Communitarianism and Citizenship

Gerard Delanty. Handbook of Citizenship Studies. Editor: Engin F Isin & Bryan S Turner. Sage Publication. 2002.

The idea of community has frequently been counterposed to society, as in Tönnies’s famous treatise on Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, or to the state, as in the thought of modern communitarianism, the subject of this chapter. In this latter conception, community is rooted in something prior to the political order of the state and, in the former, it is based on something more substantive than the associational order of modern society (Tönnies, 1959). For many, community presupposes a social ontology which when examined closely turns out to be a non-social category and is frequently conceived of in cultural terms. Thus, political community is often seen to be rooted in a prior cultural community, for it is held neither the state nor society can provide enduring normative ties. The appeal to community thus inevitably invokes a certain opposition to modernity and the liberal tradition of individualism with its too ‘thin’ understanding of community (see Walzer, 1994). In the debate on citizenship this is particularly apparent. Communitarians argue that citizenship is rooted in a culturally defined community, while liberals argue that citizenship rests on individuals and that therefore political community is derivative of its members, who are always individuals. Whether citizenship as membership of a political community rests on the individual or a prior cultural or moral community is what divides the protagonists in this debate.

It is noteworthy, however, that most of this debate—while harking back to classical sociological theory—has been fought out on the level of normative political theory and that, while communitarians claim to be more in tune with the social constitution of citizenship, there is a noticeable absence of a sociological analysis of the key terms in the debate, namely citizenship and community, which instead tend to be taken as given when in fact they are socially constructed. In this chapter I shall demonstrate that a sociological approach informed by recent developments in social theory offers advantages over a purely normative approach that is abstract and de-contextualized. My argument is that when viewed sociologically communitarianism does not offer a satisfactory alternative to the liberal conception of citizenship, and that at most it is a modification of it. It is based on the same essentially normative understanding of what is in essence a volatile social process in which cultural structures normative, cognitive, symbolic and aesthetic-are deeply bound up with different kinds of social agency. Community cannot be seen as a consensual resource from which citizenship can directly draw, but is a highly relational concept. The assumption in communitarianism that community provides a cultural foundation for citizenship distorts the nature of both citizenship and community in contemporary society. It has given a view of citizenship as pre-political and rooted in a consensual and spatially fixed understanding of the life-world. Against the assumption that a culturally and territorially defined community can offer a foundation for a politically defined conception of citizenship, I argue for a reflexive, internally differentiated and communicative understanding of community and citizenship that is more in tune with contemporary developments, allowing us to speak of a cosmopolitan institutionalization of communities of dissent. Thus against the communitarian appeal to a primordial cultural community as a foundation for liberalism’s political community, I argue for a notion of communication community in the context of an increasingly global world. In order to link citizenship with community what is needed is a weak or ‘thin’ conception of the latter and a ‘thick’ version of the former.

In the first part of this chapter I outline what I take to be the four main conceptions of community in modern social and political thought. In the second part I look at the sociological theory of community suggested by recent social theory in order to find an alternative to the communitarian theory of community. By way of conclusion, I defend the continued use of the idea of community, but in a way that is tied to a more reflexive kind of communitarianism, which I call cosmopolitan communitarianism. The thesis defended here is that citizenship is rooted in community, which is to be understood in terms of essentially social as opposed to cultural or moral dynamics of group formation. In general, communitarian thought assumes a self-evident conception of group formation as consisting of an opposition of self and other. Rather than speak of community as something taken for granted, we need to see it in terms of a model of the group as internally differentiated.

The Appeal of Community in Modern Social and Political Thought

The communitarian debate on citizenship, while conducted within normative political theory, has recently taken on a more governmental form in public policy debates. The result is a very contested term. However, some basic assumptions can be discerned in these very diverse debates. There is a discredited functionalist understanding of community inherited from an earlier age of social and political thought, and not least from classical sociology. From this heritage has come a conception of community that emphasizes social order and a pre-established and relatively harmonious consensus based on shared cultural values and tradition. Community has thus come to stand for ‘unity’ and conflict for its absence.

Even when the emphasis is not on an underlying cultural community, there is the assumption that politics and citizenship must rest on an underlying moral order that is prior to the political. In the first section, I discuss this older tradition, in the second section I examine in detail the liberal communitarian debate, in the third section I look at the civic tradition of communitarianism and in the fourth section I look at the governmentalization of community.

The Modern Myth of Community

The concept of community in classical sociology is closely linked with a conservatively inclined functionalism, in the sense that community was seen as more functional than society. Ferdinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, published in 1887, pitted community and society against each other (Tönnies, 1957). ‘Community’ referred to the organic and cohesive traditional world while ‘society’ refers to the fragmented world of modernity with its rationalized, intellectualized and individualized structures. For Tönnies community was based on direct ties, while society was based on associational ties. Communities are allegedly culturally integrated totalities while society is defined by its parts. Tönnies regretted the passing of community—the world of the village and the rural community, and the arrival of society—the world of the city, believing that community could supply the individual with greater moral resources. His idea of community thus suggests a strong sense of place, proximity and totality, while society suggests fragmentation, alienation and distance.

This functionalist understanding of community is also present in Durkheim’s sociology, where society is essentially a community based on common cultural values. Modernity for Durkheim is defined by the movement from mechanical forms of integration, characterized by ascriptive values and an immediate identification of the individual with the collectivity, to organic forms of integration, which are characterized by contractual relations and require cooperation between groups (Durkheim, 1960). He was critical of Tönnies’s nostalgia for community as a lost totality, but nevertheless believed community was essential to citizenship in modern society. Durkheim was in fact the first classical communitarian theorist. In his liberal republican philosophy, society needs to re-create community in order to make a new kind of civic morality possible. He saw society as oscillating between integration and anomic, mechanical forms of integration on the one hand and the more functionalized organic forms of generalized communication on the other. Durkheim, unlike Tönnies who was a romantically inclined guild socialist, a positivist and a liberal, and had no difficulty in accepting the burden of modernity and its individualized and differentiated social organization, which was potentially liberating. In particular in his later work, he believed that occupational groups and a democratic political culture could provide a foundation for community compatible with the demands of modernity (Durkheim, [1893] 1957). Here there is a suggestion of a shift from a cultural to a moral understanding of community in the modern age. As with many of the thinkers of his era, Durkheim’s vision of society was dominated by the belief that he was witnessing an epochal transition from tradition to modernity. While he reconciled himself to society, his vision of a functionalized social order bore the imprint of a fascination with community as an ontological and primordial reality and as a symbolic order.

The penchant for community in classical sociological theory was enhanced by the rise of anthropology, which perpetuated the myth of primitive society being a holistic fusion of culture and society around a symbolic order and primordial values. The early anthropologists called primitive societies ‘cultures,’ preferring to reserve the word ‘society’ for their own allegedly superior scientific society. The anthropological vision had an enduring hold on the sociological mind, which tended to see cultural values and social practices as intertwined and underpinned by symbolic structures with a strong sense of group boundaries. Community in classical sociology came to be seen as modelled on primitive cultures, as small-scale and traditionally organized groups in which cultural cohesion is mirrored in social integration. Communities are also seen as territorially located, sharing a common territory as well as a set of primordial values. At a time when anthropology and sociology were not differentiated into separate disciplines, sociology—in particular the functionalist tradition—inherited this powerful myth of community as a lost totality rooted in place and proximity. It also entered political theory, providing it with a vision of community as a transcendental imaginary, as in, for example, the idea of a transnational political community (Deutsch et al., 1957).

As far as sociology was concerned, this led to a certain ambivalence with modernity, which it viewed as having brought about a rupture with tradition. Not only conservative functionalists adopted this position. The myth of community as a holistic fusion of culture and society was also behind liberal and Marxist interpretations of modernity (Nisbet, 1953, 1967). The search for community in the form of the utopian communist society at the end of history was central to Marxism. Few philosophies have been more successful in advocating a notion of community than Marxism, which conceived the communist society of the future as a perfect fusion of culture and society. The Chicago School, too, was very much preoccupied with the idea of a tension between community and society. Their studies on the impact of industrialism and urban modernization on traditional communities greatly contributed to the myth of community as something destroyed by modernity. Other approaches saw a different kind of community—suggestive of the Christian oecueme promising a more global kind of community beyond the social. Thus Parson’s (1961: 10-1) functionalism was guided by the belief that modernity was ultimately regulated by the moral order of what he called the ‘societal community.’

Despite some notable critiques, this appeal of community as an ontological and primordial set of values has endured throughout the twentieth century as a counterforce to society. This was particularly prevalent in conservative sociology, which contrasted ‘mass society’ (with its weak symbolic resources and loose boundaries) with the more cohesive world of community. The vision of a recovery of a primordial totality has been a very powerful idea and ideal and has inspired many sociological and philosophical theories, as well as political ideologies (Cohen, 1985). It may be said that the twentieth century has witnessed the triumph of the spirit of community over the spirit of society. The ideologies of modernity—socialism, conservatism, nationalism, fascism, anarchism, kibbutz democracy—have all been inspired by the quest for community. Indeed, it may be suggested that the quest for community has been inspired precisely because of the failure of the social. While society has been associated with the negative aspects of modernity—rationalization, individualization, industrialism, disenchantment community has been more successful in expressing the positive aspects of modernity. Yet, there is no denying its ambivalence with modernity.

In sum, classical sociological thought bequeathed a conception of community as embodied in a shared sense of place and cultural order based on consensus, primordialism and harmony. It led to a vision of society and of citizenship requiring the stable resources of community.

