In 1806, Samuel Johnson opined that the state is antithetical to the community. In order to defend or refute Johnson’s argument, it is important to understand what these well-worn terms, “state” and “community,” really mean, as the concepts have become conflated over time. According to Appiah, a state, also referred to as a nation or a country, is a formally convened, structured, and organized entity comprised of people and institutions that are governed by a specific regulating “apparatus” (221). The “apparatus,” Appiah contends, is political in nature (221), and it is the apparatus that distinguishes the state from a society or a community. The state has a “single recognized person or group that has the authority to gain compliance with its rulings through the use of force” (222). It would be overly facile and inaccurate to contend that the community, then, is simply the antithesis of the state to the extent that the community is informally convened, structured, organized, and lacking in the political apparatus that governs a state.

A community, which can reside within a state, has many intangible qualities that distinguish it from the formality of the state; the abstractness of these qualities and the sheer number of them can make the task of defining community challenging. Popple and Quinney, citing Bell and Newby, indicated that there are at least 98 different definitions of community in the sociological literature alone (71), but they emphasize that one of the threads that unites all of the definitions is that “the term [community] is rarely used disparagingly” (71). On the contrary, while a state can have a negative charge that affects its relationships with other nations in significant ways, a community is generally considered to be a group of people who are united through positive affective and relational ties. In contrast with the state, whose benefits and characteristics of membership are conferred through the circumstances of their citizenship, the community tends to be chosen by an individual, who seeks to belong in the group. Indeed, a person can belong to more than one community simultaneously. Popple and Quinney define at least three types of communities: “One is defined in terms of locality or territory [such as a tribal community]; another as…an interest group; and thirdly… people sharing a common condition or problem…or a common bond” (71).

Using these definitions, then, one sees that the state is not inherently antithetical to community. Although the state may be hostile to communities, and may even threaten or attempt to restrict the development of communities, a brief examination of the world’s states substantiates the contention that communities can thrive even under the most inhospitable of conditions. In fact, in those states that are most opposed to the development of communities, such groups often flourish, having constructed their identity around their very right to exist. Many communities exist within all sorts of states, whether democratic or totalitarian. Clearly, the state itself is organized differently than a community, but the two can co-exist in harmony. According to Mason, the highest expression of humans’ ability for social relationships and organization is found in those nations where the “citizens share a national identity” that has led to the formation of a “national community” (115). In such situations, Mason contends, the state provides the guidance and safety of a formal organizational and regulating structure that governs day-to-day life, while the community supports the state by providing a sense of cohesive national identity and enthusiasm for the shared identity.

While one can certainly understand how Johnson might have considered the state antithetical to community—after all, they are very different—a return to the conceptual definitions of state and community explain that the two are not naturally antithetical. Although there are some states that are intolerant of communities, communities remain an important feature of human societies, and maintain dynamic relationships with the state.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mason, Andrew. Community, Solidarity, and Belonging: Levels of Community and Their Normative Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

Popple, Keith, and Anne Quinney. “Theory and Practice of Community Development: A Case Study from the United Kingdom.” Journal of the Community Development Society 33.1 (2002): 71.