Nyomtatóbarát változat
Community: Ideal And Reality
Vercseg Ilona dr.
A kiadás helye:
A kiadás éve:
Közösségfejlesztők Egyesülete
Raktári jelzet:

Dr. Ilona Vercseg


(The beginnings of Hungarian community development date back to the early 1980s. While the first ten years were characterized by experimentation with new methods and action techniques, since the political changeover attention has been paid to the propagation of methods, specialist training, network development and laying the theoretical and ethical basis of the profession. This paper is an excerpt from the author's longer study of the same title. Instead of the well-known interpretations of community theory, which are part of the longer analysis, it focuses on the community concept of the so-called socialist society and its criticism, and on the social function of communities as seen by one of the founders of community development in Hungary.)


The word "community" has a bad ring nowadays. Similarly to so many concepts, it is disfavoured, for its meaning and application have been detached from each other, making the term become an ideological, obsolete, somewhat pompous and false entry in the dictionary of a fading world. But is this really the case? After all, the word "community" has been retained to express much-desired human relations and we embark upon the analysis of the term with an eye on community development, a profession that is built upon this term as its basic concept and which formulates "community" as a shortage, as something desirable that does not exist, whose birth could even be promoted.

While Hungarian professional literature of the recent past, i.e. of the "socialist era" approached the topic almost exclusively from the angle of social psychology and group theory and talked about "the community of people", western sociology uses the term for denoting also locality. Once created, the concept absorbed various shades and hues of meaning over the course of centuries. I am afraid the Hungarian interpretation lacks this historical dimension; it has too much group theory inclination, or it was narrowed down by past policy, thus lacking in the richness of thinking that a single collective concept has integrated over the years.

Analysis is necessary also to expand the meaning of the word. Historical analysis may have a bearing on future scope of interpretation and action by incorporating "locality", a dimension of community theory less familiar in this country. Locality does not play a part in a centralized society, hence it has no interpretation. Efforts towards democracy including a new administrative structure and new opportunities for social and professional action (for instance, community work) raise the importance of clarification.

(Next, the study provides a historical analysis of the concept of community. It describes the change of the community ideal from community of the Greek polis to the alienated communities of modern societies based on the division of labour. It examines various aspects of the "wholesome person" as opposed to the sliced-up personality and the "liberated individual" as well as the experiments that aimed at a new interpretation of community in the modern world. Then it observes:)

The attractive syntheses which try to extract the values of the community from historical patterns and implant them into modern life - in other word, those which try to coordinate individuality with the community ideal, are in very close connection with a major historical experiment of the past which attempted to subordinate people's lifelong activity and thinking, indeed the entire operation of societies to an objective depicted as desirable. The failure of this objective has done great harm to the belief in the community ideal. In these countries "community" became a synonym for "socialist" as opposed to "individualistic" or "bourgeois" (that is, non-socialist or oppositional) behaviour. Everything that fell in line with the official objectives of society was socialist and all that deviated from it was bourgeois. This practice set out to eliminate communal traditions and limited new efforts at community development while putting full-fledged self-expression and freedom on its banner. Removal of property, and with it, of self-determination slowly smothered the ability of self-organization; and "the succession of 'ideological retraining and guidance campaigns' compulsorily demonstrating sham optimism with the false practice and slogans of a 'community-based' society left the population with a downright negative community experience. As a result, people gradually withdrew from the various levels of community and took refuge in privacy, the only sphere of life where there was a scope for autonomous decision" (HANKISS) - or at least for the illusion thereof, as the power caught us even there. It is by no accident that community life (which, limited as it was, fortunately still functioned in Hungary in accordance with the specificities of various age groups), was taken up by young people primarily. Elemér Hankiss's researches in the early 1980s pointed out that Hungarian society was more individualistic and lacked community more than, for example, the American.

