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conceptual clarification

One theoretical contribution that research can make is to throw new light onto a concept. The examples below show different approaches to how this can be done in the context of the study of community. (If you are not interested in community as a concept bear with us, you can get the general idea of what the authors are trying to do and then move on quickly to discussing a key concept in your research).

In the first Ladd (1998) is looking at community through his background in philosophy. He is interested in community as a normative concept: what should community look like? What value does community have? He is not exploring the empirical evidence on community rather he is offering, what at least appears to me, as a counter factual definition of community. I believe this is a helpful approach to take as it gives us something against which we can measure communities as they are. Without this more normative dimension of community we might be selling ourselves short when we use community as a concept. We may end up ‘shoe horning’ the concept into the reality rather than critically viewing the reality in the light of what ought to be. An obvious limitation of course is the relevance of this kind of enquiry to practice.

Our second article on community comes from the much cited Keywords produced by Raymond Williams (1985) [click here for the Keywords site]. In this example the concept of community is explored etymologically (ie Williams explores the origin of the word and the way in which its meanings has changed) with the conclusion that community is always used in a positive sense. Reading Williams we may draw the conclusion that community is what the semioticians call a floating signifier - something that can be evoked to generate a fuzzy feeling, in this case a sense of belonging, but not meaning very much beyond its rhetorical dimension. The value of his approach is that we can see how the meaning of a concept can shift over time and in the process realise our own take on community is transitory and a product of particular circumstance. A drawback is again the relationship of this type of inquiry to the vast empirical evidence on community.

In a third article Glynn (1981) is seeking an ‘instrument’ with which he can operationalise the concept of community. The approach is thoughtful. He discusses the historical problem of defining sense of community and his unease with previous approaches. He then uses a literature review to identify key ideas associated with sense of community and in effect tested these with carefully selected respondents. The final result was an instrument with 90 odd items to measure sense of community. The value of this approach is that is grounded in the literature and what people actually feel about community. Leaving aside any technical limitations, including the practicality of using the instrument, the approach may leave you with a fairly static sense of community and may be over focused on discussion of community as it is, rather than what it could be.

In a fourth article Campbell (2014) discusses community action as a concept. She is concerned with what community action ought to look like and the consequences of taking a particular stance om CA. For example she clearly describes the materialist as against the social constructionist view and how this influences the way that material versus symbolic change is perceived. She also takes us through different approaches to CA including Instrumental approaches; Dialogical approaches; Social capital; critical or political emphasis. By drawing on a range of examples she comes up with contigent view of community action rather than a one size fits all model.

The key question here is what are key concepts in your research; how are you going to define those concepts, how if at all are you seeking to use the concept in your research?


[All these should be easily available]

Campbell, C. (2014) Community mobilisation in the 21st century: Updating our theory of social change? Journal of Health Psychology, 19(1), 46-59.

Glynn, T. J. (1981) Psychological sense of community: Measurement and application. Human Relations, 34(9), 789-818.

Ladd, J. (1998) The idea of community, an ethical exploration, Part I: The search for an elusive concept. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 32(1), 5-24.

Williams, R. (1985) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press or Keywords site