The possibilities and dark sides of communities

The possibilities and dark sides of communities

Sometimes it is said that society of today is characterized by ”hyper-individualism”. Somewhat ironically we can say that the liberal society at last has produced the autonomic and self-regulating citizen that has been its theoretical prerequisite.

Several institutional arrangements have been developed in order to normalize the individuals that cannot realize this ideal in order to recreate them as self-regulating. At the same time there seems to be a longing for community, to be part of something bigger and more encompassing than what appears to be a rather diluted and/or hard-to -realize individual project.

The contradiction between on the one hand a tendency towards individualization and, on the other hand, a longing for community is the point of departure for the educational theorist Nel Noddings paper ”On community” which dates back as far as 1996 (published in Educational Theory, 46(3), 245-267). Despite the fact that it was written 20 years ago it feels amazingly current. Nodding´s paper provides an interesting context for discussions about the relationship between the individual and the community.


Liberalism and communitarianism

Somewhat simplified it can be said that Nodding contrasts the liberal idea about the freedom of the individual with the communitarian ideal about communities that are created and develop from shared values. Against the “I” of liberalism stands the “We” of communitarianism. Communitarianism, with its roots in the USA, asserts that the community is prior to the individual. It is in being part of society in relation to other humans that the individual acquires his/her humanness.

A central difference between these views that is highlighted by Noddings concerns what characterizes the good life, or put differently, the issue of what is desirable in life. In the first case, liberalism, the good life is not given a specific content, it is the individual that decides what is desirable. The task of society is in this instance to facilitate for the individual to make choices. In communitarianism, the idea of the good life is formulated within the community of which the individual is a part and it can also be renegotiated within this community.

Taking the Swedish school system as an example, we can notice that the idea about choice and individual freedom has become more influential in recent years while the idea that schools should educate future citizens for a democratic society has been backgrounded. This tendency was identified at an early stage by the Swedish scholar Tomas Englund who spoke of a change in school policy from the “big” to the “small” democracy.


The dark side of communities

Noddings identify some dangers with communities. On the one hand world history is filled of ideas about communities that were built on oppression of specific groups and individuals in society. Well known modern examples mentioned by Noddings are Nazism and fascism and also communistic societies have to a large extent been built on such foundations. From a liberal point of view it is obvious that individual freedom is violated in such contexts which reminds us of the importance to always protect individual freedom.

Another and related tendency is that communities often are built in antagonism to other communities. A striking example of this is the nationalism that escalated in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century and which resulted in the devastating first world war. The community that was built between workers in different countries formed in antagonism towards industrial owners and partly to states, was quickly exchanged for a nationalism where one´s own country was glorified while other countries were disparaged. Similar processes are recognizable from the Balkan peninsula in the beginning of the 1990ies and from Rwanda in 1994 where different ethnic groups were put against each other.

It is actually an understatement to speak of the dark side of communities in these examples. Rather we have witnessed devastating sides where people not belonging to one´s own “community” is even denied the right to live. But one should not neglect that similar but considerably less dangerous mechanisms operate in all social contexts. Communities are to a large part defined in relation to other communities. Often it involves establishing one´s own community as better than other ones. Such tendencies can be seen all over in society, among professional groups, in residential areas and so on and of course also in classrooms.

How then can one create a community in a classroom that is not built on antagonism towards other groups, where different groups within the class are not put against each other and where the individual feels free and of equal value?


A ”liberal community”

Noddings suggests, as many others do, that communitarianism and liberalism should be united in what she characterizes as “liberal communities”. A case-study that Barbro Alm and I did in a classroom during school years 5-6 can illustrate this (see reference below).

The studied classroom actually seemed to be an example of a liberal community. The teachers strived to create a community which encompassed group discussions and group work where every pupil participated. At the same time difference was respected and it was underscored that each pupil should be viewed as an asset and have a voice. It seemed as if the pupils saw themselves as part of a “we” but there was also a place for an “I”. By being part of a community we can say that the pupils were prepared for being part of the societal community.


Reference to the study:

Nilholm, C. och Alm, B. (2010). An inclusive classroom? On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and childen´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252.


See also prior blog:


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