Liberal Communitarianism

The concept of citizenship has not been central to sociological theory (Turner, 1993). The debate on citizenship has been more central to political theory, and to an extent in social policy, and has been traditionally dominated by liberal theory and its limits, as pointed out by T.H. Marshall in 1950 (Marshall, 1992). With the emergence of communitarianism since the 1980s, the debate on citizenship has been reopened around a more contextualized concept of citizenship as the expression of community. The liberal theory of citizenship reduced citizenship to the market, while Marshall relocated citizenship in the state, albeit the welfare state of the postwar era. It has thus been the fate of citizenship to be reduced either to the market or to the state. The republican tradition with its emphasis on civil society as a domain between the state and economy represented an alternative tradition, one that stressed the association order of civic life as the basis of citizenship and of community. However the liberal communitarian philosophy that emerged in the 1980s had a different project: one that was explicitly cultural in its conception of community. What is distinctive about communitarianism is the rejection of individualism and the contractualism. This move from ‘contract to community’ (Dallmayr, 1978) marks it off from liberalism, but also from social democracy, which in rejecting collectivism came to stand for a similar kind of privatism to liberalism.

The debate between liberals and communitarians is by all accounts a most confused debate. The very premises of the debate are confused since the focus of the debate is the political theory of John Rawls, as outlined in his A Theory of Justice, originally published in 1971 (Rawls, 1981). As the title of the book suggests, his concern was with the foundations of a notion of justice rather than with citizenship as such. Rawls’ liberalism is a left liberalism and is not too far removed from Marshall’s concern with social justice. To an extent, then, communitarianism was a reaction, not to classical liberalism, but to a conception of citizenship based on social, civic and political dimensions of political community. Communitarianism stood for a deeper notion of community than its public phase in the democratic nation-state. It might be suggested that while liberalism was modified by social democracy, communitarianism has modified liberalism in yet another direction to produce liberal communitarianism, which may be called ‘cultural democracy.’

The communitarian thesis in political philosophy has been closely associated with Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer and Alisdair MacIntyre, the most famous proponents of communitarianism. Walzer’s Spheres of Justice (1983), Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) and MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) established the foundations of communitarianism. The differences between communitarians and liberals must not be exaggerated, since what has often been at issue is less substantive differences than differences in metatheoretical justification and methodology; for this reason the communitarian position is perhaps best termed ‘liberal communitarianism’ since these are no longer exclusive positions (see Miller and Walzer, 1995; Mulhall and Swift, 1996). Today, the term liberal communitarianism is especially associated with the work of one of the best known communitarian thinkers, Charles Taylor, whose Sources of the Self (1989) has become a major statement of the mature political philosophy of communitarianism (see also Taylor, 1994). Taylor, a Canadian, represents a different kind of communitarianism to the brand associated with Sandel, also to be found in the work of such Americans as Phillip Selznick (Selznick, 1992) or Etzioni (see below).

For communitarians, liberal conceptions of group membership, in particular rights, are too formalistic, neglecting the substantive dimensions of identity and participation, the real ties that bind members of a community together. Rejecting moral individualism for a group conception of citizenship, liberal communitarianism seeks to anchor political community in a prior cultural community. The kind of collectivism that is advocated is a moral collectivism and one that is less individualistic than cultural. In this it differs from socialist notions of collectivism since the values communitarians appeal to are essentially cultural rather than material. At issue is a particular conception of the self, one that is frequently defined in terms of minority or majority status within the polity. For communitarians the self is always culturally specific and for this reason communitarianism can be seen as a defence of cultural particularism against liberalism’s moral universalism.

Communitarians object to the asocial concept of the self in liberalism. The self is not only socially constructed but is also embedded in a cultural context. Rawls had not considered that different cultural groups might have different ideas of the common good. For communitarians, citizenship is about participation in the political community but it is also about the preservation of identity, and therefore citizenship is always specific to a particular community. Thus it would appear that the price paid for the introduction of a substantive dimension to citizenship has been the loss of the absolute commitment to universalism that has typified liberalism. Indeed, communitarianism can be seen as an attack on moral universalism, which is seen as an empty formalism and as potentially hegemonic. According to Taylor, who has become a major philosopher of citizenship as the recognition of cultural difference, the essential problem is not universalism but the integration of self and other (Taylor, 1994). For him the crucial feature of social life is its dialogical character, for the encounter between self and other is embedded in a shared language. In this encounter what is of central importance is a discourse of recognition. With respect to the politics of recognition this can take the form of an emphasis on equality, for instance the equal dignity of all citizens with respect to their rights and moral worth, or an emphasis on difference, the need of the majority culture to make concessions to particular groups, generally minorities but also, and more importantly for communitarians, for the state to give official recognition to cultural community, be it that of the majority or minority: ‘Where the politics of universal dignity fought for forms of nondiscrimination that were quite “blind” to the ways in which citizens differ, the politics of difference often redefines non-discrimination as requiring that we make these distinctions the basis of differential treatment’ (Taylor, 1994: 39). In order for a cultural community to retain its integrity and flourish there must be some public recognition by the state of cultural community. This is particularly the case with minority cultures to which concessions must be granted by the majority culture. However, as is clear from the case of the Québecois politics, his main concern is with the cultural majority seeking to preserve their identity.

