views updated May 14 2018


Communitarianism is a social philosophy that core assumption is the required shared ("social") formulations of the good. The assumption is both empirical (social life exhibits shared values) and normative (shared values ought to be formulated). While many sociologists may consider such an assumption as subject to little controversy, communitarianism is in effect a highly contested social philosophy. It is often contrasted with liberalism (based on the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, not to be confused with liberalism as the term is used in contemporary American politics). Liberalism's core assumption is that what people consider right or wrong, their values, should strictly be a matter for each individual to determine. To the extent that social arrangements and public policies are needed, these should not be driven by shared values but by voluntary arrangements and contracts among the individuals involved, thus reflecting their values and interests. Communitarians, in contrast, see social institutions and policies as affected by tradition and hence by values passed from generation to generation. These become part of the self through nonrational processes, especially internalization, and are changed by other processes such as persuasion, religious or political indoctrination, leadership, and moral dialogues.

In addition, communitarianism emphasizes particularism, the special moral obligations people have to their families, kin, communities, and societies. In contrast, liberalism stresses the universal rights of all individuals, regardless of their particular membership. Indeed, liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared that the very notion of a society is a fiction.

Until 1990, sociological and social psychological researchers and theorists and communitarian philosophers often ignored one another's works, despite the fact that they dealt with closely related issues. It should be noted, though, that communitarians were much more inclined to be openly and systematically normative than many social scientists.


Like many other schools of thought, communitarianism has changed considerably throughout its history, and has various existing camps that differentiate significantly. As far as can be determined, the term "communitarian" was not used until 1841, when Goodwyn Barmby, an official of the Communist Church, founded the Universal Communitarian Association.

Communitarian issues were addressed long before that date, however, for instance in Aristotle's comparison of the isolated lives of people in the big metropolis to close relationships in the smaller city. Both the Old and the New Testament deal with various issues one would consider communitarian today, for instance the obligations to one's community. The social teaching of the Catholic Church (for instance, concerning subsidiarity) and of early utopian socialism (for example, regarding communal life and solidarity), all contain strong communitarian elements, although these works are not comprehensive communitarian statements and are not usually considered as communitarian works per se.

Among early sociologists whose work is strongly communitarian, although this fact is as a rule overlooked by social philosophers, are Ferdinand Tönnies, especially his comparison of the Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft, (or community and society); Emile Durkheim, especially his concerns about the integrating role of social values and the relations between the individual and society; and George Herbert Mead. These works are extensively examined elsewhere in this encyclopedia and hence are not discussed here.

A communitarian who combined social philosophy and sociology Martin Buber. Especially relevant are Buber's contrast between I-It and I-Thou relations, his interest in dialogue, and his distinction between genuine communal relationships and objectified ones.

Other sociologists whose work contains communitarian elements are Robert E. Park, William Kornhauser, and Robert Nisbet. Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah and his associates, and Amitai Etzioni wrote books that laid the foundations for new (or responsive) communitarianism, which Etzioni launched as a "school" and somewhat of a social movement in 1990.

Selznick's The Moral Commonwealth is especially key in forming a strong intellectual grounding for new communitarian thinking, and presents an integration of moral and social theory in a synthesis of "communitarian liberalism." According to Selznick, communitarianism does not reject basic liberal ideals and achievements; it seeks reconstruction of liberal perspectives to mitigate the excesses of individualism and rationalism, and to encourage an ethic of responsibility (in contrast to liberalism, where the concept of responsibility has no major role). In a community there is an irrepressible tension between exclusion and inclusion, and between civility and piety. Thus community is not a restful idea, a realm of peace and harmony. On the contrary, competing principles must be recognized and dealt with.


Different communitarian camps are no closer to one another than National Socialists (Nazis) are to Scandinavian Social Democrats (also considered socialists). It is hence important to keep in mind which camp one is considering. The differences concern the normative relations between social order and liberty, and the relations between the community and the individual.

Authoritarian Communitarians. Authoritarian communitarians(some of whom are often referred to as "Asian" or "East Asian" communitarians) are those who argue that to maintain social order and harmony, individual rights and political liberties must be curtailed. Some believe in the strong arm of the state (such as former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian head of state Mahathir Bin Mohamad), and some in strong social bonds and the voice of the family and community (especially the kind of society Japan had, at least until 1990). Among the arguments made by authoritarian communitarians is that social order is important to people, while what the West calls "liberty" actually amounts to social, political, and moral anarchy; that curbing legal and political rights is essential for rapid economic development; and that legal and political rights are a Western idea, which the West uses to harshly judge other cultures that have their own inherent values. The extent to which early sociological works, for instance, by Tönnies and Community and Power by Robert Nisbet, include authoritarian elements, is open to question.

Political Theoreticians . In the 1980s communitarian thinking became largely associated with three scholars: Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer. They criticized liberalism for its failure to realize that people are socially "situated" or contextualized, and its negligence of the greater common good in favor of individualistic self-interests. In addition, as Chandran Kukathas relates in The Communitarian Challenge to Liberalism (Paul, Miller, Paul, eds. 1990, p.90), communitarians argue that political community is an important value which is neglected by liberal political theory. Liberalism, they contend, views political society as a supposedly neutral framework of rules within which a diversity of moral traditions coexist. . . .[Such a view] neglects the fact that people have, or can have, a strong and 'deep' attachment to their societies—to their nations.

While for many outside sociology, especially until 1990, these three scholars were considered the founding fathers of communitarian thinking, none of them uses the term in their work, possibly to avoid being confused with authoritarian communitarians. These scholars almost completely ignored sociological works that preceded them, and were largely ignored by sociologists.

New or Responsive Communitarians. Early in 1990, a school of communitarianism was founded in which sociologists played a key role, although it included scholars from other disciplines such as William A. Galston (political theory), Mary Ann Glendon (law), Thomas Spragens, Jr. (political science), and Alan Ehrenhalt (writer) to mention but a few. The group, founded by Amitai Etzioni, took communitarianism from a small and somewhat esoteric academic discipline and introduced it into public life, and recast its academic content. Its tools were The Responsive Communitarian Platform: Rights and Responsibilities, a joint manifesto summarizing the guiding principles of the group; an intellectual quarterly, The Responsive Community, whose editors include several sociologists; several books; position papers on issues ranging from a communitarian view of the family to organ donation and to bicultural education; and numerous public conferences, op-eds, and a web site (

Key Assumptions and Concepts. Responsive communitarianism methodologically is based on the macro-sociological assumption that societies have multiple and not wholly compatible needs and values, in contrast to philosophies that derive their core assumptions from one overarching principle, for instance liberty for libertarianism. Responsive communitarianism assumes that a "good society" is based on a carefully crafted balance between liberty and social order, between individual rights and social responsibilities, between particularistic (ethnic, racial, communal) and society-wide values and bonds. In that sense, far from representing a Western model, the communitarian good society combines 'Asian' values (also reflecting tenets of Islam and Judaism that stress social responsibilities) with a Western concern with political liberty and individual rights.

