Community studies

Picture: Windows on Waterloo by Henry Hemmings. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Over the years a distinctive body of literature has developed around ‘community studies’. Individual contributions tend to fall across disciplinary boundaries – some are labelled as sociology, some as anthropology, and yet others as geography or urban studies. What follows is a quick guide to the literature and an attempt to bring out some key questions and themes.

I have divided the studies examined into three groups:

  • North American studies
  • African studies
  • United Kingdom/Irish studies

There have also been a number of studies in South America and in India and other Southern societies – and some of these are reviewed.

A starting point

To help us sort our way through the material I am going use what Bell and Newby describe as a minimum definition. For them a community study is concerned:

with the study of the interrelationships of social institutions in a locality. This does not mean all social institutions locally present have to be studied but, unless these interrelations are considered they will not considered as community studies. (ibid: 19)

This way of defining community studies excludes research which focuses on a particular social institution in a locality. For example, the famous studies of the family undertaken in Bethnal Green (e.g. Young and Willmott 1957) would not be included. For the moment we are going to stay with this – but we do need to note that other commentators include these and similar studies within their definition of the area (see, for example, Frankenberg 1966).

As you will see from the use of locality in the definition, most of the studies we will be looking at are concerned with community as place. Within that the interest is in the inter-relationships of social institutions (hence our concern with networks). However, this does not mean that we do not recognize the importance of looking at a particular element or phenomenon in a neighbourhood.

Community studies as texts and as a method

In a literature review we are obviously concerned with texts – the reports and books produced by researchers as a result of their labours. However, we also need to note that many of those involved consider also to be a method – a particular process. It is true that community studies share a number of characteristics:

the researchers have usually lived in the community studied (or spent a considerable amount of time involved in everyday activities there). They have shared some of the experiences of some of the inhabitants. In other words they are field workers. the researchers have tended to be not only physically close to what they are studying – but also emotionally close. ‘This means that community studies are very sympathetic – critics would say, over sympathetic – portraits of a locality (Bell and Newby 1971: 55).while the researchers may use large scale surveys and various forms of network analysis, they place a special emphasis on participant observation and sustained conversation with local people. They substantial use of ‘key informants’ (such as Whyte (1943; 1955) did of ‘Doc’ in Street Corner Society). They are, in other words, eclectic in their methods.

the books and articles that researchers produce, given the processes they have gone through, tend to be lively, full of graphic description (and sometimes a bit short on theory).

Just how distinctive a method it is is open to question. While the component parts of community studies are not unique in themselves – but are necessary elements of researchers’ repertoires (see Bell 1987; 1993) – taken together there is something distinctive about the approach.

North American community studies

The North American literature is particularly strong. The first, classic, work in this genre is generally said to be Robert Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s (1929) Middletown. A study in American Culture. They had initially set out to examine religious provision in a small American town but found that this could not be done without a wider exploration.

The aim… was to study synchronously the interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city. A typical city, strictly speaking, does not exist, but the city studied was selected as having many features common to a wide group of communities. Neither field work nor report has attempted to prove any thesis; the aim has been, rather, to record observed phenomena, thereby raising questions and suggesting possible fresh points of departure in the study of group behaviour. (Lynd and Lynd 1929: 3)

This is the opening paragraph to the book and it contains a number of elements that have remained important to community studies (and a matter for some debate both within and without the tradition – see Bell and Newby 1971: 82-93). These include:

looking at a number of elements at any one time and seeing how they interconnect. choosing some neighbourhood or community which appeared to have aspects that could have relevance for other places.not seeking to prove a thesis but to gain data to stimulate debate and theorizing.

looking at group behaviour.

In 1929 the book created quite a stir. There hadn’t been a study like it – it was the first ‘scientific and objective’ study of small town life. I put ‘scientific and objective’ in quotes because there are questions around this. Were the Lynds commendable in their concern to let the situation speak to them; could they be that unbiased and let the data speak for themselves? Questions like this are still asked today in debates concerning different approaches to research. In many respects the Lynds’ approach is very close to what Glaser and Strauss (1967) have described as ‘grounded theorizing’ (see Strauss and Corbin 1990: 21-28).

