Evolving Conceptions of Community

  • Kenneth C. Bessant


Social system theory and human ecology represent two of the most prominent community perspectives of the mid-twentieth century. Aspects of both approaches continue to inform the study of community and development practice. System-based thinking was highly influential in shaping the once dominant conception of community as a quasi-bounded, integrated structural entity. This chapter provides an overview of community system theory and human ecology, along with more recent discussions of social ties, transactions, and networks. Much has been written, of late, about social relations and network structures within place-based and spatially dispersed communities. Important theoretical work is also being devoted to the study of social-ecological dynamics, adaptive processes, and community resilience. All of these issues constitute valuable contributions to the historical trajectory of community theory.


  1. Abel, T., & Stepp, J. R. (2003). A new ecosystems ecology for anthropology. Conservation Ecology, 7(3), 12. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adger, W. N. (2000). Social and ecological resilience: Are they related? Progress in Human Geography, 24, 347–364. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Agnitsch, K., Flora, J., & Ryan, V. (2006). Bonding and bridging social capital: The interactive effects of community action. Community Development, 37, 36–51. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bates, F. L., & Bacon, L. (1972). The community as a social system. Social Forces, 50, 371–379. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bertalanffy, L. von. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: George Braziller, Inc.Google Scholar
  6. Blakely, E. J. (1989). Theoretical approaches for a global community. In J. A. Christenson & J. W. Robinson Jr. (Eds.), Community development in perspective (pp. 307–336). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brennan, M. A. (2008). Conceptualizing resiliency: An interactional perspective for community and youth development. Child Care in Practice, 14, 55–64. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buckley, W. (1967). Sociology and modern systems theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.Google Scholar
  9. Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology, 110, 349–399. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Calhoun, C. (1998). Community without propinquity revisited: Communications technology and the transformation of the urban public sphere. Sociological Inquiry, 68, 373–397. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Castells, M. (2000). The information age: Economy, society and culture. Volume 1. The rise of the network society (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
  12. Chaskin, R. J. (2008). Resilience, community, and resilient communities: Conditioning contexts and collective action. Child Care in Practice, 14, 65–74. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chua, V., Madej, J., & Wellman, B. (2011). Personal communities: The world according to me. In J. Scott & P. J. Carrington (Eds.), The Sage handbook of social network analysis (pp. 101–115). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  14. Clark, A. (2007). Understanding community: A review of networks, ties and contacts. NCRM Working Paper Series, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods. Retrieved from
  15. Clark, D. B. (1973). The concept of community: A re-examination. The Sociological Review, 21, 397–416. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94(Suppl.), s95–s120. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Crossley, N. (2011). Towards relational sociology. London, UK: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Cunningham, R., Cvitanovic, C., Measham, T., Jacobs, B., Dowd, A.-M., & Harman, B. (2016). Engaging communities in climate adaptation: The potential of social networks. Climate Policy, 16, 894–908. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Darwin, C. R. (1861). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company.Google Scholar
  20. Day, G., & Murdoch, J. (1993). Locality and community: Coming to terms with place. The Sociological Review, 41, 82–111. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dewey, J. (1958). Experience and nature. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  22. Donati, P. (2011). Relational sociology: A new paradigm for the social sciences. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Driskell, R. B., & Lyon, L. (2002). Are virtual communities true communities? Examining the environments and elements of community. City & Community, 1, 373–390. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Folke, C., Carpenter, S. R., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T., & Rockström, J. (2010). Resilience thinking: Integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society, 15(4), 20. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Foucault, M. (1986). Of other spaces (J. Miskowiec, Trans.) Diacritics, 16, 22–27. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Gilchrist, A., & Taylor, M. (1997). Community networking: Developing strength through diversity. In P. Hoggett (Ed.), Contested communities: Experiences, struggles, policies (pp. 165–179). Bristol, UK: The Polity Press.Google Scholar
  28. Giuffre, K. (2013). Communities and networks: Using social network analysis to rethink urban and community studies. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  29. Goodings, L., Locke, A., & Brown, S. D. (2007). Social networking technology: Place and identity in mediated communities. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 17, 463–476. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360–1380. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Granovetter, M. S. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91, 481–510. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Grossetti, M. (2005). Where do social relations come from? A study of personal networks in the Toulouse area of France. Social Networks, 27, 289–300. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hawley, A. H. (1944). Ecology and human ecology. Social Forces, 22, 398–405. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hawley, A. H. (1950). Human ecology: A theory of community structure. New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company.Google Scholar
  35. Hawley, A. H. (1968). Ecology. In D. L. Sills (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 4, pp. 328–337). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press.Google Scholar