As we will see, the high-level interpretation of the Hungarian Marxist community theory went awry in practice, and from the late 70s and early 80s, it was more proper among intellectuals to talk about the group rather than about the ideologically tinted, unclear and washed-out community. The reason for this change was a new drive to seek clear-cut concepts, which had a narrower scope but which showed a clear reference. Group is a concept free of ideology. Indeed, it had to "suffer" for this, as community vs. group was described as a human formation with added quality. Marxist group theory, however, was unable to make the most of this excess quality, i.e. the dimension of common activity within a group, for this is the very aspect that had been limited and fully subordinated to the official political intent.

In the centralized and hierarchic social structure, widespread concepts of Western urban sociology, such as locality, local communities or their smaller units, neighbourhoods were not mentioned for a long time. Studies in theoretical and empirical sociology in the early 1980s, researching local society and local power, as well as the first experiments in community development encompassing the entire local society were novel in that they discovered locality with its complexity, its authority-related, economic, intellectual, emotional, historic identity and community or with the absence thereof. It was discovered that a non-structured, non-cohesive (local) society that is falling apart without grassroots is defenseless against power and is kept dependent in the extreme.

However, it is only in a democratic society that efforts in the field of theory and limited experimental practice coupled with the expansion of the scope of civil action have a bearing on the functioning of society as a whole.

Obviously, old and crumbling structures are not immediately replaced by new ones. The vacuum unveils the possibility of emerging communities in the society tuning into a market economy and competition. Nor is it possible to tell exactly what can be attributed to the former practices of mass societies, to human development and human nature. Self-interest naturally demands more scope than the pseudo-community ideal, whose institutional manifestation, for better or for worse, suggested the idea of community at least for a while. In contrast, the present lack of institutions is frightening even if the new community ideal prepares for active participation in the development of society and offers new types of economic, political, cultural and leisure community involvement as opposed to the former frames, which only catered for cultural and leisure activities. Quickly the suspicion crops up: is it not utopistic to dream about a community ideal that germinates in the soil of a market economy? To project the idea of democracy as a panacea for all ills bringing about full-fledged social cooperation?

(The following part of the study offers a critical analysis of community narrowed down to the social psychological term used in recent past.)

The reader is probably familiar with Lewin's and Merton's value-free group theory whereby community is often a synonym for group. Ágnes HELLER, one of the best Hungarian Marxist philosophers rejects the value-free notion. She considers community to be a quality group. "The group is the lowest, most rudimentary and primitive stage of social integrations... community is a higher-level integration." (op. cit. p. 59)

"During the declining phase of traditional societies, a choice appeared whereby man, without failing, could leave a traditional community and choose a new one. The idea of man ceasing to exist as a community individual from birth and can live through life without ever belonging to a community also stems from this period. (ibid. p.65)

"We find ourselves in a group accidentally whereas we choose the community we belong to consciously... In case, individuality and the group are in a substantial and permanent correlation... it is no longer a group but a community." (ibid. p. 56)

The basis of a conscious choice is "a relatively homogeneous system of values" which the individual cannot infringe. (ibid. p. 63)

Mária MÁRKUS and András HEGEDŰS follow Marx's thinking whereby "the abolition of private ownership of productive means aims at not only doing away with the exploitation of man by (another) man but also liberating the individual from the rule of things and social powers and conditions that appear as powers related to alien objects amidst of which man can develop into an authentic individual, i.e. into a personality.

These lines of thinking connect ideas often detached from one another, such as community and individual or collectivity and individuality... Naturally, not all kinds of small groups fill the real community function in the sense described above, for they very often are accidental (rather than emerging in the wake of the participants' deliberate choice, and the people in them are "exchangeable", i.e. they appear as carriers of certain functions only). More importantly, they reinforce particularity by their very essence." (op. cit. p. 1925)

On this basis, the authors define the following types of social groups: collectivizing, dehumanizing, quasi and compensatory community, and the most important one, humanizing community, "which, in conformity with the above, helps the personality of its members to evolve primarily by surpassing the individual's particularity through/and progressing towards the evolvement of the essence of the human being. For us, this type of group is ... the community form that is in conformity with the new way of life." (ibid. p. 1926) This type of community that should emerge in the socialist society, the community of the third degree, as Iván VITÁNYI calls it, in which "the individual is united with the community by retaining their autonomy". (op. cit. p. 526)