Having given a brief outline of why Middletown was chosen and the historical setting, the Lynds ordered their book around six key areas:

getting a living, making a home,training the young,

using leisure,

engaging in religious practices, and

engaging in community activities.

This was a significant approach in that it focuses on activities – the things that people do – and is drawn from anthropological work at the time (Lynd and Lynd 1929: 4).

Such was the success of their work that they returned to Muncie (the town in their study) in 1935 to conduct a follow-up study which sought to make explicit the elements of permanence and of change (Lynd and Lynd 1937: 487). They found that Middletown had met with four types of experience ‘peculiarly conducive to cultural change: sudden and great strain on its institutions, widespread dislocation of individual habits, pressure for change from the larger culture surrounding it, and at some points the actual implementing from without of a changed line of action (op cit). There had been ten years of book and depression. The result was a tough exposure of the sources of power in the small town and for all the claims to neutrality, the study reveals the writers ‘militant and evangelical feelings about what was wrong with American society’ (Bell and Newby 1971: 84). Crucially, ‘the two Middletown monographs illustrate well that it is relatively short step from the community study as empirical description to the community study as normative prescription’ (op cit). This is a lesson we do well to heed.

A number of classic studies followed. These include:

The Gold Coast and the Slum (Zorbaugh 1929) – study of the Lower North Side, Chicago. This asked the fundamental question as to whether in such an urban setting it was possible to call an area a ‘community’ at all. It was one of a large number of research projects based in Chicago concerned with urbanism and ‘human ecology’. These included studies of hobos, dance halls and gangs. They saw the city as an ecological system (Park et al 1925).Urbanism as a way of life (Wirth 1938). This wasn’t a study but rather a very influential article produced by one of the ‘Chicago School’. Wirth argued that as the size of a population grows, so it becomes difficult for each individual to know all the others personally:

Characteristically, urbanites meet one another in highly segmental roles. They are, to be sure, dependent upon more people for the satisfaction of their life needs than are rural people and thus are associated with a great number of organized groups, but they are less dependent upon particular persons, and their dependence on others is confined to a highly fractionalized aspect of the other’s round of activity. This is essentially what is meant by saying the city is characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts. The contacts may be face to face, but they are, nevertheless, impersonal, superficial, transitory and segmental. The reserve, the indifference and the blasé outlook which urbanites manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others. (Wirth 1938: 12)

The article has been a central reference point in urban studies since it was written – and as such attracted much criticism. Among the questions raised is the conflicting nature of the evidence in relation to Wirth’s claims. Similarly, there are worries that he views the city as a closed system – when really it is an open or part system (unlike the folk or rural society he is comparing it with). In other words, the two are not directly comparable (Hannerz 1980: 66).

Yankee City (Warner and Lunt 1941). This was another study of a small American town (Newburyport, New England). This study used a rather crude functionalist or systems approach. It viewed Yankee City as a ‘working whole’ in which ‘each part had a definite function which had to be performed, or substitutes acquired, if the whole society were to maintain itself’ (ibid: 14).Street Corner Society (Whyte 1943; 1955). For this study of ‘Cornerville’ Whyte lived with an Italian family in Boston’s East End. It is perhaps best known as a study of gang and group life and as a classic example of participant observation. However, it also has extensive material on racketeering, politics and the social structure.

Small Town in Mass Society (Vidich and Bensman 1958) – this was a study of ‘Springdale’, a small rural community in upstate New York. Like the Lynds, the researchers did not go to the town with highly developed hypotheses. They argued that it is not possible to talk about Springdale as a whole in relation to mass society – but rather only about the relationship of particular groups.

The class and political analysis opened our perception to a number of sharp contradictions in the communities institutions and values. The public enactment of community life and public statements of community values seemed to bear little relationship to the community’s operating institutions and the private lives of its members. (Vidich and Bensman 1958: x)

The study was important for other reasons – the attention to methodology (in particular participant observation, the validity of field data, and the role of theory in field work). It also caused something of a scandal as the figures involved were directly recognizable; and it made explicit a number of things that were left unsaid in the community (Bell and Newby 1971: 120).

Crestwood Heights (Seeley et al 1956) – is a study of suburbia and of middle class life. It was based in an area of Toronto in which there was not strong local identification (most of the men left the area to work). It was, by and large, a residential community ‘devoted to child rearing’ (ibid: 11). Upto this point there had been few studies of this type of neighbourhood and it fed into a growing concern or interest in changing patterns of life in urban societies. This included worries about the ‘breakdown of community’, the lack of commitment to neighbourhood because of working patterns, a growing individualization and so on. Much of this ‘myth of suburbia’ was disputed by Gans (1967) in his study of a similar area – Levittown. He argued that such differences that existed did not flow so much from the fact that the neighbourhood was a suburb, but that it was relatively new (and people took time to establish themselves in places).

These, then, are some of the classic studies. As will be seen from their dates of publication – the main texts were published some time ago. In part this may be to do with fashions in research. Large scale studies of this kind are expensive to undertake and for them to be funded researchers have to make a case for some applicability for policy formulation. The result of this is that more recent studies are either more directly tied into policy initiatives such as urban programmes; or focus more closely on a particular phenomenon. Examples of the later include Heath’s (1983) wonderful study of children’s language usage in ‘Roadville’ and ‘Trackton’, Brody’s (1987) study of hunters in the Canadian north, and Sorin’s (1990) study of Brownsville Boys Club. Each of these examples would probably fall outside the minimum definition used by Bell and Newby.

African studies

As we have seen, a great deal of the early American work owed much to the activities of a committed group of sociologists at the University of Chicago with their particular focus on urban studies. Significantly the only other single body of localized urban ethnography comes from Central Africa – the product of Rhodes-Livingstone Institute set up in 1937 and later taken into the Institute for Social Research at the University of Zambia (Hannerz 1980).

One of the interesting things about the work of the Institute was that it paid a great deal of attention to change and the rise of urbanism. While much anthropology seems to focus on ‘traditional’ societies and groupings (and is written in a haze of what Rosaldo (1989) describes as ‘imperialist nostalgia’), these studies looked to disequilibrium. In this sense they shared much with the American studies. One of the first explorations was of Broken Hill a copper mining area (Wilson 1941) and this was followed by publications dealing with various aspects of local life and institutions (e.g. Epstein 1958; Gluckman 1964). While it could be said that they paid insufficient attention to the material basis of local life, what the writers associated with the Institute were able to do was to explore social relationships in a time of change. In particular, the relationship between rural and so called ‘traditional’ institutions and ways of life, and the new forms found in urban conurbations. They were the precursor to a number of studies which focus on urbanisation, underdevelopment and marginality (e.g. Lomnitz 1977; Perlman 1976; and Roberts 1978 – these are all Latin American studies). Perlman, for example, discusses squatter settlements (favelas) in Brazil and argues that from the ‘outside’ they are frequently viewed as a blight and as a sign of disintegration and large scale social problems. From the ‘inside’ things look very different. Care is taken with housing, people seek to work and ‘there is a remarkable degree of social cohesion and mutual trust and a complex internal social organization, involving numerous clubs and voluntary associations’ (Perlman 1976: 13). As Lomnitz says ‘social life in shantytown unfolds like a complex design for survival’ (1977: 3).

At first sight, many of the classic anthropological works might also be considered as ‘community studies’. After all they examine workings of particular groups in particular localities. However, their orientation to exploring culture can quickly take then away from studying the inter-relationships that interest us here. For example, Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) well known account of the Nuer people while looking at questions of livelihood and politics is doing so for two ends: to describe their life; and to lay bare some of the principles of their social structure (1940: 7). This can be compared with the Lynds concern to study ‘synchronously the interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city’. However, a number of more recent anthropological studies are more closely allied to our concerns here (e.g. Southall and Gutkind 1957; and Parkin 1969). One particularly interesting piece of work is Obbo’s exploration of women’s struggle for economic independence based on work undertaken in Wabigalo and Namuwongo, Uganda. While not being a community study as such, it does provide a very necessary counterbalance to the dominant concentration on the activities of men in African communities ( a problem shared by a number of other community studies – see below). Obbo is able to show the strategies women used for achieving economic autonomy and hence improved social conditions – strategies such as migration, hard work and manipulation (Obbo 1980: 5). ‘The women put pressure on traditional ideologies to create options that enabled them to share in the resources and alternative life-styles available in their societies’ (op cit).

Before leaving the African studies it is necessary to address crucial questions concerning researchers relationship with colonialism and imperialism. The anthropologists at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, for example, were reliant on monies from the colonial administration to undertake their work – and, indeed, did specific pieces of research for the administrators. Just how much their efforts contributed to the operation of the colonial government is open to some question – only rarely have anthropologists contributed in any sustained way to development projects (Mair 1984: 11). Policy makers tend to have a rather cynical view of research and a liking for ‘practical’ knowledge. This prejudice may also have been strengthened by the sympathies that many of the anthropologists associated with the Institute had with the emerging nationalist struggles in Africa. However, this should not take away the fact that the researchers interest did not lie in, for example mining communities as such, but in African miners. In this they brought with them the colonial heritage of the discipline. This is a point that is worthy of general consideration. The charge of colonialism could be levelled against the activities of many researchers, workers and educators working in communities which they consider not to be ‘their own’.

United Kingdom and Irish studies

What is generally said to be the first UK/Irish study was a spin off from Warner’s Yankee City studies. Two of the researchers associated with that programme looked at two townlands in County Clare – these consisted of a small town, a couple of hamlets and a number of scattered farms. As might be expected from the Yankee City study they look to the family and the community as social systems (Arensberg and Kimball 1940). This was followed by a number of influential rural studies including Rees’ (1950) exploration of farm life and politics in mid-Wales; Williams (1956) influential study of Gosforth with its focus on the family; and Littlejohn’s (1963) investigation of a Cheviot parish. Rees argued strongly that the traditional emphasis on kinship, neighbourliness, hospitality and lack of hierarchies was under threat from by cultural and economic invasion by the English. As Wright (1992) comments, the opposition of rural and urban is found in many other community studies at this time. Indeed, one of the common themes running through these studies (and others like them) is the extent to which ‘rurality’ depends on distance from, or marginality in relation to, urban centres (a theme raised above). They also carry with them a striking concern with the impact of change and modernization and the way this impacts on roles, groups and networks (see Frankenberg 1966 in particular for as example of this).

Along with these rural studies there have been a number of investigation of distinctive local industrial communities – most notably those organized around mining. The classic study in this respect is Coal is Our Life (Dennis et al 1956). In his chapter on this research, Frankenberg (1966) describes the setting for this study, Ashton, as ‘the town that is a village (1966: 113-139). This is a community study in the sense that Bell and Newby describe it – but it does not set out to describe the community as a whole. Rather the focus is on three important ‘formative influences on Ashton’s social life – work, leisure and the family’ (Dennis et al 1956: 246). One of the problems associated with community studies (and acknowledged by the writers), is that phenomena such as relationships in families, and the nature of leisure activities are viewed largely from the standpoint of their interrelationship with the activities and social relationships imposed by mining. The concern here is that this can tend to obscure, ‘the fact that each of these particular sets of relationships is extended beyond the community, in both space and time’ (1956: 7). With the subsequent decline in mining and the major local social changes linked to the bitter disputes of the 1980s, researchers have again turned to mining communities. The accounts range from Parker’s (1986) stunning use of conversations in a small north east town to illustrate the changes and tensions, to Waddington et al (1990) more ‘academic’ discussion.

The urban housing estate has also been a focus for study. These studies have either tended to be linked into explorations of the formation of ‘new’ communities or because they are seen as manifesting particular problems. Examples of the former are Durant’s (1939) study of Watling, Hendon – and Willmott’s (1963) review and study of 40 years of the large LCC estate at Dagenham. (Interestingly these estates were all the sites for two of the first community associations – see Broady et al 1990). Jenning’s (1962) study of the Barton Hill redevelopment in Bristol is another example of this genre. Examples of the latter include Parker (1983), and Barke and Turnbull (1992). Overlapping with these are studies of particular initiatives which contain both analysis of the local estate/community with an exploration of the work undertaken there. Spencer (1964) provides an example of this in his study of community development, youth work and play work on a Bristol estate (to be read in association with Jennings 1962). Paneth (1945) provides a similar mix in her discussion of ‘deatched’ youth work in Branch Street.

Last, but certainly not least in this survey are the two major studies of the last thirty or so years – of Banbury and the Isle of Sheppey. The Banbury study (Stacey 1960) and its follow-up (Stacey et al 1975) has all the ambition of the early American studies. Its strength lies in its analysis of the local inter-relation of social institutions. Through the careful analysis of the membership of various groups Stacey is able to show the various linkages between them; and how power relations may be maintained. Like Middletown we get a picture of the town over a period of time and this adds emphasis. The study is also significant for Stacey’s worries about the operational use of the term ‘community’. Her interest lies in the operation of ‘local social systems’ which, she argues, is a sounder basis for analysis than the notion of community.

The Isle of Sheppey study (Pahl 1984) and its associated work concerning young people (Wallace 1987) were primarily concerned with work – what it is and who does what in society as a whole. However, this is grounded in an analysis of the social structure on the Isle and was the result of six years research there. Its particular contribution lies in the emphasis on the exploration of household divisions of labour and how these must understood over time both in relation to the local and to impact of wider social and structural forces.

Communities, the household division of labour, and symbols

In many respects the Sheppey study addresses some of the key criticisms that can be made of much of the earlier work. That the ‘representation of community in the studies was ahistorical; it relied on a model of functional equilibrium; and that it could not cope with change (Wright 1992: 202). Based on this critique, Wright argues that two new directions in community studies are required. Here she was primarily interested in rural studies but her arguments also apply to the urban situation. The first is a re-examination of the boundaries around the community arena:

This involves studying the organisation of the households, which can be done now that the 1970s and 1980s have brought an awareness of gender issues. It also entails locating the rural area in the political economy of the state. This will enable community to be reconceptualised for analytical purposes. It still leaves open the question of how the idea of community is used by people themselves. This is the second new direction in community studies, and it will be important to emphasise that ‘community’ is an idea, not a social or geographical entity. (ibid: 205)

Against community as a physical place then, we have to consider it as something in the mind. Here the work of Cohen (1982; 1985; 1987) and Strathern (1981; 1982) is of some importance – and signals that we have to take considerable care with the notion of community. What are interested in is the way that people view particular places and groupings, and the attachments they may have to them. Thus, this isn’t to say that place is not important, but rather to argue that it cannot be taken as a simplistic given.

Community studies were consigned for some time into an abyss of theoretical sterility by obsessive attempts to formulate precise analytical definitions. We are not concerned with the positivistic niceties of analytical taxonomies. We confront an empirical phenomenon: people’s attachment to community. We seek an understanding of it by trying to capture some sense of their experience and of the meanings they attach to community. (Cohen 1983: 38)

This is something in which we, as informal and community educators, can have particular insights given our concern with conversation and experience.


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Picture: Windows on Waterloo by Henry Hemmings. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Prepared by Mark K. Smith
© Mark K. Smith
First published July 1996. Last update: July 08, 2014