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Sense of community can be negative (and bad for you)

The stories of how strong sense of community positively affects us are at the core of community psychology. As a strengths-based field, the idea is to look for what works and study that to learn from it. So much of psychology throughout history has been about what is broken, and this positive spin is one of the things that draws me to community psychology. But when sense of community was first defined by Seymour Sarason the thing that tied everything together in his conversations was that a lack of sense of community was linked to human misery.

But not all sense of community is good. And we can learn from this too.

First of all, our feelings about our communities can be negative. Typically we look at what makes a strong community strong and how that benefits members. But what makes a weak community weak, and what does that do to its members and society?

In my research local neighborhoods had the weakest sense of community, significantly lower than all three of the other communities included in the study. Past research has shown that different neighborhoods have different levels of sense of community. It’s possible that the some participants in my study looked for sense of community elsewhere because their local neighborhoods didn’t provide it. We are all members of multiple communities.

But what happens when it is not possible to find support outside of your local community? One study found that mothers in bad neighborhoods who had a low sense of community benefited from that lack of a connection. Not feeling associated with, or connected to, a community that is bad for you can be good.

Not all communities are good, but some of the not-so-good communities still can  provide a strong sense of community.

So what happens when a community that is not “good” by social standards provides its members with a strong sense of belonging, needs fulfillment, connection, and strength? Divisions between the group and society can become exaggerated. Insular beliefs can grow. Prejudice is supported and expands. Gangs are communities, racist organizations are communities, political and religious extremists are communities. And that is how something that can be so healthy, beneficial, and supportive can be bad for you.

Understanding these twists provides balance and meaning to our overall concept of communities. Sense of community can be positive, neutral, or negative in different communities. These sides of sense of community cannot, and should not, be ignored.