Taylor, however, is cautious about polarizing the principles of liberal equality and communitarian difference. He stands for a liberal communitarianism that seeks to modify liberalism by compelling it to accommodate the reality of cultural difference and the need for the preservation of cultural community. Yet the differences are quite strong. Because of the atomism underlying it, liberalism for Taylor has no sense of a common good in the narrow sense of a common way of life. ‘Procedural liberalism cannot have a common good in the narrow sense, because society must be neutral on the question of the common good life’ (Taylor, 1989: 172). Liberalism however does recognize a common good in the broader sense of a rule. But for Taylor there is also a common good in the more specific sense of ‘patriotism,’ an identification with a political community which itself embodies a deeper cultural way of life. He is strongly supportive of patriotic causes, such as the demands of the French-speaking Quebecers for the official recognition of their language and francophone culture by the state as in the interests of the common good. It would appear that real recognition is recognition of a self-declared majority capable of defining the common good. So long as this culture respects diversity, it has a reasonable claim for official recognition. But this of course fails to take account of a plurality of cultures—which may entail a plurality of conceptions of the common good—and what may be a minority in one context may be a majority in another.

For political philosophers such as Taylor and Walzer, the contrast between liberalism and communitarianism is not quite so stark as having to choose between two fundamentally opposed positions. While their preference is clearly for liberal communitarianism—the need for a positive recognition of cultural community, this is anchored in a basic commitment to the liberal principle of equality. Liberal communitarianism is not a postmodernist theory of radical group difference. While liberals get around the problem of protecting minority groups by a commitment to group rights (Kymlicka, 1995), communitarians are on the whole more concerned with protecting the majority culture, which is not an issue for liberals, since this is largely taken for granted; or, as in a recent formulation of Rawls,’ it is a matter of looking for an ‘overlapping consensus’ (Rawls, 1987). It is this concern with reconciling cultural community to citizenship that allows communitarians to claim the liberal mantle. But as Bauman has argued, the liberal idea of ‘difference’ stands for individual freedom, while the communitarian ‘difference’ stands for the group’s power to limit individual freedom (Bauman, 1993). The concept of community in communitarian discourse is the community of the dominant culture which is officially recognised by the state. Since political community, in which citizenship exists, rests on a prior cultural community, minorities and incoming groups must adapt to this community in order to participate in its political community. Thus, liberal communitarianism is simply forcing liberalism to make explicit the existence of the cultural community that underlies political community.

We can thus distinguish between two kinds of contemporary liberalism: Liberalism 1, ‘political liberalism’ (with a stress on social rights and political community), and Liberalism 2, ‘communitarian liberalism’ (with a stress on identity/cultural community). Within this latter category, as a result largely of feminism, communitarianism in recent times has expressed a growing sense of the group-differentiated nature of community (see Isin and Wood, 1999; Frazer, 1999; Frazer and Lacey, 1999; and Young, 1989). Thus in the work of Marion Young, community is reconceived around group differences within the community whilst in the recent work of Michael Walzer there is a more nuanced recognition of ‘thin’ as opposed to ‘thick’ forms of community (Young, 1989; Walzer, 1994). The implications of this will be discussed in the second part of this chapter.

Civic Communitarianism

The roots of communitarianism lie deep in classical political theory. While much of recent communitarianism has been focused on the question of the survival of culturally defined groups in an age of multiplicity, others see it as the re-empowering of civil society. Instead of the preservation of cultural identity, what is at stake is social capital and participation in public life.

Participation in public life is the essence of the civic bond in the famous theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract in 1743, of Hannah Arendt (1958) and the work of Benjamin Barber (1984), Quentin Skinner (1978) and J. Pocock (1995). This republican version of communitarianism can be seen as a radical form of liberal individualism, differing from its classical liberal presuppositions in at least two respects. Firstly, that individualism reaches its highest expression in commitment to public life, as opposed to the liberal emphasis on the private pursuit of interest or personal autonomy. Rather than self-interest what is at stake is public interest. And secondly, while liberalism was based on negative freedom, the civic republican ideal of politics is one of positive freedom, the ideal of a self-governing political community. This is the true meaning of republicanism, as intended by the radical stream within the Enlightenment, though it was only in America that it became a real force, as Tocqueville recognized. In the radical variant, represented by Rousseau, this entailed a confrontation with liberal democracy, or constitutional democracy, in that the ideal of a self-governing political community was incompatible with representative government. It may be noted that historically liberal democracy had been tied to constitutional monarchy. But for theorists such as Hannah Arendt, civic republicanism was perfectly compatible with representative government (Arendt, 1958). The challenge rather lay in bringing politics out of the state and into the public domain. This was the republican challenge. One of the legacies of this tradition has been an ambivalent relationship with democracy. Classical republicanism, like liberalism, preceded the democratic revolution and to varying degrees accommodated democracy. But the original impetus of republicanism is a radical doctrine of citizenship as participation in the public domain of civil society. As is evidenced in the writings of Hannah Arendt, republicanism exhibits a deep distrust of the modern idea of democracy, which is associated with the intrusion of the social question into what is allegedly a purely political domain.

