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Identifying Concepts That Build a Sense of Community


Seymour Sarason is generally held as the first psychologist to address the study of sense of community. His initial understanding of sense of community sprang from popular expressions about community changing or disappearing, leaving a lack of feelings of belonging he called sense of community (Sarason, 1974).

When Sarason began outlining the concept of sense of community as the underlying theory for the field of community psychology, he found that despite the field being at a loss for a common definition the general public understands the term well. Despite much academic debate, recent research shows similarities in how community members and academics explain both community and sense of community (Mannarini & Fedi, 2010).

Sarason summed up sense of community as “the sense that one was part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one could depend and as a result of which one did not experience sustained feelings of loneliness” (Sarason, 1974, p. 1).

A theory from the mid 1980s stands at the center of most sense of community understanding. In it, the authors describe four factors that work together to create sense of community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). These four factors have been thoroughly explored in qualitative and quantitative research since then, and the theory is not only the most popular but relatively unchallenged.

Below I’ve compiled keywords and phrases associated with each factor:

Membership: a sense of belonging, personal relatedness, investment of the self, feeling the right to belong, being a part of the community, boundaries including identifying people who belong and people who don’t belong, emotional safety (through belonging), feelings of acceptance, willingness to sacrifice for the group, identification with the group, sharing common symbols, and personal investment.

Influence: mattering, individual members making a difference to the group and the group having an influence on its members, conformity, members having a say in what happens in the group, consensual validation, closeness.

Integration & Fulfillment of Needs: feeling that members’ needs will be met by resources of the group and through membership, reinforcement, rewarding to members, status of membership, group success, group and individual competence, “person-environment fit,” serve individual’s needs by belonging, shared values, members are able and willing to help one another and receive help in return.

Shared Emotional Connection: the commitment and belief that the community has (and will continue to share) a history, common places, shared events, time together, and similar experiences; positive experiences among group members; relationships and bonds between members; completed tasks; shared importance of events/tasks; investment (time, money, intimacy); emotional risk between members; honors, rewards and humiliation by the community have an impact on members; spiritual bonds.

New Theories

I have identified and included two possible alternatives in my research.

The first suggests that factors may differ by means of connecting to the community. Although unique attributes of communities may influence strength of sense of community (Brodsky et al., 2002), this theory suggests that what sense of community means to members may be different based on the community as well. In research on online communities using the four-factor model Blanchard (2004) found that there were two additional factors loading in responses: relationships and personal identity or identification of others.

The second alteration is more revolutionary and summarizes all of the foundational factors as a single framework identifying only needs while ignoring any reasons other than personal fulfillment that may add to sense of community. In it, the researchers identify responsibility as a second framework for building sense of community (Nowell & Boyd, 2010).

Most of these concepts are covered in some way with the original four factor theory. Relationships are directly addressed by Shared Emotional Connection. Identification of others falls under both Shared Emotional Connection and Membership. Responsibility is also a part of Membership: the willingness to sacrifice for the group.

Since the two factors of Identification/Identity and Responsibility are not fully covered in the original factors, I included them as independent factors during content analysis of open-ended comments in this research.

Current Findings

What I found in explanations of the overall meaning of sense of community (as opposed to later questions about sense of community within specific communities) is that while the four factors do account for the majority of responses, Membership and Shared Emotional Connection are by far the most commonly identified factors.

Sense of Community Factors

That the question addressed general, and not online, sense of community could explain why Identification/Identity did not show up as a factor. However, the invitation to the survey was only for players of World of Warcraft and mentioned their guilds. Some responses did mention gaming or online interaction in the general explanation of sense of community.

Responsibility was addressed directly in a small number of cases, which shows some support for it as a factor. However, using it as a second framework and grouping the other four factors under one topic of Needs would create a heavily unbalanced pair. It may be that the inclusion of responsibility suggested by Nowell and Boyd (2010) is only present as an aspect of sense of community in certain community types. Their work looks at individuals representing public health organizations who are working together regionally. This community has a moral or values-based foundation that other communities such as entertainment- or neighborhood-based communities may not have.

We can also see that the traditional factor of Influence was only minimally represented. This also ties to the Blanchard and Markus (2002, 2004) studies of online online news groups, which did not find support for the traditional influence factor. Due to the name of the current study, Sense of Community in a Mediated World, it is possible that the explanations for sense of community in this open-ended response were colored by thoughts of mediated communities.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, influence shows up as the second most important factor when identifying sense of community in other neighborhoods. However, it was not present at all in comments about the strength of participants’ own neighborhoods.

Influence played a very minimal role in responses about other online communities addressed in this study, but it was present … More on that to come in another post!


Blanchard, Anita L. (2004). Blogs as virtual communities: Identifying a sense of community in the Julie/Julia Project. In L. J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved on August 13, 2010, from http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogs_as_virtual.html.

Blanchard, Anita L., & Markus, M. Lynne. (2002). Sense of virtual community-Maintaining the experience of belonging. Paper presented at the 35th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS’02). Retrieved November 9, 2008, from http://www2.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/doi/10.1109/HICSS.2002.994449

Blanchard, Anita L., & Markus, M. Lynne. (2004). The experienced “sense” of a virtual community: Characteristics and processes. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems, 35(1), 64-71. Retrieved January 27, 2011, from Google Scholar.

Brodsky, Anne E., Loomis, C., & Marx, C.M. (2002). Expanding the conceptualisation of PSOC. In A. T. Fisher, C. C. Sonn & B. J. Bishop (Eds.), Psychological sense of community: Research, applications, and implications (pp. 319-336). New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers.

Mannarini, Terri, & Fedi, Angela. (2010). Multiple senses of community: the experience and meaning of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(2), 211-227. Retrieved October 6, 2010, from Wiley Online Library.

McMillan, David W., & Chavis, David M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23. Retrieved July 8, 2008, from Google Scholar.

Nowell, Branda, & Boyd, Neil. (2010). Viewing community as responsibility as well as resource: deconstructing the theoretical roots of psychological sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 38(7), 828-841. Retrieved February 9, 2011, from Wiley Online Library.

Sarason, Seymour B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers.