“People today only know how to live in society, not in community. The soul of society is the law. The soul of community is love.”~ Robert Rossellini, Europa 1963
While the terms community and society are often used interchangeably, the above quote by Robert Rossellini in the 1963 movie Europa, suggests that, though very similar in nature, communities and societies are not the same. Within this context, communities are caring and nurturing, while societies are utilitarian in principle, meaning that people are judged based on how useful they are and how well they follow rules. The former has a spirit of cooperation and self-governing (ie. people establish and monitor their own rules to live by), while the latter deals with conforming to governing rules (ie. others outside of the social group establishes and monitors rules for people to live by).
German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies’ Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) theory makes this distinction between these two social organizations. According to Tonnies, in a community, members function to carry out common goals for the entire community. On the other hand, in a society, members function as a means to further individual advancement only. Therefore, communities are long-term, close-knit, sustainable systems, while societies are short-term, superficial, and loose systems.
In a society, every man is for himself and is running the proverbial rat-race. Individualism and free will are more important than values, developing social bonds and solidarity, and working for the better good of the community. The only common traits and interests that are shared are based upon loose associations such as ethnicity, language, or work . The accumulation of possessions is more important than developing lasting-relationships. Also, there’s a natural distrust among and between members of the group, and goods and services are exchanged solely for the benefit of what’s to be gained individually. In essence, this type of society operates off of narcissistic behaviors. In this context, members of this society are isolated and alienated, and are in frequent conflict among themselves and other groups. While only a few get ahead in this type of social organization, usually in the end, it’s self-defeating.
In contemporary urban America, many sociologists believe that communities are not communities in the traditional sense. Instead, they function more like mini societies. Today, most urban Black neighborhoods are not part of any greater community. Instead, they operate as isolated and disjointed societies that are alienated and disconnected from networks. Social organizations at this level lack political power, collective wealth, bonds and social cohesiveness. In contemporary Black “communities”, the Gesellschaft form of social organization is more prevalent than in mainstream America and other ethnic groups. The social, economic, and political structure is almost nonexistent, and as we’ll see later, Blacks in inner-cities have always been left to fend for themselves, both individually and collectively. Many Black communities across the country are not communities at all, but are more residual fragments of ‘what use to be’.