Much of civic communitarianism or republican discourse operates on the pre-political level, valuing associational participation for its nonpolitical benefits. In one of the best known formulations of this ‘neo-Tocquevillean’ position, Robert Putnam relates civic engagement with what he calls ‘social capital.’ The value of civil society is not its ability to overcome conflicts but to promote values of trust, commitment and solidarity, values which allow democracy to flourish. In this version of republicanism, social responsibility primarily falls firmly on the shoulders of civil society rather than on the state, which can function only if civil society already speaks with one voice. In his study of modern Italy he thus found that what matters is not institutions but cultural traditions, in particular those that reinforce civil society (Putnam, 1993). It is civil society that makes for a better state and public institutions, not the reverse, he argues. Democracy is a social condition and can flourish without a state, according to Tocqueville (1969) in his classic work Democracy in America. Putnam takes up this Tocquevillean romanticism of American democracy but advances it one step further: a strong civil society will lead to a stronger state in which democracy will flourish. However, Putnam, like Tocqueville, does not consider the conflicts within civil society and the resolution of such conflicts in translating the demands of social capital into government policy (Whittington, 1998; Cohen, 1999). In general his model is one of the decline of social capital, as is evident from his recent Bowling Alone (Putnam, 1999). Another version of this kind of communitarianism, but with a more radical edge to it, is to be found in the writings of the American cultural critic, Christopher Lasch, who, in his final work, saw the decline of democratic values of citizenship as a consequence of the betrayal of democracy not by the masses but by the élites who have isolated themselves from community (Lasch, 1995). He calls for a return to the virtues of community, religion and family.

Governmental Communitarianism

So far I have argued that a notion of community as providing a kind of social ontology has pervaded classical sociological thought and is present in much of recent communitarism. An understanding of community as reflecting a cohesive and primordial group has been central to these conceptions of community. While liberal communitarianism, discussed in the previous section, was largely a modification of liberalism in its advocation of a politics of recognition for particular, and in fact culturally defined groups, communitarianism in recent times has become a more governmental stance on citizenship. This can be seen as a combination of the concerns of liberal communitarianism and civic communitarianism with identity and participation. Following Nikolas Rose, it is possible to point to a move towards government through community: ‘in the institution of community, a sector is brought into existence whose vectors and forces can be mobilized, enrolled, deployed in novel programmes and techniques which encourage and harness active practices of self-management and identity construction, of personal ethics and collective allegiances’ (1999: 176). This refers to the growing discourse of community in policy-making in recent years.

Communitarianism has become popular in Britain and North America, frequently becoming interchangeable with a civic kind of nationalism. It was central to the political rhetoric of the British Labour Party in the historic election campaign in 1997 when the terms ‘nation’ and ‘society’ became interchangeable. The appeal to trust and solidarity as particularly British civic values allowed the Labour Party to take over the Conservative Party’s previous monopoly of the discourse of the nation. Thus what had been a nationalist populist rhetoric—focused on traditional nationalism: war, heritage, the cultural mystique of Englishness—became a communitarian discourse. The nation had become disengaged from patriotic nationalism and could be deployed for the purpose of social reconstruction. Communitarianism as in Tony Blair’s notion of a ‘stakeholder society’—aided social reconstruction by social democracy against neoliberalism by providing a crucial link with conservative values, which neoliberalism appropriated for its project. The new technologies of community, to follow Nikolas Rose’s characterization, are a diffuse set of practices that cut across government and civil society, linking citizens to the state. The governmentalization of community facilates this by the creation of a whole array of discourses about community, for instance community regeneration, community experts, local community initiatives such as community policing, community safety and community development (Rose, 1999: 189). It is important not to see this as merely the exercise of social control, for it can also be the reverse. The language of community and of morality is increasingly entering political discourse (ethical investment, ethical foreign policy). But as Rose points out, this can be a superficial moralizing of politics or it can offer new possibilities for empowerment for an ethico politics. Not too surprisingly, then, we find the discourse of community in the manifestos of the Clinton and Blair governments emphasizing voluntarism, charitable works, self-organized care (Rose, 1999: 171).

