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The field of community studies has been critical to the understanding of the social problems facing communities in the contemporary societies. Today, the field of community studies is recognised as a discipline that is capable of generating empirical data in the analysis of particular social phenomena and elements in the social institutions of the communities. It is important to note that as a discipline, the field of community studies has gone through a number of developments since its inception and recognition as a practice within academia. Initially, researchers within the wider field of community studies were primarily concerned with provision of descriptive analysis of the communities and their social institutions. However, community studies have developed to include empirical analysis of phenomena and interrelationship between social institutions in the community set up (Crow, 2002). While the field has seen numerous changes over the years from its earlier use as tool to understand traditional cultures and social institutions to a field that can yield empirical information critical to understanding the social problems in a particular locality, researchers of community studies have been particularly keen on explaining how individual members of a particular community deal with the issues of social change. Today, the field of community studies has been significant for both scholars and policy makers willing to understand the distribution of social problems across communities, the impact of social problems on individual members of the community and how people respond to those problems. This paper will critically analyse the place of community studies in the understanding of social problems in contemporary communities. But first, it will provide a historical overview of community studies as a discipline.
Historical Overview of Community Studies
Community studies are a field within academia that draws from both anthropological and sociological studies as well as from other social research methods of participant observation and ethnography to study a particular phenomenon in the community. Traditionally, the field of community studies was a sub-discipline of either sociology or anthropology in various academic institutions (Crow, 2000). However, while some institutions still incorporate community studies with their anthropological and sociological disciplines, the field of community has grown to become an independent discipline within the academic setting. According to Zimmerman (2000), the growth of community studies as an independent discipline has been due to the increasing demand to generate evidence-based research on social problems facing communities. This has been prompted by the fact that outside the traditional understanding of community studies as a discipline concerned with some remote and rural populations and their unique social institutions that were unknown to the rest of the world, the emergence of urban centres has brought with them a number of challenges that can only be solved at the community level. In other words, the field of community studies is no longer primarily concerned with the social problems faced by the rural populations as it was, it has become central to the understanding of all phenomena in our small and large urban centres as well as rural areas. Due to the increasing demand of solutions to the numerous social problems facing communities, the field of community studies has sometimes been combined with other fields such as health, family, and urban studies in order to study particular phenomena within the community (Crow, 2000).
The classic texts on urban sociology produced at the Chicago School with the inspirational works of William Foote and Loius Wirth were important in the development of community studies as a field in North America (Crow, 2002). However, according to Bell & Newby (1971), the field of community studies started when there was increasing demand for the information on the local tribes in East Africa by the British colonial administrators. The Institute of Community Studies was also important in developing the field of community studies especially in the post-war era in the UK. The institute was founded in East London by Michael Young and is credited with numerous publications that have pioneered the field of community studies not only in London but also across Britain and beyond. One of the institute’s notable publications is the Family and Kinship in East London (Bulmer, 1985).
Like the traditional anthropological studies, community studies have always considered the existence of communities in terms of discrete, homogeneous, and almost tribe-like and therefore their studies would approach them as organic wholes. Zimmerman (2000) notes that this has been a central issue influencing communalism and communitarianism not only at the local context but also in the global context. Most importantly, the field of community studies has primarily been concerned with the problems facing communities. From AIDS, stress, addiction to physical and mental health, the primary concern of community studies in terms of health has always been on how communities interact with their environments and how the environment affects their wellbeing. This interaction is a key factor on health promotion and/or ill-health causation. In other words, the behaviour of the individuals in the communities as well as the dominant practices of the members in relations to health is an important concern of community studies in understanding health as a phenomena and recommending suitable measures. Other areas of concerns for community studies include family problems, ethnicity, racism, deviance, crime, sexuality, gender, immigration, the environment, poverty, delinquency, homelessness, social competence, and other many other psycho-social aspects of the community (Crow, 2000). The sphere of community studies is primarily concerned with the understanding of the socio-cultural completeness as well as the anthropological consequences of timely and accurate investigation of the social problems facing communities.
The field of community studies also focuses on anthropological knowledge which is drawn from cultural anthropology so as to make sense of traditional practices in explaining the current social problems. In certain institutions, it is mandatory to have a prerequisite knowledge on the background and historical contexts of various communities as they are revealed through the archaeological findings as well as through the theoretical explanations of social organization in ancient and prehistorically community settings .For instance, the theories pertaining to the “Neolithic Revolution” are important examples that community studies can draw from to understand where, why, and how the hunter-gatherer communities came about and how such factors are manifested in contemporary cultures (Low, 2005). Most importantly, such studies are known to provide impetus for the explanation of new phenomena in the community with an aim of offering solutions to particular problems. Other institutions have also been keen on using community studies to promote social justice in the larger society through promotion of peace and non-violence not only in homogenous communities but also in cosmopolitan societies where there may be little or no common interests among individuals inhabiting a particular region or area. Such institutions are particularly known to work towards social change in the community mostly through activism and the framework of advocacy.
Characteristics of Community Studies
According to Bell & Newby (1971), minimum definition, community study is primarily concerned with the investigation of the interrelationships of social organizations in a particular place. While it is not a must that all the locally present social institutions be studied, such a study will only be considered as a community study if the interrelations between social institutions are considered. Crow (2002), notes that this definition of community study is not conclusive since it leaves out researches that are particularly concerned with specific social institutions within a particular locality. For instance, the studies focusing on a family as a single social institution may be excluded by the definition since they do not capture the interrelationships with other social institutions.
Nevertheless, the most important point to note is the fact that the definition uses the term locality to denote the importance of studying a community as a people sharing a particular place (Long & Perkins, 2003; Chavis, & Pretty, 1999). In other words, a common feature of community studies is in the interest placed on the common features shared by the members of a particular community. For instance, locality is an important element of community studies; however, of equal importance is the shared interest among individuals not necessarily residing in a particular place or location (Chavis, & Pretty, 1999). Therefore, community studies also recognise the importance of investigating a particular phenomena or element shared across populations that are not shared in a locality (Long & Perkins, 2003). For instance, when we look at the problems faced by the gay community, for example, the study does not focus on the community as a place but as a group of people sharing a common interest, thus members will be studied across space.
Another important feature of community studies concerns the methodology used to generate data from a target population. In most cases, these studies are carried out by researchers who live with the community they are studying. On the other hand, it can be carried out by those who have spent a considerable time and have engaged in the everyday activities done by the community members. The objective here is to share the experiences of those under study. In other words, the researchers may be referred as field workers and will try as much as possible to be both physically and emotionally close to whatever is being studied (Long & Perkins, 2003). Critics suggest that this aspect makes community studies quite sympathetic to the people or the locality under study. Nevertheless, the field of community studies has emerged over the decades through different theorizations as the panacea to the contemporary social problems facing communities (Crow, 2002).
Community Studies and Social Problems
Community studies have emerged as important elements of critical analysis, modification, as well as development of wider theories of social change. According to Crow (2002), community studies have the capacity to pin down the nature of modern social problems and lives and thus, put them in context. In other words, by explaining the investigation of the social relationships in this manner, community studies will be able to expose the local expressions of the macro and micro-social forces as well as their impact on the individual members’ everyday activities in their particular locality or communities. Away from the theorization of social problems and issues in the earliest half of the 20th century as noted by Crow (2000), community studies are capable of yielding empirical data that is critical in not only understanding the contemporary social problems associated with urbanization and modernity for example, but also in formulating sound and effective policies. Just like other empirical studies, there is a general consensus in literature that community studies are critical in formulating development agenda that are responsive to the needs of the people (Gupta, Aaby, Garenne, & Pison, 1997).
For instance, health intervention programs on how to reduce transmission of HIV/AIDS among gay people may not be effective without empirical analysis of the experiences of the gay community. In essence, the empirical data generated through community studies are significant in informing policymakers on the critical areas to be targeted in overcoming contemporary problems facing communities. In addition, community studies provide avenues through which the impacts of projects on the community can be assessed. For instance, community assessments may assist in ensuring that health and transportation policies for example; embrace the needs and concerns of the communities, neighbourhoods, as well as society in general. By understanding the relationship between community life and policy actions, the policy makers will be able to minimize conflict and enhance problem-solving capacity within the communities. In addition, through community studies and assessment of projects and programs, the project implementers will be able to enhance decision making and wider acceptance of the programs by the community members through increased active participation of the parties concern .Community studies in project and program implementations not only enhance credibility of the implementing bodies such government agencies, non-governmental organizations, among others, they also create a great sense of community ownership of the programs thus, enhancing the success of such programs and projects (Gupta et al., 1997).
The field of community studies has gone through numerous changes and development in its fairly long history as a disciple. Initially the field relied on the somewhat “traditional” studies of the community whereby the researchers dedicated much effort on the mere description of community members’ everyday lives while putting little effort on the need to provide explanation of everyday life on the basis of abstract theoretical ideas. However, these early researchers were directed by the implicit assumptions of the structural-functionalists about the interrelationships of the different elements that help to reproduce community life (Crow, 2002). This was followed by the use of more empirical data in order to explore the interconnections that exist between various elements in the social institutions within the communities. While the latter group of researchers have significantly been recognised for providing evidence-based information the social changes and problems in the community settings, it is important to note that the overriding aim of community studies has always been to highlight the social problems associated with the social changes in our societies (Gupta et al., 1997).
From the inception of the field of community studies to its present state where empirical data has formed the backbone of research on community life, the researchers have always attempted to put into context the social problems vis-à-vis the social changes in our society and their effects on community life. This overriding desire has therefore prompted researchers to undertake community studies that explore the interconnection of various social institutions as well as elements in community life (Crow, 2000). The investigation of kinship, families, politics, leisure, religion, work, health, as well as other aspects of community social life has been done across time and space by different researchers with an aim of illustrating the contemporary social problems in the community (Long & Perkins, 2003). While the initial works in community studies could be criticised for their over reliance on theorization of social problems and changes in the various community, they were nevertheless important in highlighting the social problems facing the communities in a particular locality and time. The difference with the contemporary researchers in the field of community studies however, has been on the reliability of the findings of the studies. Use of empirical data in investigation of particular phenomena or elements of everyday lives of community members is significant in generating evidence-based outcomes, which are subsequently important in not only understanding the social problems facing different communities. Such findings are also important in formulating policies and programs targeting a particular social problem in a community (Crow, 2002).
The blatant pronouncements without empirical data witnessed during the early years of the field of community studies had in part prompted a new wave of researches aimed at providing evidence-based community studies. There has been an argument that the social change theories which do not use empirical data are usually speculative and thus, cannot be relied on (Crow, 2000). For example, Beck (2000) claimed that increased globalization may ultimately lead to the end of local communities. Crow (2002), challenges such arguments by revealing that that there is evidence provided by community studies showing the continued existence of place-based solidarities among individuals who are not necessarily living in a particular locality. With these shortcomings in earlier forms of studies on the social life and problems within communities, the new breed of researchers in the field of community studies have sought to improve the social change theories. In essence therefore, community studies have been significant in the development of social change theories as a body of knowledge. Through theorization of social change, community studies have been able to improve understanding and analysis of the various social problems facing communities in the contemporary society. For instance, with the explanation on how members of a particular community adapt to changes brought about by modernity and urbanization, the field of community studies has been able to move beyond mere theorization to supporting its explanations with empirical data. Thus, researchers in the field of community studies are not only concerned with how social changes occur in the society; they are more concerned with how such changes affect the community (Long & Perkins, 2003). Such knowledge will be critical in understanding the root cause of social problems in the contemporary societies as well as in formulating sound policies and programs targeting a particular phenomena or element in a community.