While the model of the good society is applicable to all societies, communitarianism stresses that different societies, during various historical periods, may be off balance in rather contrasting ways and hence may need to move in different directions in order to approximate the same balance. Thus, contemporary East Asian societies require much greater tolerance for individual and communal differences, while in the American society—especially at the end of the 1980s—excessive individualism needs to be reigned in. To put it differently, communitarianism suggests that the specific normative directives that flow from the good society model are historically and culturally contingent.

Responsive communitarians stress that the relationship between liberty and social order is not a zero-sum situation; up to a point they are mutually supportive. Thus, in situations such as those prevailing in late-1990s Moscow, where liberty and social order are neglected, increasing order might well also enhance people's autonomy and life choices. The same might be said about reducing crime in American cities when it reached the point where people did not venture into parks, and were reluctant to ride the subway or walk the streets after dark. Moreover, totalitarian regimes, the ultimate loss of freedom, are said to arise when order is minimized.

While up to a point social order and liberty enhance one another, if the level of social order is increased further and further, responsive communitarians expect it to reach a level where it will erode people's liberty. And, if the scope of liberty is extended ever more, it will reach a point where it will undermine the social order. This idea is expressed in the term inverting symbiosis, which indicates that up to a point liberty and order nourish one another, and beyond it they turn antagonistic.

The same point applies to the relationship between the self and the community. Political theorists have tended to depict the self as "encumbered," "situated,"or "contextualized,"all of which imply that it is constrained by social order. Responsive communitarians stress that individuals within communities are able to be more reasonable and productive than isolated individuals, but if social pressure to conform reaches a high level, such pressures undermine the development and expression of the self.

The next question is: Under what conditions can the zone of symbiosis be expanded, and that of antagonism between liberty and order be minimized? To answer that question the communitarian view of human nature must be introduced. While sociologists tend to avoid this term, on the grounds that it is not testible and can lead to racism (as evident in the notion that some groups of people are more intelligent by nature), communitarians use the term with less reluctance.

The view of human nature most compatible with responsive communitarian thinking is a dynamic (developmental) view, which holds that people at birth are akin to animals. But unlike social conservatives, who tend to embrace a dour view of human nature, and tend to view even adults after socialization as impulsive, irrational, dangerous, or sinful—communitarians maintain that people can become increasingly virtuous if the proper processes of value-internalization and reinforcement of undergirding social institutions, the "moral infrastructure," are in place. At the same time, communitarians do not presume that people can be made as virtuous as liberals assume them to be from the onset. (Liberals tend to assume that crime and forms of deviant behavior reflect social conditions, especially government interventions that pervert good people, rather than criminals' innate nature.)

The moral infrastructure, an essential foundation of a good society, draws on four social formations: families, schools, communities, and the community of communities. The four core elements of the moral infrastructure are arranged like Chinese nesting boxes, one within the other, and in a sociological progression. Infants are born into families, which communitarians stress have been entrusted throughout human history with beginning the process of instilling values and launching the moral self. Schools join the process as children grow older, further developing the moral self ("character"), or trying to remedy character neglect suffered under family care. Schools are hence viewed not merely or even primarily as places of teaching, where the passing of knowledge and skills occur, but as educational institutions in the broadest sense of the term.

Human nature, communitarians note, is such that even if children are reared in families dedicated to child raising and moral education, and children graduate from strong and dedicated schools, these youngsters are still not sufficiently equipped for a good, communitarian society. This is a point ignored by social philosophers who often assume that once people have acquired virtue and are habituated, they will be guided by their inner moral compass. The very concept of "conscience" assumes the formation of a perpetual inner gyroscope.

In contrast, communitarians—following standard sociological positions—assume that the good character of those who have acquired it tends to degrade. If left to their own devices, individuals gradually lose much of their commitments to their values, unless these are continuously reinforced. A major function of the community, as a building block of the moral infrastructure, is to reinforce the character of its members. This is achieved by the community's "moral voice," the informal sanction of others, built into a web of informal affect-laden relationships, which communities provide. In general, the weaker the community—because of high population turnover, few shared core values, high heterogeneity, etc.—the thinner the social web and the slacker the moral voice. The strength of the moral voice and the values it speaks for have been studied using a series of questions such as, Should one speak up if child abuse is witnessed? Or if children are seen painting swastikas? What about less dire situations, such as insisting that friends wear their seatbelts, or admonishing a nondisabled person one witnesses parking in a handicap space?

Informal surveys show that Americans in the 1980s were very reluctant to raise their moral voice; many accepted the liberal ideology that what is morally sound is to be determined by each individual, and one should not pass judgments over others. Alan Wolfe's study, One Nation After All, found that Americans, even in conservative parts of the country, have grown very tolerant of a great variety of social behavior. Increase in tolerance is of course by itself virtuous; communitarians, though, raise the question: At which point does such increased tolerance engendering an amoral culture where spousal abuse, discrimination, child neglect, drunk drivers, obsessive materialism, and other forms of antisocial behavior become matters the community should ignore, leaving them to individual discretion or the law.

More specifically, communitarians inquire various elements of the moral infrastructure whether they reinforce, neglect, or undermine it. In this context, the special communitarian perspective of voluntary associations is especially important. Previously, the significance of these associations has been highlighted as protecting individuals from the state (a protection they would not have if they faced the state as isolated or "atomized" individuals), and as intermediating bodies that aggregate, transmit, and underwrite individual signals to the state.

Communitarians argue that, in addition, the very same voluntary associations often fulfill a rather different role: They serve as social spaces in which members of communities reinforce their social webs and articulate their moral voice. That is, voluntary associations often constitute a basis of communal relationships. Thus, the members of a local chapter of the Masons, Elks, or Lions care about one another and reinforce each other's particular brand of conservative views. Similarly, the members of the New York City Reform Clubs, Americans for Democratic Action, and local chapters of the ACLU reinforce one another's particular brand of liberal views.

Communitarians pay special attention to the condition of public spaces as places communities happen (as distinct from private places like homes and cars). Even though one may carpool with friends or have them over for a visit, these are mainly activities of small friendship groups (what Robert Putnam calls "bowling alone"). Communities need more encompassing webs, and those are formed and reinforced in public gathering places—from school assembly halls to parks, from plazas to promenades. To the extent that these spaces become unsafe, communities lose one of their major sources of reinforcement; recapturing them for community use is hence a major element of community regeneration.