This ambivalence is present in the influential work of Amitai Etzioni (1995). His advocation of community was an American reaction to the dominance of rational choice and neoliberalism in the 1980s. It was a vision that was quite far from the philosophical concerns of Charles Taylor and what I have characterized as liberal communitarianism. His call for a recovery of community was designed to create a sense of responsibility, identity and participation in order to make citizenship meaningful to a society that had become highly depoliticized and to which the state had become irrelevant. Community, for Etzioni, is a moral voice; it is not just a question of entitlements that the state can satisfy. Though his appeal to community has a radical dimension to it, it lacks a political voice, for according to this vision politics has become exhausted of meaning. His formulation of citizenship has very little to say about the role of the state, and democracy hardly figures in it. Also there is little discussion on social citizenship, which in general has been absent from American debates on citizenship (Fraser and Gordon, 1994). John O’Neill argues that ‘it is evident that communitarian action without state involvement merely represents another version of voluntarism’ (1994: 13; see also O’Neill, 1997). Etzioni’s concerns lie with schooling, family and policing.

Etzioni is not arguing for a romantic return to a golden age of the past: ‘America does not need a simple return to gemeinschaft, to the traditional community. Modern economic prerequisites preclude such a shift, but even if it were possible, such backpedaling would be undesirable because traditional communities have been too constraining and authoritarian. Such traditional communities were usually homogeneous’ (1995: 122). His version of community is intended to be compatible with diversity and social differentiation. Though he explicitly says he is not advocating a nostalgic return to the past, it is significant that he constantly uses the term a ‘return’ to community or a ‘recovery’ of community, thus making the assumption that community was a thing of the past and the present is all the poorer for letting it pass. The idea of community is expressed very much in terms of personal proximity. Community entails voice, a ‘moral voice,’ and social responsibility rests on personal responsibility. A concern with responsibility articulates a core idea of Etzioni’s communitarianism, as is clear from his quarterly, The Responsive Community. Etzioni’s conception of responsive community is rooted in ‘social virtues’ and ‘basic settled values’ (1995: 1-5). The family and the school are the typical institutions which can cultivate the kind of citizenship required by responsive community.

While Etzioni recognizes that complex societies and cities with many different cultural traditions cannot easily form the basis of community, his model is ultimately based on the idea of the traditional community. He grants that modern economic structures make the return to the past impossible and that traditional communities were too homogeneous and have been too constraining and authoritarian (1995: 122). The city, not the village, is his concern. Yet his definition of community as a moral voice rooted in social virtues and personal responsibility does not square with his view of community as being also highly differentiated. It is ultimately a reappropriation of the traditional idea of community as a cohesive unity.

The communitarian position suffers from a relative neglect of democracy, being almost entirely a theory of citizenship as a self-empowering force. Though it has in many respects reconciled itself with cultural diversity, in its concern with voluntarism, it absolves the state from responsibility for society but at the same time allows the state to be present in the regulation of society. The present discussion has summarized the main strands in communitarian thought. Underlying the different conceptions of community discussed is an assumption of community as cohesive and consensual, and, in its most influential forms, as primordialism. The tendency seems to be to depoliticize community by reasoning that ignores its internally differentiated nature. In the second part of this chapter, drawing from recent social theory, I offer an alternative to this view, stressing the heterogeneous and relational nature of community and its reflexive relationship to community.

Community Beyond Unity: The New Social Theory of Community

In many ways the postmodern era is the age of community (Bauman, 1991: 246; see also Bauman, 1993). If this is the case, the revival of community is far from the ethos of traditional rural communities that offered an alternative to modernity in classical sociological theory. Moreover, the concept of community in recent social theory offers an alternative to the concerns of liberal communitarianism with the recognition of group identities (Isin and Wood, 1999). But as Alain Touraine has argued, there is a latent authoritarianism in the idea of community in so far as it is disconnected from citizenship (Touraine, 1997, 2000).

Today, the idea of community is central to postmodern social thought (Lash, 1994; Mellos, 1994). The identity politics of nationalism, religious revivalism, neo-fascism, new age travellers and the whole range of media cultures, such as the idea of ‘virtual communities,’ all revolve around the idea of community. Indeed the very idea of the ‘global village’ is based on the idea of community, which also enters the identity politics of many social movements and recent notions of cyber-community (Jones, 1995). What has been lost is the primordialism of the traditional community. As Gerd Baumann (1991) has argued in his analysis of multiethnic communities, the idea of community can accommodate a notion of contestation and must not be anchored in cultural consensus or a symbolic order. Lichterman (1996) demonstrates a similar argument in his study of community and commitment. In an important article on the idea of community, Craig Calhoun has argued against the identification of community with consensual value systems, claiming that community has been an important dimension to radical popular mobilizations (Calhoun, 1983). Cotterrell (1995) argues that geographical proximity is not an essential characteristic of community; he also rejects the communitarian emphasis on shared values. In his view, communities can be very varied in size and character. Drawing from Luhmann, Cotterrell elucidates how social complexity makes proximity impossible and ultimately shifts the burden of trust from culture onto law. Thus, law is placed in the foreground in the contemporary conceptualization of community. Community also has a connection with communication and this makes trust possible. Trust does not exist in a vacuum outside social interaction. Since social interaction is essentially communicative, we must view trust as a process of social communication.

