The Floating Community

In his essay From Little Boxes to Loosely Bounded Networks: The Privatization and Domestication of Community (1999), Barry Wellman discusses “sparsely knit, fragmentary, loosely bounded communities.” Traditionally, he says, communities and social networks have been characterized by a way of being-together that is closely-knit and tightly bounded. Wellman argues that although traditional forms of community are becoming less and less obvious, new forms/alternative forms of community are emerging.  Wellman goes on to say that “rather than being locked into one social circle [people have] about a thousand ties that spread across changing, fragmented communities.” In this sense, the community floats with the individual rather than being fixed in a specific geography.

Allison Munch (2005) utilizes Wellman’s ideas in her study called Everyone Gets to Participate: Floating Community in an Amateur Softball League. She concludes that spectators develop a collective sense of shared expectations, they collectively rear their children and they feel safe while in each other’s company. After the baseball games conclude, spectators pack up their community and disperse until the next game.

So what does all this mean? I find the notion of a floating community intriguing for a couple reasons. First, I wonder how many of the different ways of being together that people participate in could be categorized as (floating) community but are not. Badminton teams, bingo players, sports spectators, cinema goers, cab divers and their fare — the list goes on. Second, I am curious as to how we build it? Or is that even necessary/possible?

A copy of Wellman’s essay can be found here.

The Floating Community

3 thoughts on “The Floating Community

  1. wourliem says:

    I’ve read the two pieces and there’s a lot in them to discuss. So I’ll add some initial thoughts.

    Regarding how we build floating community or make it possible. In Barry Wellman’s (around pg 91) piece he suggests personal communities are specialized with (pg 95) people with similar even “homogeneous” attitudes and lifestyles. To me that suggests these communities need some initial spark, some sort of connection among the 1000(s) we each have and in time you’ll have a floating community. The personal desire to associate in an activity is there, that’s likely why a group’s come together, community comes interaction over time.

    This blog for example I feel is becoming something of a floating community; an electronic place a forum for discussion and ideas. It isn’t as solid as Allison Munch’s spectator group for sure, but its just new, and, I think, like most electronic dialogues more flexible.

    What interested me is page 99 of Wellman, where he talks about how in the Western people don’t associate economics and politics with community that those milieus are taken care of by market exchange. He talks about how in Eastern Socialist Countries community was important in economics and politics, for example people need neighbours to fix their car, or share food if there was no canned soup in the market. The Western person is comfortable paying for these goods and services expecting markets to provide them. Politics comes with democratic voting enshrined in trusted governments.

    So this distinction really interests me because I think since the 90s there’s a move to having more traditional options among your community network because the future isn’t as rosy. Markets and Capitalism aren’t as victorious. Resources and ways of life of the past aren’t as assured. People no longer need neighbors for material survival (pg 97). I get a sense people are looking to know someone who has food supplies, or living in closer knit-communities because resources might soon be more scarce. There is a feeling of uncertainty different than when Wellman’s piece was written in the 90s. I think we see some of this in parts of the glocal movement/idea.

    As far as what floating communities exist that we don’t think about. Allison Munch, (pg 117 & 118) with respect to her study, finds new spectators at amateur softball are a first distant but accepted by the “Old Timers, becoming familiar strangers. Familiar strangers are the vaguely recognizable people who you see again and again, for me, at concerts, public lectures or the winter soccer facility. In each of these places there are usually distinctive groups who know, know of or at least see each other regularly. The difference, in my experience is that these are relatively public, permeable places where one would expect a wide variety of people. Rather than a specific team like Munch’s Astros, with a spectator support community that’s, when in place, very close knit; you could be a regular at a bar or theatre, any public or quasi-public milieus as Wellman puts it (pg 95) but not really create that community link. You have familiar strangers in these places but there’s not enough connection or quiet time in these places for even fleeting close-knit communities ( Munch pg 118)

    I think close-knit ness, frequency of visits or events and personal connections (for Munch it came with her relationship to an Astros player [pg 118]) will “anchor,” as Munch puts it (pg 114), a floating community to a public or quasi-public space and allow new people to belong.

    1. Jeff D. says:

      Martin, your comments are appreciated. They are a lot to digest. In an earlier response, I presented a pretty rudimentary definition of community: an experience between two or more individuals that is exploited, in one form or another, for mutual gain. In your response, you use the language “personal desire,” “interaction over time,” “spark,” and “more flexible.” This is the benefit of such dialogue. Your comments leave me trying to reconcile the language you present with the definition that I present. For instance, I am thinking: does this so called “experience” need to be rooted in personal desire, the “spark?” Is desire a precondition to the development of community? A hair dresser and their client banter about while the service is provided, but does this constitute community? A fleeting relationship for sure, but at what point does this become community. Perhaps my definition is somewhat lacking; the relationship between a hair dresser (who gains an income) and their client (who gains style, a job, self-esteem) definitely meets the criteria, but I am not sure if they have have actually developed a community.

      A couple other things that interest me about your comments is your references to the declining economy and society’s general lack of interest in political processes that effect/affect it. Your suggestion that we may see an increase in the community sentiment as a result of need is great and one that I’d like to talk about further in a future post, to discuss the role that fear and anxiety plays in community development, i.e., the “need” for safety/security to alleviate fear and anxiety. I wonder: is fear and anxiety the great motivator, so to speak? I have no idea, but I have been trying to come up with as many examples of community as possible to see if I can associate a fear as a motivating factor. For example, people join a housing cooperative as a result of their underlying fear of being without shelter. People join an organic food cooperative as a result of their underlying fear of ingesting inorganic matter. In both of these scenarios, if you go a level deeper, it is actually death that people are fearing – no shelter leading to cold nights on the street leading to death by hypothermia/exposure or ingesting herbicides and pesticides that will, in the end, kill you. I don’t know. I am far from a psychologist.

      Also, you reminded me that Jane Jacobs discusses community anchors and familiar strangers in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I must reread.

      I am going to skip the comments on electronic communities for now. I am planning a post on them, which should incorporate your thoughts and we can further our discussion then, in particular on the idea of flexible (new) vs. rigid (old) communities.

      Martin, again, you gave me a lot to chew on. Thank you.


      1. wourliem says:

        I’ve been meaning to respond to your comment Jeff for a while now, sorry for the delay.

        I appreciate that you found my comments useful. I realize that I haven’t really unpacked some of my language, I hope its not too nebulous. Terms like ‘spark’ or attributes like flexibility are pretty non-specific.

        I want to add to the barber shop example you give. I know I wouldn’t consider my local barber shop a real community creating, third place type of establishment. I go there for maybe an hour every few months, chat, pay and leave. Much like you describe. What’s interesting to me about the barber shop is how I can contrast my experience with that of African American barber shops. In films (for example ‘Good Hair’ and ‘Barber Shop’) barber shops, especially in prominently African American neighbourhoods, have a significant status as a third place, where people come to socialize. Assuming this is a reflection of real activity (I’ve never lived in America let alone said neighbourhood) the fascinating part is why the two experiences are so different?

        Does the role of barber take on confessional in these barber shops? Similar to cabbies or bartenders, other professions renown for hearing lots of personal stories? Or is it specific to a historical legacy in once segregated neighbourhoods with the barber shop the traditional hang out spot?

        Anyway, some thoughts on barber shops.

        Thanks for your comments Jeff, I look forward to your next post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s