Critically examine the concept of ‘community’ in relation to virtual community. It is difficult to examine the concept of ‘community’ as the term ‘community’ is used in a very wide sense to refer to many different figurations of people (Bell & Newby, 1974), thus generating a large number of separate definitions (Stacey, 1969). In order to gain an understanding of what ‘community’ really means it is important to consider the history of its usage. The term originated in the fourteenth century and was used to refer either to an organised body of people, large or small, such as a religious community, or to the common people, the commonalty within such a body (Tyler, 2002). Use of the term ‘community’ shifted in the Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when new conceptions of self and other developed, thus shifting use of the term ‘community’ from people to their relationships (Tyler, 2002). It was then used to refer to common ownership (of a community of goods), social communion (with God, for example) or common identity (Tyler, 2002). In the modern era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Medieval and Renaissance senses merged, and ‘community’ began referring to the people of a district or neighbourhood. It is this meaning of the term that bears most prominence today. However, more recently the term ‘community’ has been used to refer to other groups of people who are not necessarily concentrated into an identifiable territory (Johnston et al, 2000). For example, as was the case in the Middle Ages we now refer to religious groups as communities. In the UK ethnic groups are also often referred to as communities, the term is also adopted by groups with other shared characteristics, for example deaf communities or working-class communities. Groups of people with a shared interest are also referred to as communities, for example sports communities or music communities. In recent years a new type of community has emerged; virtual community. The World Wide Web allows not only for local social networks, but for global networks.
With the term ‘community’ being used in so many different ways and referring to so many varied groups of people, it raises the question what is it that links these different groups together? What do all of these groups have in common that lead to them being called a community? This essay aims to examine the concept of ‘community’, looking at how theoretical work concerning community has shifted from a focus on community as being bound by space, to community as being imagined. It will attempt to identify the common association that each figuration of people mentioned above must have in order to be labelled a ‘community’. It will focus in particular on virtual community, using arguments purported by proponents of place based community theories and imagined community theorists to argue whether virtual communities should in fact be labelled as communities. The problem encountered when attempting to examine the concept of ‘community’ is that the area lacks theory. In attempting to examine the concept of ‘community’ researchers have merely focused their study on their own differentiated community and then applied their findings to other communities, thus making short and narrow range generalizations (Bell & Newby, 1974). Bell and Newby in fact question whether theoretical work in the field could even be labelled theory, purporting that they lack two indispensable qualifications of scientific theories. Firstly, they are untestable, as they cannot be proved or refuted by empirical research, and secondly, they don’t serve as stepping stones to suggest new problems or for the development of further theory (Bell & Newby, 1974). Although theoretical work regarding the study of communities has been heavily criticised, in examining the concept of ‘community’ it is important to consider how academic work so far has contributed to our understanding of ‘community’....
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