In order to understand contemporary developments which point towards the revival of community in the world today, we must part company from the sociological and philosophical myth of community in communitarian discourse. This myth is fundamentally incapable of understanding the real significance of community today: the appeal of community cannot be explained by reference to the quest for a lost totality, a moral or primordial order. The political philosophy of communitarianism is also limited in its understanding of the discourse of community since the terms of its debates have been almost entirely shaped by two issues: the related problems of accommodating difference and individualism. The postmodernized communities of the global era are highly fragmented, contested and far from holistic collectivities; they are characterized more by aesthetic and communicative codes than by a moral voice rooted in the cohesive world of tradition. Communities have become more open. In the following discussion I draw from two conceptions of community beyond unity, first the idea of the postmodernization of community and, secondly, Habermas’s theory of community as a communication community. Both of these conceptions, despite their obvious differences, share an understanding of community as essentially open and incomplete.

Postmodern Communities

Under the conditions of postmodern complexity, according to Maffesoli in The Time of the Tribes (1996a), the age of the masses is giving way to new social relationships and as a result we have entered the age of the ‘tribes.’ The idea of the tribe suggests for Maffesoli an ‘emotional community,’ which is defined by an affectual and aesthetic aura. Community mediated experience of everyday life which, according to Maffesoli, involves the constant flow of images and situations. Unlike the communities of the past, which were spatial and fixed, emotional community is unstable and open, a product of the fragmentation of the social and the disintegration of mass culture. People are increasingly finding themselves in temporary networks, or ‘tribes,’ organized around lifestyles and images. Maffesoli sees community extrapolating a sense of ‘sociability’ from the ‘social.’ Community still involves proximity, but this is temporary and has no fixed purpose; it is characterized by ‘fluidity, occasional gatherings and dispersal’ (1996a: 76). Community serves to ‘re-enchant’ the world and to provide a sense of solidarity that draws its strength from proximity. But the new proximity is located in urban-metropolitan spaces and is an expression of what he calls the vitality and creativity of action. For Maffesoli this all amounts to the end of modernity: ‘While modernity has been obsessed with politics, it may be equally true that postmodernity is possessed by the idea of clan, a phenomenon which is not without its effect on the relationship to the Other and, more specifically, to the stranger’ (1996a: 104). Community is then something radically open and unconstraining.

Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community (1991) defends the idea of community as relevant not only to modern but also to postmodern society. Community is the basis of human experience and the identity of the self as a social being. However, his notion of identity is more that of non-identity: the experience of otherness as an absence. His approach is far from that of communitarianism in that he does not hanker after a lost community and insists that community is always based on the individual and the experience of the ‘other’: ‘Community is what takes place always through others and for others’ (Nancy, 1991: 15). Stressing finitude or present time as the key to community, Nancy opposes the attempt to locate community in the past or as a project for the future. Community cannot be reduced to an organic concept of social relations or to a place; it is something that always negates itself and is constituted in the differential relations of human beings. The ‘inoperative community’ is the tendency of community to undermine or ‘interrupt’ itself in the self-assertion of its members and in the struggle to define community: community is itself the experience of the loss of community. Nancy’s idea of community is not unlike that of Maurice Blanchot (1988) in The Unavowable Community, community as an incomplete project, a shared absence. Yet, for all his attempt to render community compatible with postmodernity (in the sense of the experience of difference), Nancy ultimately retreats into a kind of communitarianism for his conception of community, which is very much influenced by Heideg gerian hermeneutics and a postmodemized and secularized Christianity, reflecting a concern with community as ontological in the sense of the expression of a human essence.

An example of a postmodern approach to community that avoids the dangers of essentialism and recognizes the political nature of community is William Corlett’s (1993) Community Without Unity. Corlett aims to apply the deconstructionist philosophy of Derrida to community, arguing that difference is the essence of community. Community, he argues, must be understood as something more than the problem of collective unity versus individualism; it is the mutual appreciation of differences and does not require a holistic notion of culture, for there is always an excess of meaning which cannot be reduced to a particular moment. In this context Bill Readings’s (1996: 180-93) notion of the ‘community of dissensus’ is relevant. For Readings the community of dissensus is best exemplified in the postmodern university. A dissensual community would be one that has abandoned any attempt to find a unified point of legitimation: ‘the university will have to become one place, among others, where the attempt is made to think the social bond without recourse to a unifying idea, whether of culture or of the state’ (Readings, 1996: 191). This notion of community is very much opposed to the Habermasian notion of a communication community: ‘A distinction must be drawn between the political horizon of consensus that aims at a self-legitimating, autonomous society and the heteronomous horizon of dissensus. In the horizon of dissensus, no consensual answer can take away the question mark that the social bond (the fact of other people, of languages) raises’ (Readings, 1996: 187). We thus have here a very important notion of community as a discursive entity that can never be reduced to identity or to unity.

