Defining "Community" vs Diversity

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Cole issued a challenge for the community to define "community". As it turns, out this question is also relevant to discussions we have been having about whether there is a divide in our community.

I think everyone agrees that "community" is some sort of group, but which kind? The main problem in defining "community" is that "community" is so widely used, it now has a variety of meanings some of which may contradict each other. Some communities interact voluntarily (e.g. my embroidery group), others semi-involuntarily (e,g, the contestants on most reality shows) and others just share just one trait in common (e.g. the American community).

In terms of identity also, most people are members of multiple communities. Even a woman in a "simple" nomadic tribe is both a woman and a nomad. Which community is more important to her? It may depend on the situation.

Are there any generalizations about multiple configurations of communities? I think for me it's important to remember that any community is really a group of individuals, each with the potential for unique quirks and needs. Sometimes each member of the community wants the same thing (more Christmas vacation!), but not always (or even frequently).

And not every member of a community has to share all the traits. A community of students is defined only by student hood, but other traits such as iPod ownership, Windows usage and so forth are up for grabs. You can design a course for the perfect Windows user with an iPod, but don't be surprised if you get a question from a Mac user with a Zune player.

In the rush towards more community engagement, I hope we don't forget the individual aspect. There is a fine line between reaching consensus (healthy) and group think (not so much). Community conflict is an inevitable byproduct of diversity within the community, but I'm learning that this may be a good thing.

Although few people like conflict, I think it's the real strength of what diversity brings to us. I think a lot of us think of "diversity" as the side dishes different regions or cultures choose to eat with their Thanksgiving turkey. That is, minor differences which mesh together and enrich everyone, but don't necessarily force us to change our own behavior or attitudes.

But diversity also means conflicting points of view, often within the same community. Understanding and accommodating divergent points of view necessarily means that a person has to challenge an assumption somewhere, and we all know how painful that can be.

People who argue on behalf of a divergent point of view may actually benefit the entire community. I am constantly amazed at how many of my individual civil rights have been protected by members of the American community I otherwise cannot stand. Larry Flynt of Penthouse fame ensured the right of parody as free speech. Communities wanting to teach creationism in charter schools ensure that we can also teach environmentalism or an indigenous heritage in other charter schools. Strage consequences indeed.

I've talked about how communities can split apart, but can communities also come together? I certainly hope so, because being involved in a functioning community is great thing. But I sometimes think it's something to be earned, not necessarily assumed.

P.S. Aren't you glad you were able to skim this lengthy passage instead of reading ALL of this text?

1 Comments

The big reason I decided to ask the question is really for one of the reasons you mention -- the over use of the term and lack of any real shared definition. As I read your post I am happy to hear that you embrace the notion that a community should embrace difference in a real way. Not just diversity in the way we typically use it to describe physical characteristics, but diversity in thought, approach, and opinion. I think sometimes people confuse the notion of community with conformity. I hate to say it, but getting people to talk and push a little conflict is a great way to get to a higher level of understanding. Not everyone agrees with that notion, but it does work. I sometimes find it difficult to get people to share openly even when I know there is something under the surface they want to share. That is normal, but getting honest and maintaining a diversity of perspectives one is willing to share is critical to move the "community" forward. Just my thoughts.

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