  36. Hawley, A. H. (1986). Human ecology: A theoretical essay. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  37. Haythornthwaite, C. (1996). Social network analysis: An approach and technique for the study of information exchange. Library & Information Science Research, 18, 323–342. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hiller, E. T. (1941). The community as a social group. American Sociological Review, 6, 189–202. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hillery, G. A., Jr. (1968). Communal organizations: A study of local societies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  40. Hillery, G. A., Jr. (1972). Selected issues in community theory. Rural Sociology, 37, 534–552.Google Scholar
  41. Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Katz, N., Lazer, D., Arrow, H., & Contractor, N. (2004). Network theory and small groups. Small Group Research, 35, 307–332. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kaufman, H. F. (1959). Toward an interactional conception of community. Social Forces, 38, 8–17. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Laszlo, E. (1975). The meaning and significance of general system theory. Behavioral Science, 20, 9–24. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Laszlo, E., & Laszlo, A. (1997). The contribution of the systems sciences to the humanities. Systems Research and Behavioral Sciences, 14, 5–19.<5::AID-SRES150>3.0.CO;2-M CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications. Soziale Welt, 47, 369–381. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  47. Lee, D. B., & Brosziewski, A. (2009). Observing society: Meaning, communication, and social systems. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.Google Scholar
  48. Lee, J., Árnason, A., Nightingale, A., & Shucksmith, M. (2005). Networking: Social capital and identities in European rural development. Sociologia Ruralis, 45, 269–283. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Leibold, M. A., Holyoak, M., Mouquet, N., Amarasekare, P., Chase, J. M., Hoopes, M. F., et al. (2004). The metacommunity concept: A framework for multi-scale community ecology. Ecology Letters, 7, 601–613. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Liepins, R. (2000). New energies for an old idea: Reworking approaches to “community” in contemporary rural studies. Journal of Rural Studies, 16, 23–35. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Lin, Y.-R., Sun, J., Castro, P., Konuru, R., Sundaram, H., & Kelliher, A. (2009). MetaFac: Community discovery via relational hypergraph factorization. In Proceedings of the 15th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (pp. 527–536). New York, NY, USA.
  52. Liu, S., & Emirbayer, M. (2016). Field and ecology. Sociological Theory, 34, 62–79. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Luhmann, N. (2013). Theory of society. Volume 2 (R. Barrett, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1997).Google Scholar
  54. Marin, A., & Wellman, B. (2011). Social network analysis: An introduction. In J. Scott & P. J. Carrington (Eds.), The Sage handbook of social network analysis (pp. 11–25). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  55. Massey, D. (1994). Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  56. Matarrita-Cascante, D., Trejos, B., Qin, H., Joo, D., & Debner, S. (2017). Conceptualizing community resilience: Revisiting conceptual distinctions. Community Development, 48, 105–123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. McIntosh, R. P. (1963). Ecosystems, evolution and relational patterns of living organisms. American Scientist, 51, 246–267. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  58. McKenzie, R. D. (1968). The ecology of institutions. In A. M. Hawley (Ed.), Roderick D. McKenzie: On human ecology (pp. 102–117). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work unpublished Circa 1936).Google Scholar
  59. McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  60. Minar, D. W., & Greer, S. (1969). Human life and social interaction. In The community concept: Readings with interpretations (pp. 3–4). Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  61. Mohan, B. (1978). Perspectives on community as a social system. Psychiatric Quarterly, 50, 120–127. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Morgan, W. B., & Moss, R. P. (1965). Geography and ecology: The concept of the community and its relationship to environment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 55, 339–350. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Murdoch, J. (2000). Networks—A new paradigm of rural development? Journal of Rural Studies, 16, 407–419. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Murdock, S., & Sutton, W. A., Jr. (1974). The new ecology and community theory: Similarities, differences, and convergencies. Rural Sociology, 39, 319–333.Google Scholar
  65. Nelson, L., Ramsey, C. E., & Verner, C. (1960). Community structure and change. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.Google Scholar
  66. Nguyen, N. P., Dinh, T. N., Nguyen, D. T., & Thai, M. T. (2011). Overlapping community structures and their detection on social networks. In Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Third International Conference on Social Computing (SocialCom) (pp. 35–40). Boston, MA, USA.
  67. Paarlberg, L. E., & Varda, D. M. (2009). Community carrying capacity: A network perspective. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38, 597–613. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Pahl, R. E. (1970). Patterns of urban life. London, UK: Longman Group Limited.Google Scholar
  69. Park, R. E. (1936). Human ecology. American Journal of Sociology, 42, 1–15. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Parker, V. T. (2004). The community of an individual: Implications for the community concept. OIKOS, 104, 27–34. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  72. Parsons, T. (1960). Structure and process in modern societies. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  73. Parsons, T. (1968). Social systems. In D. L. Sills (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 15, pp. 458–473). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press.Google Scholar
  74. Parsons, T. (2002). An outline of the social system. In C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, K. Schmidt, & I. Virk (Eds.), Classical sociological theory (pp. 366–385). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. (Original work published 1961).Google Scholar
  75. Parsons, T., & Smelser, N. J. (1956). Economy and society: A study in the integration of economic and social theory. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  76. Patel, S. S., Rogers, M. B., Amlôt, R., & Rubin, G. J. (2017). What do we mean by “Community Resilience”? A systematic literature review of how it is defined in the literature. PLOS Currents Disasters. Edition 1.