Most important, drawing again on sociology, and particularly on what has been called the "consensus" rather then the "conflict") model, communitarians tend to maintain that if in addition to strong families and schools that build character, a society has communities, where social webs are intact and thats moral voice is clearly articulate, that society will be able to base its social order largely on moral commitments rather than the forces of the state. This is the case, communitarians argue, drawing on sociological assumptions and studies, because once moral commitments are internalized and reinforced they help shape people's preferences in favor of prosocial behavior—thus reducing the need for coercion by the state and diminishing the tension between liberty and social order.

Many discussions of community and of the moral infrastructure stop at this point, having explored the moral agency of family, school, and community. However, social and moral communities are not freestanding; they are often parts of more encompassing social entities. Moreover, communitarians note that unless communities are bound socially and morally into more encompassing entities, they may war with one another. Hence, the importance of communities of communities, the society.

Communitarians argue that one should not view society as composed of millions of individuals, but as pluralism within unity. They further maintain that subcultures and loyalties are not a threat to the integrity of society as long as a core of shared values and institutions (such as the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the democratic way of life, and mutual tolerance) are respected.

Communitarians draw on the four elements of the moral infrastructure—families, schools, communities, and communities of communities—as a sort of a checklist to help determine the state of the moral infrastructure in a given society. They argue that the decline of the two-parent family (due to high divorce rates, growing legitimation of single-parent families, and psychological disinvestment of parents in children), the deterioration of schools (due to automatic promotions and deterioration of social order in schools), the decline of communities (due to modernization), and the decline of the community of communities (as a result of excessive emphasis on diversity without parallel concern over shared bonds) resulted in the decline of moral and social order in the American society during the 1970s and 1980s. This was evidenced by the sharp rise in violent crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and in the decline of voluntarism, among other factors. The fact that some of these trends slowed down and reversed in the 1990s is viewed in part by communitarians as a reflection of changes in social thinking and practices they helped champion.

Here lies a great difference between the communitarian position and that of various religious social conservatives. Both groups recognize the need to regenerate the moral infrastructure, but conservatives favor returning to traditional social formations while communitarians point to new ways of shoring up society's ethical framework. For instance, many social conservatives favor women "graciously submitting to their husbands" and returning to homemaking, while communitarians argue for peer marriage, a concept introduced by Pepper Schwartz. Peer marriage suggests equal rights and responsibilities for mothers and fathers, but favors marriages that last, as compared to the liberal argument that single-parent families or child care centers can socialize children as well if not better than two-parent families. (Among the sociologists who have struck a communitarian position in this matter are Linda Waite, Glen Elder, Alice Rossi, and David Popenoe).

The communitarian argument over the role of communities in maintaining social order is strongly supported by sociological research of the kind conducted by Robert Sampson on the role of communities in fighting crime and drug abuse. David Karp and Todd Clear have also studied community involvement in criminal justice, focusing on ideas of restorative justice and policies that are concerned more with reintegrating offenders into their communities than merely punishing them.

Other communitarian themes examined by sociologists include topics explored by Edward W. Lehman, especially his writing on macro-sociology; Martin Whyte's work on the family; and Richard Coughlin's comparison of communitarian thinking to socioeconomics.


Much of the normative debate in the West, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, has focused on the merit of the free market (or capitalism) versus the role of the state in securing the citizens' well-being. Communitarians have basically leapfrogged this debate, focusing instead on the importance of the third element of social life, that of the civic society, which is neither state nor market. Communitarians have played a key role in the debate over the condition of civic society in the West, such as examining whether participation in voluntary associations, voting, and trust in institutions have declined, and to what effect. The work of Robert Bellah and his associates has been particularly influential here, demonstrating the rise of first expressive and then instrumental individualism, and their ill effects.

Communitarians have argued that rather than dumping people (often the most vulnerable members of society) into the marketplace as the welfare state is curtailed, civic society's various institutions can empower these individuals to help one another in attending to some of their social needs. Communal institutions (including places of worship) can shoulder important parts of care previously provided by state agencies, although the state will have to continue to shoulder an important part of the burden.

Communitarians stress that mutuality, rather than charity, is the basis for community-wide action that is not solely limited to helping one particular vulnerable group or another. The CPR training of some 400,000 Seattle citizens, who are thus able to help one another without public costs or private charges, is held up as a key case in point. Other examples include voluntary recycling programs, crime watch patrols, and above all the massive assistance given to immigrants by members of their own ethnic group. Communitarians have also pointed to the importance of a culture of civility in maintaining a society's ability to work out differences without excessive conflict.

Communitarians have argued that a civic society is good, but not good enough. Civic society tends to be morally neutral on many matters other than values concerning its own inherent virtue and the attributes citizens need to make them into effective members of a civic society, for instance, to be able to think critically. Thus, all voluntary associations, from the KKK to the Urban League, from militias to Hadassah, are considered to have the same basic standing. In contrast, a good society seeks to promote a core of substantive values, and thus views some social associations and activities as more virtuous than others. In the same vein, communitarians have stressed that while everyone's legal right to free speech should be respected, there is no denying that some speech—seen from the community's viewpoint—is morally sound while other speech is abhorrent. For instance, the (legal) right to speak does not make hate speech (morally) right. Communitarians would not seek to suppress hate speech by legal means, however, but they urge communities to draw on their moral voice to chastise those who speak in ways that are offensive.


Critics of responsive communitarianism argue that the concept of community is vague; indeed that the term "community" itself cannot be well defined. In response, community has been defined as a combination of two elements: a) A web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another (rather than merely one-on-one or chainlike individual relationships)and b) A measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity to a particular culture.

Some critics also contend that the quest for community is anachronistic, that contemporary societies are urban and populations geographically highly mobile, and thus bereft of community. Communitarians respond that communities exist in contemporary societies in small towns, suburbs, campuses and within city neighborhoods, often based on ethnic ties in places such as Korea Town in Los Angeles, Little Italy in New York City, the Irish section of South Boston, and so on. Moreover, communitarians point out that communities need not be geographic, members can be spread among nonmembers. For instance, homosexual groups often constitute communities even if they are not all neighbors.

Critics maintain that communities are authoritarian and oppressive, and have charged communitarians with seeking "Salem without witches." Communitarians respond that communities vary regarding this assessment. Contemporary communities tend to be relatively freer, given the relative ease of intercommunity mobility as well as shifting loyalties and psychic investments among various groups of which the same person is a member.

Critics also maintain that communities are exclusionary, and hence bigoted. Communitarians respond that communities must respect the laws of the society in which they are situated, but do tend to thrive on a measure of homogeneity and on people's desire to be with others of their own kind. Moreover, given the human benefit of community membership, a measure of self-segregation should be tolerated.

