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What is community organization? A review and booklist.

contents: introduction · the importance of the group · community organization · the radical turn · current practice · further reading and references · links

It is difficult to point to particular moments in time and say this is where the concerns that we now label community work, community development, community organization or community participation began. We can certainly look to the activities of social reformers and philanthropists in the nineteenth century, for example, the Jewish Board of Guardians or the settlements such as Toynbee Hall in the UK and Hull House in North America. The mutual aid activities of churches and chapels, the YMCA and various working class organizations are also of significance. We could turn to the concern of some colonial administrations to develop local organizations so that some of their work may be undertaken. In Germany we might examine the tradition of social work practice known as sozial pädagogik (social pedagogy). In France we could turn to the activities of animateurs who came into being at the end of the nineteenth century with the establishment of compulsory education and what became known as the popular education movement. Their task was and is, basically, to promote access to education and cultural/leisure facilities. We could go on listing elements like this. However, we can pinpoint with some accuracy when the actual terms came into use. Central to this effort is the growing attention to the idea of ‘community’ in the early decades of the twentieth century in North America.

Exbibit 1: Lindeman on community

The aim of community life is to bring about amicable relations between men and groups of men (1921: 1)

An ideal community should furnish to its human constituents:

1. Order, or security of life and property through the medium of an efficient government.

2. Economic well-being, or security of income through an efficient system of productive industry.

3. Physical well-being, or health and sanitation through public health agencies.

4. Constructive use of leisure time, or recreation though public health agencies.

5. Ethical standards, or a system of morality supported by the organized community.

6. Intellectual diffusion, or education through free and public institutions within the reach of all.

7. Free avenues of expression, or means by which all the elements of the community might freely express themselves; free newspapers and public forums.

8. Democratic forms of organization, or community-wide organization through which the entire community might express its thought and see that its will is done.

9. Spiritual motivation, or religious associations which might diffuse throughout all forms of community organization the religious or spiritual motive. (Lindeman 1921: 14-15)

In many respects, Lindeman’s list parallels contemporary concerns. The disposition to self determination and democracy was common to a number of North American thinkers (mostly associated in one way or another with John Dewey). Along with Lindeman two other figures cast a significant shadow over our practice today: Mary Parker Follett and Grace Coyle.

The importance of the group

Follett, who was later to work with Lindeman, emphasized creative social experience (1918; 1924). She believed that such experience is the basis of state structure and that moves had to be made to strengthen group life. In particular she argued for the provision of citizen training through free group association, for adult and worker’s education and for neighbourhood education. 30). She drew on work undertaken in North American settlements and on the development of community centres in some schools in Boston (the latter looking remarkably like what we have come to know as community schools). Her ideas were enthusiastically taken up in other countries like the UK. Early pioneers of the community association and centre movement were deeply influenced by her work.

Coyle was also interested in the methods of democratic leadership in small groups and in group relations. She was a settlement worker and then joined the staff of the Industrial Women’s Department of the YWCA. She began the first sustained programme for group workers in 1923 (Reid 1981: 113) and later went on to draw together a number of formulations concerning group process in an influential book Social Process in Organized Groups (Coyle 1930). There followed a series of articles and debates which sought to examine group work as a method and its place within social work in North America. Again what became known as social groupwork (and Coyle’s work in particular) was taken up by key figures in the United Kingdom – especially in youth work. Here an interesting contrast appears – and one that remains today and causes some confusion. In the UK youth work became associated with education departments in the state system whereas elsewhere in Europe and North America it tends to be seen as an aspect of social work. In a similar way while UK social work was, and is, narrowly defined and very casework dominated, in the 1920s and 1930s USA social work became characterized by three strands: casework, group work and community organization.

Community organization

Lindeman’s book was the first to appear on what became known in North America as community organization. He later was to write what has become one of the classic texts of adult education but his immediate background was as an organizer of boys’ and girls’ clubs in Michigan (the forerunner of what are now known in the USA as 4-H clubs); and then a lecturer at the YMCA College in Chicago. His involvement in the YMCA movement and his interest in rural community life show through strongly in his book. Lindeman stressed his belief that the his goals for community could never be completely met and there was always need for compromise. He defined community organization as:

those phases of social organization which constitute a conscious effort on the part of a community to control its affairs democratically, and to secure the highest services from its specialists, organizations, agencies, and the institutions by means of recognized interrelations. (1921: 173)

Here we can see the sort of sequence that appears with some regularity in books about community organization and community work. What also emerges is a broad notion of community organization as furnishing a working relationship between the democratic process and the specialist: ‘the democratic process expresses itself or is personified in the total community membership. The Specialist expresses himself, or is personified in the division of labour which produces highly skilled persons and agencies, organizations and institutions, which are equipped to do one thing effectively’ (Lindeman 1921: 139). Here too, a sound warning about impatience and the slowness and stuttering progress that such work can involve.

