Circles of community and the decline of civil society
This essay is based upon the results of an exploratory research project that explores the ways in which twenty-four (24) individuals, who self-identify as African Americans, define community and use those definitions to inform their perceptions and discussions about civic engagement, responsibility, and community memberships, key themes in the decline of community cultural critique. The research focuses on these themes because they are at the heart of the decline of civil society – individuals are becoming atomistic, alienated, and disengaged from social and interpersonal relationships with family members, neighbors and friends. This psychological and physical distancing leads to a lack of participation in community life and institutions and the loss of social and cultural capital. The structural-functionalist and systemic analyses, upon which much of the decline of civil society social commentary is based, incorrectly assume a linear continuum of human and societal development. When in fact social, political, and economic development actually occur at different stages and at times simultaneously. There is a false dichotomy between the macrolevel theories of urban-rural, folk-peasant, organic-mechanical, and instrumental-expressive models often used to explain and, or predict the nature of conditions under which social relationships and institutional dynamics occur. These macrolevel theories appear to ignore or at least minimize the significance of microlevel interactions. Microlevel interactions are formal, informal social and civic transactions that routinely occur in nearly every type of situation or setting. Virtually everyone who participates in society is a member of multiple communities, what is referred to in this study as circles of communities. These multiple communities offer researchers the opportunity to investigate why and how people place themselves in spatial, social, ideological, and experiential relationship or proximity to other community members and institutions. They are also where we are able to locate community despite the pace of change and transformation in contemporary society. The articulation of the decline of civil society as a social problem continues to privilege those with power and influence in American society. Academics, politicians, writers and editors, religious leaders, radio and talk show hosts and many others have been able to gain credibility, implement policies and impose normative standards for civic engagement. These standards are often used to identify insiders and outsiders in society. This research adds the voices of those who have been excluded from the discussion and recognizes them as experts both in terms of their own experiences and important contributors to the current body of social commentary and observations about community and associational living in modern America.