Apart from contributing to theorization of social change and understanding of social problems associated with social change, the field of community studies can provide a ground upon which general theories of social change may be tested and examined. In this way, it allows investigators to study a particular phenomenon or element of the society (Long & Perkins, 2003). In other words, researchers have been able to use community studies to explore meanings of various processes such as urbanization, industrialization, globalization, and modernity in the context of the community. The findings of such studies may be significant in reflecting on the theories of social change especially when the results of the study differ with the general expectations of the theories. Since community studies are known to be dependent on empirical data to analyse particular problems and phenomena affecting individual members of a local community, their findings are also considered to be highly reliable as opposed to those studies that are based on mere theorization and explanation of social changes. The field of community studies has therefore been critical not only in the development and improvement of theories of social changes but also in the comprehension of the process of social change in the everyday lives of the members of a particular community. According to Crow (2002), the outcomes of community studies have been significant in challenging the perceptions and views held by social change theorists, that social change comes about as a result of deterministic forces. Therefore, the field of community studies is not only important in improving the understanding of social changes, it is also significant in highlighting the phenomena that drive social change as unique in each community in a particular locality or among people sharing common interest.
According to Crow (2002), community studies are capable of generating unexpected results with regards to social problems facing the community in the contemporary societies. In addition, the findings of community studies have the capacity to indicate the extent for urgency of a particular social phenomena or problem in the community. Since the results of any community study will be unpredicted, the field of community studies can be important in informing policy making processes. As community studies have proved, the unpredictability of the social changes and problems in the community can make formulation and implementation of policies and programs targeting particular members of a community a difficult task (Long & Perkins, 2003); however, with empirical data, policy makers will be able to understand the distribution of a social problem in a community (Gupta, Aaby, Garenne, & Pison, 1997). Because social change does not take a linear path, policy makers will need timely, relevant, and accurate data on particular social problems facing communities. These data will only be generated through empirical analysis of phenomena and elements of social institutions in the community. Apart from painting a clear picture of a particular phenomenon, community studies have the capacity of demonstrating the extent of a particular social problem in the community while also revealing the urgency with which the problem should be treated or solved.
The findings of community studies can also be used in comparative analysis of phenomena affecting communities across localities. Community studies are able to create data that can be applied to study social problems in the community across space and time. For instance, the comparative studies that are drawing on the analysis of phenomena in two or more locations, can be important in depicting that the problems associated with social change such as urbanization, does not manifest in similar fashion and magnitude in communities. Community studies can be important in facilitating comparative studies across time. This can be done by borrowing historical studies in view of the fact that they can help researchers to perform re-studies on particular social problems that may have been performed earlier. By drawing on comparative studies, the field of community studies will not only be important in explaining how social problems are spread across time and space but also in understanding how different communities respond to similar social problems in their daily lives. In essence, the findings of community studies will facilitate an understanding of social change and how it affects different communities across space and time (Zimmerman, 2000).
The field of community studies has undergone through a number of development since its inception. Traditionally, community studies were conducted in order to promote understanding of tribes and communities that the dominant cultures had little or no information about. However, these early studies are heavily dependent on explanation and theories and are less concerned with carrying out empirical analysis of social institutions and phenomena in the communities. Having realized the failures of the earlier researchers, a new breed of researchers understand the importance of engaging in empirical generation of data and analysis in order to promote understanding of social institutions as well as particular phenomena in the community. While there has been a remarkable difference in the methodology employed by these two groups of researchers, it is important to note that the overriding objective of these researchers has always been to demonstrate the importance of community studies in understanding social problems facing communities. The field of community studies has remained important and relevant in the comprehension and analysis of social problems facing communities in the contemporary societies. Community studies have proved over time that they can generate empirical data that is critical in understanding the social problems and improving the welfare of the individual community members through informed policies and programs.