As I prepare to talk about discourse community with a colleague’s class, I was struck by the many qualities that very different communities share whether they are professional communities, communities of faith, or social communities. This thought struck me as my husband and I watched the documentary series on Gangland on The History Channel. My colleague has invited myself and another rhetorician to explain our own recent wrestling with the definition of community. What makes a community and why do people want to join? Humans are social animals (which also makes us rhetorical animals but that is another post) and we seek out connections with others. These connections result from a variety of different common bonds that may shift, break, or strengthen over time depending on how we (or circumstances) change. Some of the essential elements that determine the strength (and longevity) of the bond include interactivity, shared interests, meaningful relationships, and a sense of history.
However, just because we want that connection does not mean that others want to connect with us. We can sit at the same lunch table with a tight clique but that does not mean we can join their conversation in any meaningful way. Every group has rules concerning membership. Gangs make their membership rules quite explicit. Recently, while watching Gangland I was struck, in light of my own recent study of communities, by the way that gang members describe the different levels of association. The Wolf Pack Motorcycle Club describes the levels of club affiliation on their web site. These are very similar to the levels described by gangs. Of course, moving from one level of gang affiliate to another usually involves much more violence and frequently physical and emotional trauma (not to mention lawbreaking).Frequently that ritual involves jumping.
I can compare these levels of membership to a personal aspect of my own life. I am a “Full Patch” member of a church. My grandparents (both sets) and parents were born, raised, and married in this denomination and I formally joined as a teen (with a ceremony following an initiation process). My husband and I were married in this denomination and up to now have raised our son in it. At different times we have been a “Friend of the Club” to other churches – either through collaboration between the churches or to attend a special service or event. This made it easier when we began considering another church home to become a “Hangaround” as we explored our options. We do not know whether or not we will progress to “Prospects” let alone “Full Patch” but I am sure that those moves will involve a formal process or ceremony of some sort. I’m fairly certain it won’t involve a jumping. Although my previous experience with this did include a verbal jumping of a sort. It wasn’t verbal abuse but a close questioning of my beliefs. While not painful, it was a similar demonstration of my ability to join that community.
Similarly, a professional organization I study has levels of membership. This organization has public events, just like the Wolf Pack has rides, and there are a number of people who attend these functions from time to time which would make them “Friends of the Club.” Then there are people who attend events and state an interest in joining some day which would make them “hangarounds.” This organization has a formal application process for “prospects” and a year-long initiation before they can become “full patch” members. Again, no jumping but certainly a trial of sorts.
I think the primary reason people join a community is to give shape and meaning to their lives and to belong to something bigger than themselves and of course going through this membership process also helps build those common bonds among community members. Those bonds and those “stories of solidarity” (as mentioned by Miller) that emphasize their shared history and interests are what shapes a community.