Critics of responsive communitarianism claim that communitarians ignore matters of power and injustice as well as economic considerations, and are generally inclined to adopt a consensus rather than a conflict model. Communitarians agree that they ought to pay more attention to the effects of these factors on communities. However, they do envision the possibilities of conflict within communities, and responsive communitarians do propose that one should not treat conflict and community as mutually exclusive. Extending this idea to the treatment of diversity and multiculturalism, communitarians argue in favor of a society in which many differences can be celebrated as long as a set of commitments to the overarching society is upheld.


While sociologists greatly altered and enriched communitarian thinking, communitarian thinking's main contribution to sociology is the challenge of facing issues raised by the moral standing of various values, and the related question of cross-cultural moral judgments. Sociologists tend to treat all values as conceptually equal; a sociologist may refer to racist Afrikaners' beliefs and to humanitarian beliefs using the same "neutral" term, calling both "values." Communitarians use the term virtue to denote that some values (or belief systems) have a higher standing than others because they are compatible with the good society, while other values are not (and hence aberrant).

In the same vein, communitarians do not shy away from passing cross-cultural moral judgments, rejecting cultural relativism's claim that all cultures have basically equal moral standing. Thus, they view female circumcision, sex slaves, and hudud (chopping off the right hand of thieves) as violations of liberty and individual rights, and abandoning children, violating implicit contracts built into communal mutuality, or neglecting the environment, as evidence of a lack of commitment to social order and neglect of social responsibilities.


So far this examination has focused on the place of communitarian thinking in academic, conceptual, theoretical, and imperial works. Responsive communitarians have also been playing a considerable public role, presenting themselves as the founders of a new kind of environmental movement, one dedicated to shoring up society (not the state) rather than nature. Like environmentalism, communitarianism appeals to audiences across the political spectrum, although it has found greater acceptance with some groups rather than others. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is reported to have adopted the communitarian platform, and German Social Democrat Rudolf Scharping has suggested that his party should meet the communitarians "half way." President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton (author of ItTakes a Village) have combined communitarian with welfare-liberal themes. Among conservatives, Jack Kemp, a group of Tory members of the British parliament (especially David Willet), and German governor Kurt Biedenkopf are often listed as influenced by communitarianism. While this is only a partial list, it serves to illustrate the scope of communitarianism's influence and its cross over traditional ideological lines.

Communitarian terms have become part of the public vocabulary in the 1990s, especially references to "assuming responsibilities to match rights," while "communitarianism" itself is used much less often. The number of articles about communitarian thinking in the popular press increased twelvefold during the last decade of the twentieth century. The increase in the number of books, articles, and Ph.D. dissertations in academia for the same period, has been about eightfold. Interestingly, taking communitarianism from academia to the "streets" in the early 1990s resulted in the middle and late 1990s into a significant increase in acasemic interest. In the process, bridges have been built between social philosophers, sociologists, and community members and leaders, although they still sometimes travel on parallel rather than convergent pathways.

An extensive bibliography of communitarian works is also listed on The Communitarian Network's website,


Bellah, Robert et al.1991 The Good Society. New York: Knopf.

——1986 Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper & Row.

Coughlin, Richard 1991 Morality, Rationality, and Efficiency: New Perspectives on Socio-economics. Armonk. N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Etzioni, Amitai 1998 The Essential Communitarian Reader. New York: Roman & Littlefield.

——1996 The New Golden Rule. New York: Basic Books.

——1995 New Communitarian Thinking. Charlottes-ville, Va.: The University of Virginia Press.

——1993 The Spirit of Community. New York: Touchstone.

Paul, Ellen Franken, Fred Miller, Jr., and Jeffrey Paul (eds.) 1996 The Communitarian Challenge to Liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Selznick, Philip 1992 The Moral Commonwealth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities, a quarterly journal.

Amitai Etzioni


views updated Jun 08 2018


Communitarianism is part of the neo romantic reaction to rationalism. It emphasizes moral and social values and the societal institutions that support them, especially community and its traditions, passions and beliefs, religion, and the habits of the heart. Communitarianism is not blind to facts and logic, the cool calculations of the rational mind, or the importance of science, technology, and economic progress. Nevertheless, it is concerned that such perspectives may override, if not ignore, other human considerations, to which communitarianism is attentive. For the same reasons, communitarianism seeks to balance concern for individual rights and liberty with concerns for the common good and community.

Definition and History

The term communitarian was first introduced in 1841, to mean "of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a community or communistic system; communitive." It was infrequently employed from then until the mid-twentieth century.

Several critics have argued that the concept of the community is of questionable value because it is so ill-defined. In The Myth of Community Studies, Margaret Stacey (1974) argues that the solution to this problem is to avoid the term altogether. In the same publication, Colin Bell and Howard Newby similarly point out, "There has never been a theory of community, nor even a satisfactory definition of what community is" (p. xliii).

Amitai Etzioni (1996) has nevertheless argued that community can be defined with reasonable precision. Community has two characteristics: first, a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another (as opposed to one-on-one relationships); and second, a measure of commitment to a set of shared history and identity—in short, a particular culture. David
E. Pearson stated, "To earn the appellation 'community,' it seems to me, groups must be able to exert moral suasion and extract a measure of compliance from their members. That is, communities are necessarily, indeed by definition, coercive as well as moral, threatening their members with the stick of sanctions if they stray, offering them the carrot of certainty and stability if they don't" (Pearson 1995, p. 47)

Among early sociologists whose work is focused on communitarian issues (though they did not draw on the term) are Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936), especially his comparison of the Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft; Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), particularly his studies of the socially integrating role of values and the relations between the society and the person; and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) in his work on the self. Other early relevant sociological works are those of Robert E. Park, William Kornhauser, and Robert Nisbet.

While the term communitarian was coined in the mid-nineteenth century, ideas that are essentially communitarian appear much earlier. They are found in the Old and New Testaments, Catholic theology (for example, the emphasis on the Church as a community), more recently in socialist doctrine (for example, writing about early communes and workers' solidarity), and finally subsidiarity—the principle that the lowest level of authority capable of addressing an issue is the one best able to handle it. In essence, moral judgments are best made at the community level rather than from the higher governing bodies.

Balancing Liberty with the Common Good

In the 1980s, communitarianism was largely advanced by political theorists Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer. They criticized liberalism for overlooking that people can have a strong attachment to their societies. They lamented liberalism's focus on individualistic self-interest.

