Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What is Community?

I am interested in the idea of “community” from two related but different angles. Not a straight-forward social or geographical community, but a network, such as a community of practice or learning community. This idea of community as a place to grow and learn interests me as a technical communicator and as an educator.

As a technical communicator I am interested in the development of a professional learning community and organization. The project I am embarking on will involve the rhetorical analysis of a community’s documentation (annual reports in particular) to study the community’s transformation from an organization in crisis to a thriving community.

As a teacher, I am interested in the impact of a learning community on the transformation to writer (the focus of my dissertation and classroom research). I have found evidence in some populations that participation in a learning community decreases writing apprehension and increases evidence of self-regulating activity such as agency and self-efficacy. I intend to continue studying the impact of community on writing development and transformation.

The challenge is that the definition of “community” has evolved over time and it is necessary to re-evaluate what defines or makes a community. I am currently conducting a literature review to better understand how “community” is defined in the fields of technical communication and writing studies.

Zucchermaglio & Talamo (2003) argue that because writing is a social activity a writer is always a member of a community. They point out that each community develops specific communicative practices, both oral and written. These practices are affected by the development of the main dimensions that characterize a group as a community of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) agree that “community underpins rhetorical action” but ask what is a “realistic” idea of community today. Communication and transportation innovations have challenged and changed previous notions of community sometimes beyond all recognition. The “diverse contexts” that have resulted from these changes make pinning down a definition of community difficult at best.

Hampton & Wellman (2003) note that the idea of “community” has both persevered and changed over time and is rarely based on local neighboring, densely-knit solidarities, organized groups, or public spaces. They observe that communities consist of far-flung kinship, workplace, friendship, interest groups, and neighborhood ties that concatenate to form networks providing sociability, aid, support, and social control. Communities are usually not groups, but social networks that are sparsely-knit, loosely-bounded and far-flung.

Network Weaving (2011) defines a “community” as a network of people who share things in common. Others are more specific about those “things” the members of a community share. For example, Grossman et al (2001) and Rovai (2002) define a community as a group of people who share social interdependence, participation in discussion and decision making, and practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it. Grossman and Rovai also agree that the most essential elements of community include a sense of connection and trust, task-driven interactivity, shared interests, meaningful relationships, and overlapping histories among members.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) point out that the concept of “community” is typically used as a “god-term” in the sense coined by Kenneth Burke: reified, ubiquitous, always positive, and ultimately unexamined. They question the idea of “shared beliefs and values” that is often noted as a characteristic of (or as the very foundation of) community when any conceptualization of community today must grapple with…the context of diversity and value pluralism. They call for research and theory concerning the complex relationships between rhetorical actions and their impact on communities.

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