With the second half of the 1940s came a number of classic texts on community organizing (McMillen 1945; King 1948; Dahir 1947; Hillman 1950). A further generation of texts – perhaps the best of which was Ross (1955) further popularized practice. Ross saw community organization as:

a process by which a community identifies its needs or objectives, orders (or ranks) these needs or objectives, develops the confidence and the will to work at these needs or objectives, finds the resources (internal and/or external) to deal with these needs or objectives, takes action in respect to them, and in so doing extends and develops co-operative and collaborative attitudes and practices in the community. (Ross 1955: 39)

He appears to have dual aims:

  • the achievement of certain community identified goals; and
  • the development of co-operative and collaborative attitudes and practices.

The tension between these goals can be significant and, the definition is dependent on having some agreement as to what is meant by community.

Ross, like Lindeman, was writing with a background of significant involvement in the YMCA movement (although this time in Canada). However, by the time he was writing ‘specialist’ workers had, he argued, developed a ‘distinctive pattern of work which can be utilized in a wide variety of settings to deal with any one of a number of problems’ (1955: xii).

The radical turn

Saul Alinsky (1946; 1971) – work was especially influential. He had a history of mobilizing and organizing grass roots campaigns particularly during the Depression in the district known as the Back of the Yards in Chicago (the site of Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle). He caught many people’s imaginations through his evident commitment and experience, and his ability to articulate his thoughts in catchy phrases:

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be (1971: xix)

The real action is in the enemy’s reaction. The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength (1971: 136)

Alinsky seemed to offer a model for community action (as against organization or development) and his work was picked up during the 1960s. The development of the civil rights movement; new left and alternative initiatives can be seen as bringing about a ‘revolution’ in organizing (see Fisher1984). Major state programmes such as the War on Poverty in the United States of America (see Marris and Rein 1967; Piven and Cloward) also underlined a growing emphasis on economic and structural factors in matters more often associated with individual ‘shortcomings. North American community organizing began to be widely conceptualized as involving three distinct ‘types’ of work. Here the work of Jack Rothman (1968; 1974) was of special importance.

Exhibit 2: Rothman on community organizing

Rothman identified three distinct types of community organizing:

Locality development: typifies the methods of work with community groups used by settlement houses and in ‘colonial’ community development work. A major focus is on the process of community building. Working with a broad, representative cross section of the community, workers attempt to achieve change objectives by enabling the community to establish consensus via the identification of common interests. Leadership development and the education of the participants are important elements in the process. In this approach great store is set by the values of both participation and leadership.

Social action: is employed by groups and organizations which seek to alter institutional policies or to make changes in the distribution of power. Civil rights groups and social movements are examples. Their methods may be, often are, abrasive, and participation is the value most clearly articulated by those who use this approach. Both leadership and expertise may be challenged as the symbolic ‘enemies of the people’.

Social planning: is the method of community organization traditional to health and welfare councils although its scope and arena were enlarged in the 1960s to encompass city planners, urban renewal authorities and the large public bureaucracies. Effort is focused primarily on task goals and issues of resource allocation. Whereas the initial emphasis of this approach was on the co-ordination of social services, its attention has expanded to include programme development and planning in all major social welfare institutions. Heavy reliance is placed on rational problem solving and the use of technical methods such as research and systems analysis. Expertise is the cherished value in this approach, although leadership is accorded importance as well.

[This outline of Rothman’s argument is taken from Brager and Specht (1973: 26-27)]


These elements are drawn in a fairly extreme way. There is considerable overlap between the elements – but the focus on difference is useful in that it points attention to dimensions such as process, the role of the plan, and the tension between the state and dominant groups and those who believe themselves to be excluded.

Current practice

Following Reaganite and later attacks on welfare and on notions of popular participation, the heady days of radical action seem far away. However, the community organization tradition lives on – and, arguably has become more focused as notions such as ‘community practice’ have gained in popularity.

Further reading and references

In my selection I have tried to include a number of books that give a picture of the development of thinking and practice. I have also tried to identify a number of key contemporary texts that allow for a rounded picture of the tradition. The literature tends to split into three camps:

  • explorations of campaigns and social protest movements e.g. Fisher 1984; Piven and Cloward (1977); and
  • studies of community organization (such as Rothman, above; and Mondros and Wilson 1994). A very select group!