Since that time, two main forms of communitarianism have emerged. Authoritarian communitarians, who typically concern themselves with Asian culture, argue that to maintain social harmony, individual rights and political liberties must be curtailed. Some emphasize the importance of the state to maintain social order (for instance, leaders and champions of the regimes in Singapore and Malaysia), and some focus on strong social bonds, morality, and traditional culture (as in Japan). Some Asian communitarians also hold that the West's notion of liberty actually amounts to anarchy, that strong economic growth requires limiting freedoms, and that the West uses its idea of legal and political rights to chastise other cultures.

In 1990 a new school of communitarianism developed. Among its leading scholars are political theorist William A. Galston, legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, political scientist Thomas Spragens, Jr., writer Alan Ehrenhalt, and sociologists Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah and his associates, and Amitai Etzioni. The work of these authors laid the foundations in 1990 for the second form of communitarianism: responsive (democratic) communitarianism.

Responsive communitarianism assumes that societies have multiple and not wholly compatible needs, in contrast to philosophies built on one core principle, such as liberty. In communities, there is an irrepressible tension between exclusion and inclusion, and between civility and piety. Thus community is not a restful idea, a realm of peace and harmony. On the contrary, community members must recognize and deal with competing principles. Responsive communitarianism assumes that a good society is based on a balance between liberty and social order, and between particularistic (communal) and society-wide values and bonds. This school stresses the responsibilities that people have to their families, kin, communities, and societies. These exist above and beyond the universal rights that all individuals command, which is the main focus of liberalism.

While a carefully crafted balance between liberty and social order defines a generic concept of the good society, communitarians point out that the historical-social conditions of specific societies determine the rather different ways that a given society in a given era may need to change to attain the same balance. Thus, contemporary Japan requires much greater tolerance for individual rights, while in the American society excessive individualism needs to be curbed.

To achieve this balance, unlike laissez faire conservatives and welfare liberals who differ mainly with regard to the respective roles of the private sector and that of the state, communitarians are especially concerned with the third sector, that of civil society. They pay special attention to the ways that informal communal processes of persuasion and peer pressure foster social responsibilities for the common good.

Communitarians are also concerned with the relationship between the self and the community. Political theorists depict the self as "embedded," implying that the self is constrained by the community. Responsive communitarians stress that individuals who are well integrated into communities are better able to reason and act in responsible ways than are isolated individuals, but if social pressure to conform rises to high levels, it will undermine the individual self and therefore disrupt the balance.

This issue is reflected in questions that arise when associations of scientists and professions such as engineering address ethical and policy issues relevant to their work. Should the decisions involved, say whether or not to proceed with human cloning, be made by each scientist or by their informal communities or associations? And what role, if any, should the public and its elected representatives have in making these decisions? Closely related are similar questions such as to how to deal—and above all, who should deal—with instances of fraud in research, misappropriation of funds, and violations of security.

Communitarianism's Critics

Critics generally suggest that those who long for communities ignore the darker side of traditional communities. "In the new communitarian appeal to tradition, communities of 'mutual aid and memory,"' writes Linda McClain (1994), "there is a problematic inattention to the less attractive, unjust features of tradition" (p. 1029). Amy Gutmann (1985) pointedly remarks that communitarians "want us to live in Salem" (p. 319), a community of strong shared values that went so far as to accuse nonconformist members of witchcraft during the seventeenth century.

Communitarians counter that behind many of these criticisms lies an image of old, or total, communities, that are neither typical of modern society nor necessary for, or even compatible with, a communitarian society. Old communities (traditional villages) were geographically bounded and the only communities of which people were members. In effect, other than escaping into no-man's-land, often bandit territories, individuals had few opportunities for choosing their social attachments. In short, old communities had monopolistic power over their members.

New communities are often limited in scope and reach. Members of one residential community are often also members of other communities, for example work, ethnic, or religious ones. As a result, community members have multiple sources of attachments; if one community threatens to become overwhelming, individuals will tend to pull back and turn to another for their attachments. Thus, for example, if a person finds herself under high moral pressure at work to contribute to the United Way, to give blood, or to serve at a soup kitchen for the homeless, and these are lines of action she is not keen to follow, she may end up investing more of her energy in other communities—her writers' group, for instance, or her church. This multi-community membership protects the individuals from both moral oppression and ostracism.

Another criticism is that communities are authoritarian. Derek Phillips (1993), for instance, remarks, "[C]ommunitarian thinking ... obliterates individual autonomy entirely and dissolves the self into whatever roles are imposed by one's position in society" (p. 183). As the political scientist Robert Booth Fowler (1991) puts it, critics "see talk of community as interfering with the necessary breaking down of dominant forces and cultures" (p. 142). Some critics mean by this that communities are totalistic, a point already covered. Others mean that they are dominated by power elites or have one group that forces others to abide by the values of those in power.

Communitarians find that this criticism has merit but is misdirected. There are communities both past and present that have been or still are authoritarian. The medieval phrase Stadt Luft macht frei ("the air of the cities frees") captures what the farmers of traditional villages must have felt when they first moved into cities at the beginning of the industrial era. (Poor working conditions and slums aside, being away from the stricter social codes of their families and villages seems to have given them a sense of freedom, which in some cases led to anarchic behavior.) Totalitarian communities exist in contemporary societies, such as North Korea. However, most contemporary communities, especially in communitarian societies, are not authoritarian even when they are defined by geography. Also, the relative ease of mobility means that people often choose which community to join and within which to live. Agnostics will not move into a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and prejudiced whites will not move into a neighborhood dominated by the Nation of Islam.

Science and technology help open up societies and they promote relatively empirical, rational approaches to the world. New communications technologies, such as the Internet and satellite dishes, help undermine authoritarian regimes. However, no one should assume that on their own, these devices are capable of delivering a truly democratic state—especially when such technological advances are not accompanied by a proper change in values, as has been seen in Russia, Singapore, and China in the early twenty-first century.

Contemporary Issues

Communitarians have developed several specific concepts and policies that draw on their philosophy. They favor shoring up families, not traditional-authoritarian ones but peer marriages (in which mothers and fathers have equal rights and responsibilities). They fostered schools that provide character education rather than merely teach, but avoid religious indoctrinization. They developed notions of community justice, in which offenders, victims, and members of the community work together to find appropriate punishments and meaningful reconciliation. Communitarians favored devolution of state power, and the formation of communities of communities (within national societies and among nations), among many other policies.

Following the growing popularity of the concept of civic society, Etzioni (1999) argues that contemporary civic society is insufficient because it tends to be morally neutral on all matters other than the attributes that citizens need to make themselves into effective members of a civic society, for instance, the ability to think critically. In contrast, a good society seeks to promote a core of substantive values, and thus views some voluntary associations and social activities as more virtuous than others.

In the same vein, communitarians argue that while everyone's right to free speech should be respected, some speech—seen from the community's viewpoint is morally highly offensive and when children are exposed, damaging. For instance, the (legal) right to speak does not render verbal expressions of hate (morally) right.

Science has long been associated with rational thinking and in turn with secularism. Indeed, historically, science has often been considered antithetical to religion. However, communitarians are concerned with the moral fabric of society and they find religion one source of moral values. A communitarian may prefer to divide the issues people face among those that are subject to rational or scientific analysis and those that belong to a different sphere, reserved for belief. These include questions such as is there a god, why people are cast in this world born to die, what people owe their children and members of their community, among others.

Closely related is the question of a proper balance between the two sectors. Since the enlightenment, the sector of rationality (and within it science and technology) has increased dramatically in western societies. Communitarians ask whether in the process resources and time dedicated to the family, social and public life, culture, and spiritual and religious activities have been neglected.

While sociologists made numerous contributions to altered communitarian thinking, in turn communitarian philosophy has challenged sociology to face issues raised by cross-cultural moral judgments. Sociologists tend to treat all values as conceptually equal; thus, sociologists refer to racist Nazi beliefs and those of free societies by the same "neutral" term, calling both values. Communitarians instead use the term virtue to indicate that some values have a high moral standing because they are compatible with the good society, while other values are not and hence they are "aberrant" rather than virtuous.


SEE ALSO Community;Durkheim, Émile;Liberalism;Libertarianism;Neoliberalism.


Bell, Daniel A. (2000). East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Is liberal democracy universal? Daniel Bell explores this question with a look at Asian societies. Bell criticizes the "Asian values" perspectives, but finds that drawing on East Asian cultural traditions can create a model for political institutions that differs substantially from western-style democracy.

Bellah, Robert Neelly, ed. (1996). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Argues that democratic communities must focus on forces that humanize markets and government administrative powers.

Etzioni, Amitai. (1996). The New Golden Rule. New York: Basic Books. A foundational work of new communitarian theory. This book argues for the need to balance freedom with morality, and automony with community. It paves the way for a social order largely based on moral suasion rather than coercion.

Etzioni, Amitai. (1999). The Limits of Privacy. New York: Basic Books. An exploration of the right to privacy and the potentially negative impact it can have on public health and safety. Suggests criteria when privacy ought to yield and when it needs to be further extended. Case studies include sex offenders; HIV testing; medical records; ID cards; and encrypted communications.

Fowler, Robert Booth. (1991). The Dance with Community: The Contemporary Debate in American Political Thought. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Glendon, Mary Ann. (1993). Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Free Press. Contends that the rise of the language of rights in Western discourse has stifled real discussion, debate, and even the liberties that it seeks to protect.

Gutmann, Amy. (1985). "Communitarian Critics of Liberalism" Philosophy And Public Affairs 14 (3): 308–322.

Kornhauser, William. (1959). The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

McClain, Linda C. (1994). "Rights and Irresponsibility" Duke Law Journal 43 (5): 989.

Nisbet, Robert. (1962). Community and Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pearson, David E. (1995). "Community and Sociology" Society 32 (5): 44–50.

Phillips, Derek L. (1993). Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sandel, Michael. (1998). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Liberal societies try to avoid imposing value judgements on their members so that each individual is free to pursue the principles that meet with their interpretation of the good life. But do such principles exist? Sandel critiques this form of democratic liberalism.

Stacey, Margaret. (1974). "The Myth of Community Studies" In Sociology of Community: A Collection of Readings, ed. Colin Bell and Howard Newby. London: Frank Cass & Co.


The Communitarian Network. Available from


views updated Jun 27 2018



Communitarianism is a political philosophy that often stands in opposition to the principles of liberalism. Communitarians theorize that the community is the most important element of a society or culture. As such, the stability of the community must be enhanced and protected. Within the public sphere, communitarians explicitly argue against individualistic and pragmatic liberalism, citing a loss of moral and civic orientation. Communitarians posit that true ideals in a democracy cannot survive without a cohering center. Some communitarians, such as Robert Spaemann and Alan Bloom, consider that individualistic legacies of Enlightenment thinking have led to the decline of community as a way of life by harming the ability of the moral imagination to find solutions to community problems such as poverty or discrimination. Communitarians such as Markate Daly advance the notion that community is a part of life. As such, every individual is a member of a community and through this membership develops identities, relationships, and attachments with others; the members of a community express their values through their institutions and social needs. Those such as Amitai Etzioni criticize values of autonomy, natural rights, neutrality, universality, and individual interests in favor of values that emphasize traditions, common good, character, solidarity, social practices, and social responsibility. Communitarian goals bring about changes in habits, public policies, and morality that allow a community to work toward a future based on strong community goals and values.

Communitarians also posit that not all communities are moral. Communities that seek to destroy or diminish human life and property would not be allowed within the communitarian rubric. Rather, a true communitarian seeks stability and a community that flourishes. Democracy is seen as communitarian in that it joins community interests and institutions to bring about the will of the people.

Another common tenet of communitarianism is that loyalty is given to the community and group for the greater good of the community. As a political philosophy, resources for moral judgment and action are located in the established mores of the family, the workplace, and the like rather than within the individual; as such, the point and purpose of individual lives is to serve institutional needs and goals rather than vice versa. This system needs persons who can commit themselves to collective behaviors.

Some communitarians theorize that community views should not be challenged. It is more important that community leadership reinforce and strengthen the status quo. For example, the communitarian journalist should reinforce information necessary to maintain community values.

Additionally, communitarian leadership focuses on attaining ideals and keeping the group together, thereby maintaining a hard-earned position in the social structure. The group provides a presentation of a united front possessing power or the illusion of power. Individual members gain self-confidence from merely belonging but also will lose some individual identity. The system is more basic than the rights of individual members, so concepts of justice or fairness are sometimes ignored in favor of preservation of the group. Further, to some communitarians, loyalty to the group transcends the cause of truth.

Within the political realm, the community is usually advancing a cause, thereby seeking strength in numbers. Often the group is formed because of misuse of individual rights in a particular area, creating an attitude of us versus them. Often the community remains together even after the goals for forming it are met. Additionally, the group has the ability to banish members who do not follow the rules of the community and individualist members who find a cause or a truth the group would rather not explore. Rules are set by the community, and often examination of the rules is not necessary. Because of a reluctance to examine rules, members are slow to develop their own moral reasoning and rely on the morality of the group.

Noted contemporary communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre find that the individualistic legacies of Enlightenment thinking have been historically implicated in developments that have led to the decline of community as a way of life (1984, p. 52). Amitai Etzioni celebrates these individuals who are committed to the community rather than to individual rights by stating that communitarians are dedicated to working with our fellow citizens to bring about the changes in values, habits, and public policies that will allow us to do for society what the environmental movements seeks to do for nature: to safeguard and enhance our future (1993, p. 3).