  77. Peterson, G. (2000). Political ecology and ecological resilience: An integration of human and ecological dynamics. Ecological Economics, 35, 323–336. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Peterson, G., Allen, C. R., & Holling, C. S. (1998). Ecological resilience, biodiversity, and scale. Ecosystems, 1, 6–18. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Poplin, D. E. (1972). Communities: A survey of theories and methods of research. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.Google Scholar
  80. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and renewal of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Rapoport, A. (1968). Systems analysis. In D. L. Sills (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 15, pp. 452–458). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press.Google Scholar
  82. Sanders, I. T. (1975). The community (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Ronald Press Co.Google Scholar
  83. Scoones, I. (1999). New ecology and the social sciences: What prospects for a fruitful engagement? Annual Review of Anthropology, 28, 479–507. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Selznick, P. (1996). In search of community. In W. Jackson & W. Vitek (Eds.), Rooted in the land: Essays on community and place (pp. 195–203). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  85. Simmel, G. (1971). The problem of sociology. In D. N. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms (pp. 23–35). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1908).Google Scholar
  86. Smith, G. (1996). Ties, nets and an elastic bund: Community in the postmodern city. Community Development Journal, 31, 250–259. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Stephan, G. E. (1970). The concept of community in human ecology. The Pacific Sociological Review, 13, 218–228. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Summers, G. F., Clark, J. P., & Seiler, L. H. (1970). The renewal of community sociology. Rural Sociology, 35, 218–231.Google Scholar
  89. Sutton, W. A., Jr., & Kolaja, J. (1960). The concept of community. Rural Sociology, 25, 197–203.Google Scholar
  90. Tilly, C. (1973). Do communities act? Sociological Inquiry, 43(3–4), 209–238. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Tilly, C. (2004). Social boundary mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 34, 211–236. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Tönnies, F. (1957). Community and society: Gemeinschaft und gesellschaft (C. P. Loomis, Ed. and Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers. (Original work published 1887).Google Scholar
  93. Torche, F., & Valenzuela, E. (2011). Trust and reciprocity: A theoretical distinction of the sources of social capital. European Journal of Social Theory, 14, 181–198. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Walker, B., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R., & Kinzig, A. (2004). Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2). Retrieved from
  95. Walmsley, D. J. (2000). Community, place and cyberspace. Australian Geographer, 31, 5–19. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Wang, V., Tucker, J. V., & Haines, K. (2013). Viewing cybercommunities through the lens of modernity: The case of Second Life. The International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, 5, 75–90. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Warren, R. L. (1978). The community in America (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.Google Scholar
  98. Webber, M. M. (1963). Order in diversity: Community without propinquity. In L. Wingo Jr. (Ed.), Cities and space: The future use of urban land (pp. 23–54). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.Google Scholar
  99. Wellman, B. (1979). The community question: The intimate networks of East Yorkers. American Journal of Sociology, 84, 1201–1231. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Wellman, B. (1999). Preface. In Networks in the global village: Life in contemporary communities (pp. xi–xxii). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  101. Wellman, B. (2001). Physical space and cyberplace: The rise of personalized networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25, 227–252. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Wellman, B. (2005). Community: From neighborhood to network. Comunications of the ACM, 48, 53–55. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Wellman, B., & Leighton, B. (1979). Networks, neighborhoods, and communities: Approaches to the study of the community question. Urban Affairs Quarterly, 14, 363–390. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Wellman, B., & Wortley, S. (1990). Different strokes from different folks: Community ties and social support. American Journal of Sociology, 96, 558–588. Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Wilkinson, C. (2011). Social-ecological resilience: Insights and issues for planning theory. Planning Theory, 11, 148–169. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Wilkinson, K. P. (1970). The community as a social field. Social Forces, 48, 311–322. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Young, F. W., & Minai, K. (2002). Community ecology: A new theory and an illustrative test. Human Ecology Review, 9(2), 31–40. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  108. Zautra, A., Hall, J., & Murray, K. (2008). Community development and community resilience: An integrative approach. Community Development, 39, 130–147. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth C. Bessant
    • 1
  1. 1.Brandon UniversityBrandonCanada

Personalised recommendations