by Professor JosAnn Cutajar, Department of Gender Studies, Faculty for Social Wellbeing
Definition of Community
A community consists of a group of individuals or families that share certain values, interests, services, institutions, and/or geographical proximity. Fellin (2001) defines ‘community’ as a functional special unit that meets people’s sustenance needs, leads them to form collective identities, and facilitates social interaction. Communities are not limited to neighbourhoods, but include professional groups, enthusiasts of a particular local, national, or global sport, diasporas, and/or online communities. Some communities are linked to a place, online ones are linked to a particular location in cyber space. Diasporas feel an emotional belonging to a geographic space which they might or might not have visited physically.
Netting, Kettner, McMurtry, and Thomas (2017) maintain that one of the characteristics of a community involves geographical proximity. Geographical proximity used to be a factor but nowadays, thanks to ICT, proximity can also occur through cyberspace. In Malta we still tend to identify with certain places and the communities (religious, political, leisure) linked to certain neighbourhoods or towns. Although geographical parameters between one locality or another might be hazy in certain areas of Malta – the Qormi, Hamrun, Sta. Venera and Albert Town areas being a case in point – a good number of Maltese feel an affinity with one locality or another.
The Maltese like to use symbols to differentiate between communities, especially when these are found in the same locality. In Żabbar, for example, residents who support the philharmonic club referred to as tal-Baqra use the colour blue to distinguish themselves from the community referred to as ‘ta’ San Mikiel’, which uses the colour green to demonstrate their allegiance to this band club. At the same time, they are united by their allegiance to their patron saint, il-Madonna tal-Grazzja (Our Lady of Graces) which serves as a totemic symbol, a social glue to hold the different factions within the same locality together in spite of secularization.
‘Us’ and ‘them’
Anthony Cohen (2001) underlines that we use the term ‘community’ when we want to identify between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Symbols are often used to differentiate between those who are considered insiders and those perceived as outsiders to the community. The Maltese use the term ‘iswed ’ when they want to underline that they are being socially excluded from something. This term is linked with the Roman Catholic religion since black symbolizes evil, the devil, sin, death, so it has negative connotations.
The term community implies that people who are part of the community have something similar to each other, while those outside do not. This sense of belonging leads to a sense of attachment to a group and/or place, which might eventually translate into involvement, and commitment. Members of parliament, for example, are very committed to their constituents, and this often translates into particular ministries employing quite a substantial number of people deriving from the area with which the minister or secretary is linked. For others, commitment means fighting for a cause. People have died in the name of ‘democracy’ or killed in the name of their ‘country’, two abstract concepts which feel very real for those involved. Cohen maintains that people construct community symbolically, rendering community a repository of meaning, and a resource at the same time.
Community is a point of reference where social identity is involved. Community activists within the LGBTIQ, disability, race and ethnic arena come together for a cause. Others come together because of an interest in sports, in politics, etc. While women tend to form part of groups involved in social issues, men tend to frequent football clubs, boċċi clubs, or band clubs. Putnam (2000) underlined that the activities based on the social identification with a place, interest or a cause help to consolidate social bonding. Social bonding leads to trust and reciprocity among disparate individuals.
Communities and social functions
Communities have social functions, one of which is the ability to respond to the needs of its members. The members’ needs can be addressed by resources found within the community. Lin, Cook, and Burt (2008) refer to this as collective efficacy. Neighbourhood watch is based on collective efficacy whereby community members look out for each other. Collective efficacy is a safety net for the socially excluded and the materially deprived (Cutajar, 2014). Life would be harder if community members did not share the few resources they have with each other.
Fellin (2001) maintains that community competence is enhanced when residents have a commitment to each other, are aware of their shared values and interests, are open in their communication, and participate widely in community decision making. This commitment to each other is being eroded through social, cultural and physical mobility, which is leading to fragmentation, alienation and disengagement according to Hardcastle, Powers, and Wenocur (2011). The Maltese have also been used to being ruled for centuries, by past colonial masters, by the Roman Catholic Church, by men. So, I think it might take time for the majority to catch up and realise that, by participating in decision making, they will make sure that their needs and interests are taken into consideration.
Not everybody is in a position to participate in decision making. Communities delineate who can participate and who cannot. Hardcastle et al. (2011) differentiate between horizontal and vertical structures. Horizontal structures are more apparent when the individuals involved share the same space, know each other, and therefore can take decisions together. Vertical structures involve hierarchical levels of authority which are found beyond the geographic boundaries shared by community members. In my research (Cutajar, 2018) on Gozo and Bormla, it was evident that distance from authority impacts on the community’s efficacy to access resources or to voice their concerns. Distance can be spatial or social and it can affect what Putnam refers to as bridging social capital, that is the groups’ efficacy to rope in the help of outsiders who have power. Gozitans are somewhat geographically removed from the centre of power. Bormla, as a ‘blighted’ locality, is socially removed (Boswell, 1994).
People’s feeling that they do not have a say in decision making or that their feedback does not count undermines cohesion and leads to fragmentation and alienation, maintain Hardcastle et al. (2011). This sense of alienation can lead to anomie or normlessness for people who do not feel that they belong in the ‘normative’ community. It is not only immigrants who might feel socially excluded, but all those who face social disenfranchisement, those communities who are made to feel different. And, in Malta, we are constantly coming up with ways of underlining who is part of a community, and who does not belong.
Communities have assets and capacities which are communally shared, and which people tend to take for granted until they disappear. The Legion of Mary volunteers are a case in point. In some communities, volunteers still pay home visits to the elderly and the lonely. This helps keep people feeling that they are part of the community and keeps them mentally healthy and socially engaged. Some communities help people cope and grow towards self-fulfillment. They help produce people who are functioning well physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. They produce people with little need for human services since community members will look out for each other.
Social turnover in some areas is what I feel is somewhat undermining this. Living in each other’s pocket is not healthy either. Internecine ‘warfare’ among professional groups or neighbourhoods undermines the group’s self-efficacy. We take community for granted until it starts going wrong. More research needs to be conducted on communities to find out what makes them efficacious, and what might undermine this efficacy.
Boswell, D. M. (1994). ‘The social prestige of residential areas’, in Sultana, R.G. & Baldacchino, G. (Eds), Maltese society. A sociological inquiry, pp. 133-162. Malta: Mireva Publications.
Cohen, A. P. (2001). The symbolic construction of community. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
Cutajar, J. (2018). Gozitan Women: a study on the transition from marriage into widowhood. The Gozo Observor, 37, pp 17-26.
Cutajar, J. (2014). Bormla: a struggling community. Malta: Faraxa.
Fellin, P. 2001. The community and the social worker. Itasca, IL: Peacock.
Hardcastle, D. A., Powers, P. R., & Wenocur, S. (2011). Community Practice: Theories and skills for Social Workers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lin, N., Cook, K., & Burt, R. S. (2008). Social capital: Theory and research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Netting, F. E., Kettner, P. M., McMurtry, S. L., & Thomas, M. L. (2017). Social work macro practice (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.