Philosopher Markate Daly (1994) believes it is essential that communitarianism become a way of life. In communitarian theory, philosophers assume that community is part of life; as such, every individual is a member of a community and through this develops identities, relationships, and attachments with others. The members of a community express their values through their institutions and social needs, tempered by kindness. She contrasts communitarian with liberal notions as, instead of such values as individual interests, autonomy, universality, natural rights and neutrality, communitarian philosophy is framed in terms of the common good, social practices and traditions, character, solidarity and social responsibility (Daly 1994, p. 17).

Jürgen Habermas (1990), a prominent continental philosopher, uses a system of communitarian philosophy in proposing a dialectic that must be open to the community. Within his system, all decisions, particularly problematic decisions, can be made by the collective. Each member who is competent to speak to the subject is given equal time and input into the decision process.

Wendell Berry (1990) reminds that not all communities are moral, and those communities set to destroy or diminish human life and property should not be considered communities. Clifford Christians, John P. Ferre, and P. Mark Fackler confirm Berrys sentiments, stating that because a moral community is a condition for person-hood, a group is not ipso facto good, and no community can excuse inhumane behavior (1993, p. 69). Berry and Christians are examples of communitarian thinkers who realize the need for a conception of individual good to balance the supreme good of community stability.

Communalism is a distinct political theory and political practice. It differs from communitarianism in many ways. It generally involves a group of individuals committed to communal living and common ownership. This commitment involves loyalty to the interests of the communal minority or ethnic group rather than to society as a whole. Some forms of communalism work toward abolishing the state, not seizing power but doing away with power and the particular power attached to the business model of capitalism. Often, religion is a driving force in communal living.

A commune is described as the basic living habitat for the communal organization. Most are serious about being self-sustaining in both consumption and production. This means that the group should own enough land to feed itself and have a specialized means of commerce. Examples of successful communal groups are the Hutterites, who were financially successful craftsmen and agriculturalists. Oneida, Amana, and in the twentieth century the Brüderhof are also examples of successful communes.

In practice, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx wrote extensively about the ideals of communist living in general but sometimes specifically about the ideals of communal life. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a pamphlet originally published in 1880 by Engels (2006), delineates the notions of communalism and contrasts it with socialism. Their plan calls for a new society founded on quality of life rather than slavish work. However, it does not give a plan for the ideal community.

Often the term utopia is used in conjunction with communalism, moving the commune to a visionary or an ideally perfect state of society. Sir Thomas Mores Utopia ([1516] 2003) describes an imaginary island with the ideal social, legal, and political system. Humans can strive to create this within a community or globally in an effort to live more civilly. Sometimes utopian is used in a negative way to discredit ideas seen as impossible to realize.

SEE ALSO Communalism; Democracy; Ethics; Leadership; Liberalism; Morality; Philosophy, Political; Utopianism


Barney, Ralph D. 1994. A Dangerous Drift? The Sirens Call to Collectivism. Unpublished paper presented at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, Cleveland, OH, February 26, 1994.

Bohler, Dietrich. 1990. Transcendental Pragmatics and Critical Morality. In The Communicative Ethics Controversy, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, 131. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Christians, Clifford G. 1977. Fifty Years of Scholarship in Media Ethics. Journal of Communication 27 (autumn): 1929.

Christians, Clifford G., John P. Ferre, and Mark Fackler. 1993. Good News Social Ethics and the Press. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daly, Markate, ed. 1994. Communitarianism, A New Public Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Engels, Frederick (Friedrich). 2006. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, ed. Andrew Moore. Mondial Press. Originally published May 1, 1880 as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in Revue Socialiste.

Etzioni, Amitai. 1993. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification. In The Communicative Ethics Controversy, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue, 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

More, Thomas. 2003. Utopia, ed. Paul Turner. New York: Penguin Classics.

Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. 1996. Liberals and Communitarians, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elaine E. Englehardt


views updated May 14 2018


Communitarianism is a political philosophy that emphasizes the good society's need for strong bonds of community, civic virtue, solidarities of citizenship, and public deliberation about moral issues. It generally offers its vision as an alternative to contemporary liberalism, criticizing liberals for overly emphasizing doctrines of individual autonomy at the expense of nurturing the social allegiances that give depth and substance to an individual's identity. Communitarians hark back to the traditional republican political theory which crucially taught that democratic freedom is accomplished not so much by leaving persons alone as by fostering the virtue it takes to govern according to the common good rather than self-interest.

As a matter of constitutional interpretation, communitarians object to prevailing legal trends that insist government must be neutral as among the competing views and values of citizens. For instance, in first amendment cases, the doctrine of content neutrality means that government cannot regulate speech merely because it judges the subject matter of the speech to be unimportant, unworthy, or imminently dangerous. But communitarians argue that the lofty purposes of the First Amendment are trivialized when the public interest in freedom of speech about commerce or sex is equated with the public interest in free speech about politics. For communitarians, freedom of speech is basic precisely because open, democratic government is impossible without it. The same heightened public importance is absent when courts analyze commercial speech or sexual speech and courts go too far, argue communitarians, when they read the First Amendment as if its purpose were to protect the individual's personal interest in self-expression. To interpret the First Amendment as if the Framers were neutral as between the importance in a democracy of free speech about politics and free speech about the price of commercial products is to trivialize free speech and to misread the Constitution as exalting protection of individual self-expression into a sovereign, absolute value.

Many communitarians also object to interpreting the fourteenth amendment due process clause as granting implicit constitutional status to a right of privacy, asthe Supreme Court did in roe v. wade (1973) and subsequent cases protecting a woman's right to choose abortion. The same purported right of privacy is at stake in cases involving state regulation of sexual orientation and assisted suicide (or the right to die). The problem communitarians have with the privacy cases is not necessarily with the results reached but with the legal reasoning that insists constitutional analysis must bracket or put aside any substantive moral discussion of the public good at stake when individuals make private choices. In regard to abortion in particular, communitarians thus would prefer to reframe the issue along lines suggested by Justice ruth bader ginsburg, who has argued that abortion regulations should be analyzed in reference to legal principles prohibiting sex discrimination as a violation of democracy's commitment to equal respect for all persons.

