Academic journal article Family Relations

Community Social Organization: A Conceptual Linchpin in Examining Families in the Context of Communities*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Community Social Organization: A Conceptual Linchpin in Examining Families in the Context of Communities*

Article excerpt


The concept of social organization provides an important framework for understanding families in the context of communities and focuses our attention on norms, networks, and associated processes that typify community life. We discuss the significance of community for understanding family outcomes, discuss challenges in defining community context, define social organization and feature several of its associated components and their linkages, and assess research designs that inform the study of social organization. We conclude by suggesting implications for theory (elaborating social organization community processes), research (incorporating designs and measures that reflect collective processes), and practice (maximizing effects generated by informal and formal networks in communities).

Key Words: communities, community capacity, families, social organization.

Community context factors, including transactions with other families and institutions, are significant elements in understanding and strengthening families. The work of family science scholars increasingly recognizes that families are surrounded by community forces that influence both their everyday life experiences and their individual and collective life trajectories. Teachman and Crowder (2002) evidence a central aim of exploiting rather than simply trying to control contextual noise in family functioning models. Sprey (2000) notes that layered approaches to human sociability provide a level of understanding otherwise unattained, and Scanzoni (2001) calls for a "reconnection"-linking households and communities via small household social support networks at the neighborhood level.

Family life practitioners are finding increasing leverage in strengthening families through community-centered interventions. These interventions range from the community-building efforts of Family Service America to strengthen families (Sviridoff & Ryan, 1997) to the promotion of community capacity in the U.S. Air Force as a strategy for preventing family violence (Bowen, Martin, & Nelson, 2002). Family program professionals increasingly are working with community members as allies in support of families and are mobilizing families to exert greater control over their own lives (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh, & Vidal, 2001; Doherty & Carroll, 2002). Turner (1998) contends that practitioners are rediscovering the "Holy Grail" of community, and Sampson (2002) uses the term elixir when describing the promise some see in community-oriented interventions.

Community context should have a more prominent place in thinking about families. However, greater elaboration is needed in the conceptualization and measurement of community-level processes as independent variables in family research. Such advances enhance the study of families and communities and inform the development of community-level interventions that strengthen families.

We aim to contribute to family science theory, research, and practice by advancing social organization as a conceptual linchpin in examining families in the context of communities. We first set the conceptual boundaries for our discussion of community by defining locally oriented geographic areas as a primary reference point. This is followed by a discussion of the concept of social organization, the central focus of the paper. Three central components of community social organization are proposed: formal and informal social networks, social capital, and community capacity. Subsequently, three community assessment strategies found in the research literature are reviewed, including a contextual effects perspective that reflects social organization as a unifying concept in the study of families and communities. Finally, the implications of a social organizational framework for theory development, future research, and evolving community practice are discussed.

The Contextual Boundaries of the Community Concept

Defining the appropriate context is a critical challenge both for conducting research on communities (Teachman & Crowder, 2002) and for implementing prevention and intervention programs within communities (Mancini, Nelson, Bowen, & Martin, in press). …

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