Community organization – practice wisdom

Alinsky, S. D. (1946) Reveille for Radicals. (1969 edn.), New York: Random House. Written in Alinsky’s catchy style, this influential text includes chapters around purpose; means and ends; words; the education of an organizer; communication; beginnings; tactics; ; the way ahead.

Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for Radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals, New York: Vintage. 196 + xxvi pages. Focuses on the building of people’s organizations with chapters on programmes; leadership; community traditions; tactics; popular education; and psychological observations on mass organization.

Brager, G. & Specht, H. (1973) Community Organizing, New York: Columbia University Press. 363 + xi pages. Became pretty much the standard principles and practice text. Part one deals with contemporary community organization practice; part two with organizing a constituency: the process of community work; Part three looks at institutional relations: the sponsors of community work and Part four at influencing targets – tactics for community change.

Burghardt, S. (1982) The Other Side of Organizing, Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman. Exploration of practice wisdom around organizing skills with a concern for practical advice both in terms of the work with community organizations and for the the development and well-being of the worker.

Dunham, A. (1958) Community Welfare Organization. Principles and practice, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. 480 + xiii pages. Foundational text that provides an introduction to community organization; examines agencies and programs; and the practice of community organization. Useful historical material plus some good material on records, methods, programming and co-ordination; education; committees and guiding principles.

Hardcastle, D. A., Wenocur, S. and Powers, P. R. (1997) Community Practice. Theories and skills for social workers, New York: Oxford University Press. 450 + xii pages. ISBN 0-19-509352-6. One of those classic all-singing, all-dancing, all-American college texts. It has the usual ‘problem-solving’ roots – but it does a pretty good job in introducing community organization and foundation practice. Part one looks at social environments and social interaction – theories for community practice; the nature of social and community problems; and the concept of community in social work practice. Part two deals with key community practice skills: discovering and documenting the life of a community; assessment; the self/assertiveness; using your agency; work groups; networking; social marketing; advocacy; case management; being there.

Kahn S. (1994) How People Get Power rev. edn., Washington: National Association of Social Workers Press. 146 + xx pages (1e 1970). Introductory guide to community organizing – in the tradition of Alinsky. Chapters deal with entering the community; sizing up the community; making contacts; bringing people together; developing leadership; working with organizations; setting priorities; power tactics; building political power; self help strategies; and leaving the community. There are afterwords on the possibilities and goals of organizing. See, also, S. Kahn (1992) Organizing: A guide for grassroots leaders, New York: McGraw Hill.

Kramer, R. M. and Specht, H. (eds.) (1969) Readings in Community Organization Practice, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall. 458 + xiv pages. Popular and important collection with sections on community analysis; organizational analysis; community problem solving; the roles of professional change agents; the management of social conflict; and social planning.

Kuenstler, P. (ed.) (1961) Community Organization in Great Britain, London: Faber and Faber. 164 pages. The first substantial British collection of material – drawing on the (1959) Younghusband Report’s definition of community organization. Contains some fascinating material – an overview of community organization in Britain (Kuenstler); the needs of old urban areas (Mays); new estates (Smith): new towns (Taylor); councils of social service (Littlewood and Clements); community associations and centres (Milligan); community and sociology (Dennis); and conclusions (Goetschius). Includes a useful bibliography.

Lindeman, E. (1921) The Community. An introduction to the study of community leadership and organization, New York: Association Press. The first text on community organizing and argues for a more scientific approach. Poses various alternatives but argues for the importance of the community organizer learning to work with with the different (and conflicting) forces in a community. Focuses on citizen participation; voluntary action; and interdependence.

Ross, M. G. (1955) Community Organization. Theory, Principle and Practice, New York: Harper & Row. (2e with B. W. Lappin 1967). Important and influential text (sold 30,000 copies and translated into five languages). In its second edition, it included chapters on conceptions of community work; the meaning of community organization; basic assumptions in community organization; some hypotheses about community life; aspects of planning; principles relating to organization; the role of the professional worker; and integrating principles and practice.

Rothman, J., Erlich, J. L. and Tropman, J. E. with Cox, F. M. (eds.) (1995) Strategies of Community Intervention 5e, Itasca, Il.: Peacock. Companion to Tropman et al (1995).

Steiner, J. F (1925) Community Organization. A study of its theory and current practice (rev. edn 1930), New York: Century. If Lindeman (1921) was the first text, this was the first textbook on community organization. He looked to the ‘community movement’ and explored aspects such as community chests and councils; organized recreation; interchurch co-operation; relationships between national and local agencies.