Communitarians also distinguish between two senses of citizenship implicit in the Constitution. One is the liberal view of citizens as individuals who enjoy the protection of legal rights against the state. The other is a stronger, republican vision of citizens who enjoy the legal status of participating in democratic self-governance and the rights and responsibilities of public service. This participatory notion of citizenship stands behind the constitutional status of trial by jury of Article III and the Sixth Amendment's stipulation that criminal juries must be chosen from the district within a state where the crime occurred. The battle to amend the Constitution to protect the so-called jury of the "vicinage" or community affected by the crime, communitarians point out, was waged along civic republican lines and shows a continuing commitment among many in the Founding era to preserve opportunities for local communities, through the jury system, to participate in shaping governing principles of law. Likewise, the second amendment embodies a philosophy of localism insofar as it protects state militias and the right to bear arms in them against the dangers of a single, standing national army. Historically, communitarians have also defended the constitutionality of the military draft (as in the selective service acts) by stressing the Framers' commitment to the civic duty and public service obligations of democratic citizens.

When it comes to issues involving the state and religion, communitarians more readily accept the liberal view that religious liberty should be the same everywhere in the United States, protected by federal courts against local, majoritarian preferences. For instance, communitarians' view of open and egalitarian communities premised on participatory opportunities for all leads them to accept the leading Supreme Court cases prohibiting public school prayers, which rest on the principle that public schools best educate children to be democratic citizens when they teach children both to respect religious diversity and to share civic ties despite those religious divisions.

Finally, communitarians balk at the increasing judicialization of politics, a process whereby resolution of core issues about justice and liberty is removed from the power of the people and entrusted to unelected federal judges. The result is dimunition of democracy and the disempowerment of citizens and their representatives. Communitarians concede that individual rights sometimes trump majority power in our constitutional government and that courts therefore need to enforce constitutional guarantees even against the contrary will of political majorities. But communitarians believe that a better balance can be struck between the rights-based liberalism that controls constitutional interpretation currently and the older, civic republican ideals of the Framers, ideals that stressed public duty as well as private rights and that praised participation in self-governing communities, rather than the protection of individual against community, as the key to political liberty.

Jeffrey Abramson


Abramson, Jeffrey 1994 We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy. New York: Basic Books.

Etzioni, Amitai, ed. 1995 New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

——, ed. 1998 The Essential Communitarian Reader. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefeld.

Glendon, Mary Ann 1991 Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Free Press.

Sandel, Michael J. 1996 Democracy's Discontent: America inSearch of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Rogers M. 1997 Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Sunstein, Cass R. 1999 One Case at a Time: Judicial Minimalism and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tam, Henry Benedict 1998 Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship. New York: New York University Press.

Tushnet, Mark V. 1999 Taking the Constitution Away from the Courts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


views updated May 11 2018


In the 1980s communitarians displaced Marxists as the most prominent critics of liberal political theory. Communitarians share a belief that liberalism is excessively individualistic or atomistic, ignoring people's dependence on communal relationships. They differ in where they locate this flaw. Some criticize the liberal ideal of freedom of choice, arguing that people's ends in life are defined by their communal ties, not freely chosen (Sandel 1984). Others accept the ideal of freedom of choice, but criticize liberalism for ignoring its social and cultural preconditions (Taylor 1989). Still, others argue that moral reasoning is dependent on communal traditions, so that liberal claims to universal validity are illegitimate (Walzer 1983, MacIntyre 1981).

Commentators sometimes distinguish between backward-looking and forward-looking versions of communitarianism (Phillips 1993). The former asserts that healthy communal bonds existed in the past, lament the decline of community as a result of the increasing emphasis on individual choice and diverse ways of life (the "permissive society"), and seek to retrieve a conception of the common good. This sort of communitarianism is difficult to distinguish from traditional conservatism and is widely criticized for ignoring the ways that most communities historically excluded women, gays, or racial and religious minorities (Frazer 1999). By contrast, forward-looking communitarians disavow nostalgia for the past, accept that individual choice and cultural diversity are now permanent features of modern life, and acknowledge that earlier forms of community were too narrow and exclusive to be retrievable today. Hence, they seek to build new bonds of community that integrate diverse groups and lifestyles, for example, by promoting forms of patriotism, democratic citizenship, or civil society that encourage people from different backgrounds to work together. A more complex version of communitarianism is backward-looking at the local level, allowing ethnic or religious communities to uphold a traditional way of life even if it requires restricting individual freedom, while adopting a forward-looking model at the national level, where the multiplicity of different groups in society must cooperate.

In response to the communitarian critique many liberals attempt to show that they, too, are sensitive to the importance of community and culture and that they can accommodate at least the forward-looking dimensions of communitarianism. Hence, a proliferation of theories of liberal republicanism, liberal patriotism, liberal multiculturalism, and liberal civil society have been witnessed. All these are intended to show that a liberal society is not exclusively individualistic and can accommodate and support a rich array of collective identities and associations, without compromising the basic liberal commitment to the protection of individual civil and political rights.

Given these developments, the original liberal-communitarian debate of the 1980s has given way to a number of new, more differentiated positions and issues. Instead of a stark choice between individualism and communitarianism, one now faces a range of debates about how to sustain bonds of moral solidarity and political community in an era of individual rights and cultural diversity: How to build a common national identity without suppressing ethnic and religious diversity? How to nurture feelings of trust and solidarity in mass societies where people share little in common? How to foster a vibrant public sphere that encourages civic participation and democratic dialogue? How to support family life without imposing traditional gender roles? How to educate children to be public-spirited citizens without inculcating a narrow chauvinism? Communitarianism does not provide a single perspective or framework for answering these questions, and there is a growing sense that the communitarian label obscures as much as it reveals about someone's position on them. Indeed, virtually all the major writers associated with the original communitarian critique express reservations about the label. Nonetheless, these are all questions that have been put on the agenda of political philosophy by the communitarian critique of liberalism. Communitarianism may be fading as a recognizable school of political philosophy, but communitarian concerns have come to dominate political philosophy at the start of the twenty-first century.

See also Liberalism.


Avineri, Shlomo, and Avner de-Shalit, ed. Communitarianism and Individualism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Frazer, Elizabeth. The Problems of Communitarian Politics: Unity and Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lehman, Edward W., ed. Autonomy and Order: A Communitarian Anthology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

MacIntyre, Alisdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckwork, 1981.

Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. Liberals and Communitarians. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1996.

Phillips, Derek L. Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Sandel, Michael J., ed. Liberalism and Its Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Taylor, Charles. "Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate." In Liberalism and the Moral Life, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum, 6487. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Will Kymlicka (1996, 2005)


views updated May 18 2018

com·mu·ni·tar·i·an·ism / kəˌmyoōniˈte(ə)rēəˌnizəm/ • n. a theory or system of social organization based on small self-governing communities. ∎  an ideology that emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community and the social importance of the family unit.DERIVATIVES: com·mu·ni·tar·i·an adj. & n. .

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