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  • Engaging Communities in Comparative Literature
  • Jessica Tsui-yan Li

The English word community first appeared in the fourteenth century. As Raymond Williams points out in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, it can be traced to the middle French comuneté, which comes from the Latin communitatem. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, community meant "the commons or common people, as distinguished from those of rank," "a state or organized society," "the people of a district," "the quality of holding in common, as in community of interest, community of goods," and "a sense of common identity and characteristics." From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the connotations of the English word community became similar to those of the French commune and the German Gemeinde, with which "the sense of immediacy and locality was strongly developed in the context of larger and more complex industrial societies" (Williams 75). The meaning of community has changed and expanded through the centuries as its structures become more complex and its members become more individualized.

The modern concept of community has been largely suggested in the dichotomy of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), coined by Ferdinand Tönnies. While Gemeinschaft suggests traditional cohesive groups formed by kinship, strong emotional ties, and physical proximity, Gesellschaft refers to modern cosmopolitan societies based on formal and impersonal human relations, self-interest, and practical concerns (Tönnies 9). As communities have become more globalized, they move towards Gesellschaft and away from Gemeinschaft in terms of structure and human relations. Seeking convergence rather than divergence, Max Weber analyzes the communal relationship, Vergemeinschaftung, and its associative relationship, Vergesellschaftung, and further argues for the co-existence of both types of communities as suggested by Tönnies (Weber 40). When individuals in a similar situation join together to form a community and pursue a common objective, they will engage [End Page 166] with one another and eventually generate a sense of belonging.

Since the twentieth century, the characteristics of community have progressed from a static and essentialist social aggregation toward an increasingly dynamic concept. The element of "time" is important in the construction of a community (Weber 43). A community can be built, developed, prospered, and maintained for a long period of time before declining, but will not necessarily be eternal. Individuals are free to join and leave the community at any time depending on their "collective sense of honor" (Simmel 163-64). Morris Janowitz developed the term "community of limited liability" to describe the state of individuals' temporary involvement in a community (Janowitz 223). Communities establish social hierarchies and boundaries through the interactions among their members. Inclusion and belonging are juxtaposed with separation and marginalization. The dynamic interactions among the members and between different communities create constant transformations within a community.

The symbolic construction of a community is profoundly discussed in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. As Anderson argues, a community "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion" (6). Even without direct and regular communication and social contact among its members, a community is symbolically produced by national consciousness. Common languages and literatures circulate shared values and collective identities that are facilitated by capitalism and print technology (Anderson 46). The traditional notions of community are homogeneous, stable, and close human relations within a bounded territory. The modern sense of community as a social aggregate involves the "mutual orientation of members," "a sense of reciprocal dependence," and "sustaining a sense of belonging" (Djelic and Quack 13). The members of the community become more diversified and complex within a certain boundary.

Imperialism, colonialism, and globalization nurtured conditions for the phenomenon of transnational communities, which "are social groups emerging from mutual interaction across national boundaries, oriented around a common project and/or imagined identity which is constructed and sustained through the active engagement and involvement of at least some of its members" (Djelic and Quack xix). These communities are produced by the migrations of people, ideas, and material culture. Transnational migrants are at least bilingual and bicultural, and engaged in social, economic, and/or...


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