Tropman, J. E., Erlich, J. L. and Rothman, J. (eds.) (1995) Tactics and Techniques of Community Intervention 3e, Itasca, Ill.: F. E. Peacock. 482 + xii pages. Collection of 39 pieces. Part one deals with assessment and includes material on need identification, analysing agencies, and knowing yourself. Part two is concerned with option selection – values, feminist practice, assessment frameworks, and ethical dilemmas. Part three, implementation, mobilization and development: planning and organizing includes material on democratic organization, managing tensions, selecting tactics and organizing with people of color. Part four – administration, management and policy – looks at leading and managing community organization; women’s ways; on-site analysis; job skills; and policy management. Part five examines programme evaluation. Part six explores some dilemmas of practice – codes of ethics; frameworks for ethical decision making; and experiences of women activists. Last, part seven provides some work guides: personnel management; effective meetings; using community data; guide to research and evaluation; budgeting; and methods of analysis.

Community organization – campaigns and movements

Fisher, R. (1984) Let the People Decide. Neighbourhood organizing in America, Boston: Twayne. 197 + xxiv pages. Useful historical review periodically organized: social welfare neighbourhood organizing, 1886 – 1929 (settlements, community centers etc.); radical organizing, 1929 – 1946 (New Deal, Saul Alinsky, Communist Party); Conservative organizing, 1946 – 1960 (community development and the cold war; neighbourhood improvement associations); the neighbourhood organizing ‘revolution’ of the 1960s; the new populism of the 1970s. Includes a bibliographical essay.

Fisher, R. and Romanofsky (eds.) (1981) Community Organization for Urban Social Change: A historical perspective, Westport: Greenwood Press. Useful collection which includes chapters on the role and concept of neighbourhoods; the politics of Black protest; and community organizing in the 1970s.

Piven, F. F. and Cloward, R. (1977) Poor People’s Movements, New York: Pantheon. Excellent study.

Community organization – studies

Harper, E. B. and Dunham, A. (1959) Community Organization in Action. Basic literature and critical comments, New York: Association Press. 543 pages. Very helpful collection of material from the start of the century. Sections on the community and social welfare; the process of community organization; community organization in practice; agencies and programs; personnel – professionals and laymen; community development in the United States and elsewhere.

Mondros, J. B. and Wilson, S. M. (1994) Organizing for Power and Empowerment, New York: Columbia University Press. 279 + xxi pages. Important study of community organizations and the practice wisdom of 84 local to national organizers and leaders. Chapters explore: social action organizations and power; the organizers; recruiting participants; maintaining and deepening member participation; issues; strategy development; implementing strategy; evaluating outcomes; social action organizations; the pursuit of empowerment: strengths and challenges of practice.

Rothman, J. (1974) Planning and Organizing for Social Change: action principles from social science research, New York: Columbia University Press. Reviews the literature related to community organizing and social action in the late 1960s.

Spiegel, H. B. C. (ed.) (1968) Citizen Participation in Urban Development. Volume 1: Concepts and issues, Washington: Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. 291 pages. Useful collection of readings that examines citizen participation: housing and urban renewal; anti-poverty programs; Alinsky; and inplications for community decision making. Includes a bibliographic essay.

Other references

Betten, N. and Austin, M. (1990) The Roots of Community Organizing: 1917 – 1939, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Biklen, D. (1983) Community Organizing: Theory and practice, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall.

Burghardt, S. (1982) Organizing for Community Action, Beverley Hills: Sage.

Coyle, G. L.(1930) Social Process in Organized Groups, New York: Richard R. Smith.

Dahir, J. (1947) The Neighbourhood Unit Plan. Its spread and acceptance, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Ecklein, J. (1984) Community Organizers, New York: Wiley.

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State. Group organization the solution of popular government (3rd impression [1920] with introduction by Lord Haldane), London: Longmans Green.

Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience, New York: Longman.

Hillman, A. (1950) Community Organization and Planning, London: Macmillan.

King, C. (1948) Organization for Community Action, New York: Harper.

Marris, P. and Rein, M. (1967, 1974) Dilemmas of Social Reform. Poverty and community action in the United States, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

McMillen, H. W. (1945) Community Organization for Social Welfare, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Piven, F. F. and Cloward, R. (1971) Regulating the Poor. The functions of public welfare, New York: Vintage.

Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Rothman, J. (1968) ‘Three models of community organization practice’ in Social Work Practice 1968, New York: Columbia University Press.

Picture: Art critic explaining chaos theory to other art critics by paolobarzman. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc by nc nd licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2005) ‘Community organization’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Last update: July 08, 2014]

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 2005, 2014

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