- The New Politics of Community Revisited
the term community remains firmly entrenched in everyday speech and public discourse, circulating widely across disparate situations, with vastly different meanings attached to its use. Yet despite its seeming simplicity, the construct of community may underpin the social and political organization of power relations and the politics they engender. The myriad ways that community, power relations, and politics have informed one another suggest a potential theoretical richness for this word of power.
Scholarly perspectives of community cluster around two competing focal points. On the one hand, romantic perceptions of community celebrate their strengths, arguing that belonging to a community shields individuals from the harshness of the workplace, politics, and other hallmarks of modernity. Such perceptions see communities as naturally occurring, harmonious spaces of belonging that house our families, neighbors, and loved ones. On the other hand, pejorative viewpoints on communities see them as backward places that make unreasonable demands on family members, retard assimilation into larger society, and attenuate the personal freedom of individuals. Despite these different evaluations of communities within social relations, both perspectives neglect the political implications of the construct of community.
When I was elected president of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 2007, I selected "The New Politics of Community" as the theme for our 2009 annual meeting primarily because these perspectives on community were just as intractable within sociology as everywhere else. My goal was to unsettle prevailing notions of the construct of community by criticizing its use within sociology and by exploring its political and theoretical contours. I offered the following thesis as a rationale for my choice: "Because the idea of community is ubiquitous, versatile, multifaceted, and able to marshal emotions [End Page 54] that move people to action, it is a potentially powerful idea for crafting diverse political projects. Political leaders know that when individuals cease seeing themselves as part of a mass, a mob, a collectivity, a population, or a public and instead claim a sense of belonging to a community, they are primed for political analysis and action" (Collins, "New Politics" 12). Avoiding romantic or pejorative views of community, instead, I approached community as an immanent construct that can be used for a variety of purposes by individuals, groups, organizations, and nation-states. While the construct of community itself may be politically neutral, through use, the construct of community becomes taken up by heterogeneous political projects, and, as a result, community is implicated within power relations.1
The dramatic events leading up to the 2008 US presidential election strongly influenced both my ideas about the political implications of community as well as the final program for the 2009 annual meeting. In 2007, neither I nor the program committee could envision either the inauguration of the first African American US president or the scope of the financial crisis where global capitalism teetered on the edge of collapse. These events signaled a sea change both in US politics and the global economy that influenced whether people could afford to attend the meeting and, if so, what issues would most concern them. Not only did the world feel different by 2009; it was different. The post-election and post-ASA meeting period fueled a growing optimism that the Obama administration's commitment to participatory democracy might catalyze a dedication to social justice initiatives. And the idea of community was central to the Obama administration's project of participatory democracy. The Obama administration did set out to build inclusive communities across categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, age, and ability both within the US domestic context and within a global context. Yet the growing visibility of far-right populism during the two terms of the Obama presidency brought new challenges to efforts to build inclusive communities within multicultural democracies that could not be envisioned in 2009.
The resurgence of white nationalism, a version of far-right populism, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election in the United States is telling. Drawing upon the familiar framework of "us" versus "them" thinking that pits communities against one another, far-right populism is antithetical to the vision of inclusive communities and to the ethos of fair...