Communication Communities

Habermas’s recent social theory (Habermas, 1996) offers an important alternative to the mainstream conceptions of communitarism and builds upon postmodern thinking. For Habermas, communitarianism emphasizes the existing community too much and reduces politics to the ethical. He criticizes these models of political community on the grounds that they see community as too holistic and do not see how community, in so far as it is to be a foundation for citizenship, involves the transcendence of particular cultural traditions. His alternative concept of discursive democracy has the merit, he believes, of incorporating the strengths of the liberal and communitarian perspectives while rejecting their disadvantages. Discursive democracy resides not in the ethical substance, or form of life, of a particular community, nor in universal human rights or compromised interests as in liberalism, but in the rules of discourse and forms of argumentation whose normative content derives from the structures of linguistic communication which can always in principle be redeemed. Discursive democracy is rooted in the public sphere, which provides it with an informal institutional reality in civil society. Habermas is centrally concerned with the social conditions of critical debate in society and how such public discourse can shape democracy, which involves a relationship to legal institutionalization. Law is rooted in democracy, which in turn is rooted in public debate. Habermas is less concerned with actual participation in decision-making than in the necessity to have decision-making mediated by communication. In his model communication is essentially about contestation. Habermas also breaks from communitarianism in another crucial respect: he strongly defends the possibility of a postnational society whose collective identity is defined by reference to the normative principles of the constitution rather than by reference to a cultural tradition, territory or loyalty to the state. Only what he calls a ‘patriotism of the constitution’ can guarantee a minimal collective identity today (Habermas, 1996, 1998). This all amounts to a notion of community as a communication community.

While Habermas has established the basis of a non-communitarian theory of community, his own alternative runs the risk of being too decontextualized. We need to see how community actually operates in the sense of real and lived communities. Habermas speaks from the perspective of the observer, a position he insists is available to everybody. In other words, cultural traditions are not so constraining as to prevent people from critically reflecting on their otherwise taken-for-granted assumptions. But, in general, community is a problem for Habermas, for whom the discourse ethic is modelled on face-to-face dialogue (Delanty, 1997a). It is for this reason that several thinkers, such as Benhabib, have sought to reconstitute Habermas’s project around a more rooted understanding of communication as contextualized in communities of difference (Benhabib, 1992, 1996).


The debate on community and citizenship in communitarian political philosophy, the principal focus of this chapter, presupposed the national state as the reference point for the revival of community. Cultural com munity was generally seen in terms of national, or subnational, ethnically defined groups. I have pointed out some of the limits of this reasoning, without dismissing the relevant of the concept of community for citizenship. Community is an important basis for citizenship. Citizenship as membership of political community must draw on something more basic than politics. In this the communitarian critique of liberalism is relevant, since citizenship is more than membership of the democratic state. But communitarianism runs aground in its search for a more primordial kind of community.

Against the alternative modes of communitarian reasoning—republicanism and governmental variants of communitarianism I have tried to show how recent social and political thought offers an alternative vision. Taking a more sociological view of community—suggested by various postmodern theories and the social theory of Habermas community can be conceived as essentially open and incomplete. Deepening the sociological implications of this, community in today’s global age is highly dissensual, porous and contested. The most striking aspect of community today relates to the dynamics of group formation. It must be said that underlying the idea of community is a notion of the group. Communitarian thought tends to take for granted the existence of a relatively coherent and stable cultural group. A community is thus held to be a group conscious of itself as a culturally defined entity, and is generally either a minority or majority. However, when examined critically this becomes less evident, for groups in general are not so easy to define, especially in terms of their status as minorities or majorities. For instance, Catholics are a minority group in Northern Ireland while in the island of Ireland they are a majority. Moreover, the internal divisions within the community can be more decisive than the standing of the larger group in respect of other groups, as is vividly apparent in the case of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. The boundaries between groups are not as tightly drawn as communitarian thought suggest. Groups are temporary, deterritorialized and cross-cutting. Moreover, they are internally differentiated, fluid and dissensual. They are not based on primordial, or essentialist, categories but are highly relational, that is defined by relation to other groups. I believe these dynamics of group formation also apply to the concept of community, which cannot be reduced to the relatively fixed categories that are typical of communitarian thought.

The implication that this has for citizenship is a reflexive relationship to community. Political community cannot simply appeal to an underlying, cultural community that provides an ontological foundation. Political community is not then derivative of cultural community, but is reflexively shaped by it. In this sense community is more social than cultural, and it is also more cosmopolitan in its openess. Elsewhere I have used the term ‘cosmopolitan community’ to express the reflexivity of community in terms of the recognition of group difference within as well as across groups (Delanty, 2000b). In this view, communication is central to community in the global age, allowing us to conceive of a community beyond unity and the communication of difference.