: (1) length of residence, (2) perceptions of feeling about being a part of community, and (3) neighborliness. Home ownership, a presumed influence on community ties, was found to be a good predictor of newspaper readership. Absence of community ties appears to reduce metropolitan newspaper readership.
Stamm and colleagues, in a series of studies beginning in the early 1980s, distinguished between community identification and involvement, and found that newcomers who put more effort into integrating themselves into the community sought information from many different sources. Jeffres and colleagues found that the length of residence and anticipation of remaining in the neighborhood were related to readership of suburban and community weeklies. Those who watched local television news more often placed more importance on ties to the neighborhood. Finnegan and Viswanath (1988) found that neighborhood involvement was related to spending more time reading the community weekly. Friedland and McLeod (1999) reviewed this literature and proposed a multilevel model for media and community integration, taking structural, processual, and normative variables into account.
The designs and methods used in integration research have been primarily sample surveys of individual citizens in single communities. Although important evidence has been generated from such designs, it is obvious that they are not sufficient to answer many crucial questions about the role of media in community integration. Communities are more than the sum of individual citizens’ behaviors. An important exception has been the research program of Tichenor and colleagues (1980), who conducted comparative studies of community pluralism and media using content analysis and interviews with editors and citizens.
Social Network Studies and Communicative Integration
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sociological study of community began to shift to the study of networks. Fischer et al. (1977) argue that interpersonal networks must be empirically studied, separate from theories of decline of unitary Gemeinschaft-like communities. Fischer argues that interpersonal networks form “personal communities,” in which ties of intimacy to friends, neighbors, and others take on voluntary and associative qualities. In this view, community is not lost, but redefined through more multiplex, networked, social relations. Wellman, in a series of studies, redefined the community as a “network of networks” and, in parallel to Fischer, described the formation of networked individualism, in which individuals’ personal networks, rather than larger group formations, are the foundation of community.
The idea of networked individualism leads directly to the question of how we understand the boundaries between local and virtual communities. If communities are no longer primarily defined by some combination of larger group relations (Gemeinschaft and mechanical solidarity) or those corporate relations characterized by association, professionalism, contract, and the division of labor (Gesellschaft and organic solidarity), but rather by the interlocking webs of individual networks, then it becomes more clear how genuine virtual communities form on the world wide web. The wideranging networks of web participants, linked by both common interest and weak social ties that potentially ramify globally, form an alternative to integration in locally bounded, physical community. Community integration is no longer limited by territory. Indeed, the global communication environment itself becomes the widest possible boundary for community integration, including strong and weak personal ties, group relationships, associational networks, and social solidarity.
However, as Friedland and McLeod (1999) have argued, local and regional structures continue to have considerable power in defining both the structures of community and media, and the framework of experience in which integration takes place, even in countries where the Internet has most highly penetrated. Rather than a simple expansion upward of the communicative boundaries of integration, the emerging structures of community integration require even greater attention to the multiple and embedded forms that community takes. Networked individualism frees individuals from the constraint of the most parochial local ties, but simultaneously opens new possibilities for local and regional association and solidarity. Increasingly, the study of community integration in communication will focus not simply on the border between the virtual and the local, but the entire networked communication ecology within which community integration occurs.
- Bender, T. (1978). Community and social change in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Cooley, C. H. (1909). Social organization: A study of the larger mind. New York: Scribner’s.
- Durkheim, E. (1960). The division of labor in society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. (Original work published 1893).
- Edelstein, A. S., & Larsen, O. N. (1960). The weekly press’ contribution to a sense of urban community. Journalism Quarterly, 37, 489 – 498.
- Finnegan, J. R., & Viswanath, K. (1988). Community ties and use of cable TV and newspapers in a midwest suburb. Journalism Quarterly, 65, 456 – 463.
- Fischer, C., Jackson, R. M., Stueve, C. A., Gerson, K., Jones, L. M., & Baldassare, M. (1977). Networks and places: Social relations in the urban setting. New York: Free Press.
- Friedland, L. A., & McLeod, J. M. (1999). Community integration and mass media: A reconsideration. In D. P. Demers & K. Viswanath (eds.), Mass media, social control, and social change. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, pp. 197–226.
- Janowitz, M. (1967). The community press in an urban setting: The social elements of urbanism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1952.)
- MacIver, R. M. (1928). Community: A sociological study. New York: Macmillan.
- Park, R. E. (1915). The city: Suggestions for the investigation of human behavior in an urban environment. American Journal of Sociology, 20, 577– 612.
- Stamm, K. R., & Guest, A. M. (1991). Communication and community integration: An analysis of the communication behavior of newcomers. Journalism Quarterly, 68(4), 644 – 656.
- Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G. A., & Olien, C. N. (1980). Community conflict and the press. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Tönnies, F. (1963). Community and society (trans. C. P. Loomis). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1887).
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