Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

"Whole Community Organizing" for the 21st Century

Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

"Whole Community Organizing" for the 21st Century

Article excerpt


Two elements constitute the core meaning of community--face-to-face social interactions and social relationships. The global era of the 21st century presents new challenges to the practice of community change that empowers a community. McKnight articulates a model of community practice, "whole community organizing" which addresses the core elements of community: social interactions and relationships. We believe this new approach to community change and empowerment answers the challenges of the 21st century. This article first reviews frequently-cited frameworks of approaches to community change and empowerment as well as the dilemmas and contradictions those interventions pose. We then briefly review asset-based community development from the "inside out" and present whole community organizing, weighing its strengths against dilemmas and contradictions of obsolete frameworks. Finally, we introduce empirical support from our own work that compares and analyzes communities' strategies to transform their social relationships, their economies, and their communities.

Keywords: asset-based community development, community, community transformation, organizing, participation, acting locally



On the threshold of the 21st century, we encounter many critical modifiers of community. However, as we reflect on what it means to say that a community is counterfeit, imagined, or virtual, we rediscover that face-to-face social interactions shape community identities and communal relationships. From our social interactions and our relationships, we interpret community and derive a sense of belonging, informed by what is familiar, what seems safe, and what is shared. What we mean by community depends upon the historical and spatial context of our everyday lives.

Within the context of an industrializing and an urbanizing European landscape, Toennies (1957 [1887]) rooted the now famous concept of the traditional community, Gemeinschaft, in the natural soil of place, family, and kin. Toennies also expressed a dissenting preference for the social relationships of Gemeinschaft over modernity's exchange and commodifying relationships of Gesellschaft. Durkheim (1964 [1893]) analyzed the division of labor and social solidarity and enriched the notion of the traditional community, emphasizing the strong ties of mechanical solidarity, i.e., the tightly knit bonds between members, groups, and cohesive communities.

Now, within the context of a global economy, social theorist Brint (2000, pp. 1-3) revisits Gemeinschaft, giving emphasis to the power of community as a "symbol and an aspiration":

      "[Community] suggests many appealing features of human social 
      relationships--sense of familiarity and safety, mutual concern and 
      support, continuous loyalties, even the possibility of being 
      appreciated for one's full personality and contribution to group 
      life rather than for narrower aspects of rank and achievement." 

Further, Brint (2000, p. 3) observes that, "Subsequent writers either romanticize community or they debunk community." Nevertheless, after a critical review of research within the "communities studies" tradition since Toennies and Durkheim, Brint categorizes communities into several structurally distinct subtypes on the existential basis of relationship ties and the reason for and the frequency of social interactions. Thus, after more than a century, the original two dimensions of community--the basis for relationships and the nature of social interaction--still govern contemporary theoretical considerations and the public discourse of what community means.

The global era and the re-emergence of concern for local communities and peripheral places also has spurred community development scholars to reexamine the theoretical and research bases of community development, and attend with determination to the issues of community members, citizen participation, collective action, and community agency (Blakely, 1989; Lacy, 2000; Luloff & Swanson, 1995; Swanson, 2001; Wilkinson, 1989). …

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