"Community = socially approved democratically led group which is organized in consideration of constructive values" (CSEPELI)

Dezső KALOCSAI: "The quality, solidity and perspectives of a community are determined primarily by the extent to which it is capable of offering, not only for today, but also for tomorrow, efficient and mobilizing moral and political values and ideals for activities that are in accordance with the individual's social expectations. Moreover, it should be capable of not only offering but also maintaining and operating these values and ideals." (op. cit. p.220)

The function of these communities is as follows: "... The community becomes an end, not only a means for the individual. A means and end which are manifested by the need to overcome loneliness, the need to socialize, to help others and thereby to become useful, the need to care for others, and the joy and sorrow and the urge to act and the emotional enrichment that caring involves." (s.a. p. 221)

"By now it has become obvious that the establishment and development of the community ideal will be the work of an entire historical era. Just as individualistic attitudes and behaviour were shaped and nurtured by private ownership and economic and political conditions over the centuries; their eradication cannot be a matter of a few years' propaganda and moral teaching. At the same time, their tenacious survival does not stem from the "external" human nature but in the contradictions of economic and social development", writes Dezső Kalocsai in 1981. (ibid. p. 209)

This thinking takes roots in the idea of collectivism.

MAKARENKO: "The collective is a group of people united by common aims subjected to social aims." (p. 106 quoted by A.V. Petrovsky, op. cit.)

Every Soviet researcher starts out from Makarenko. On the other hand, a very strong criticism of his theory of subordination has also emerged.

The "collective community... while serving progressive purposes, does not allow the development of its members into personalities because they are fully subordinate to the interests of the community.

Historically, the most varied types of primitive communities belong here. But this is the prevailing form when the transformation in the spirit of collectivism takes place where the process of individualization emerging as one of the functions of civil society has not yet reached a larger scale." (Márkus-Hegedűs, op. cit. p. 1926)

PATAKI: "The general ideal of collectivism grew out of the practice and experience of proletarian solidarity and became a leading element, the rich feature of proletarian morale of the declaration of values of the labour movement stepping into the limelight of world history. In this respect it always showed two faces in practice. On the one hand, it fulfilled a normative version by controlling the general direction and trends of the individual's social behaviour in their relationships with other people and communities (family, neighbourhood, stratum, class, nation, etc.). On the other hand, it is a measure of "what is achieved in life and to what extent" (Lenin); in other words, where do social solidarity and collectivism stand in reality and what is the relationship between normative "need" and real "have". (Op. cit. pp. 74-75)

As we know, collectivism opposed individual interests with society's interests. "During the initial years of socialism, a peculiar myth of collectivism emerged, which ... was revealed in terms of the views about organizations at the workplace. It suggested that the individual as well as individual interests and development should be subjected to interests "or a higher order" (social, departmental, company, etc. interests), highly abstract for the individual. Thus, the so-called "collectivizing function of organizations at the workplace was emphasized... This promoted the ideal of collectivity to prevail in such a way that not only did it not approve of the creation of the individuum but expressly pushed it into the background by claiming it to be contrary to collective interests. The result was the monolithic idea of the socialist person and the model that emerged was adopted by European countries with relatively little modification." (Márkus-Hegedűs p. 1927)

"In the case of a real conflict of interests, should these interests be economic, political, organizational or other, the 'overweight momentum' is always the more comprehensive and universal interest. This is the point where the real difficulty starts, when the collective principle is being implemented in practice." (Pataki op. cit. p. 79)

Efforts to find the peculiar dimension of the socialist community can be traded in Soviet small group research.


In his criticism from the angle of group theory and group theory of Western social psychology, A. V. PETROVSKY writes as follows: "According to the interactionists, a small group is the 'group of individuals, who are connected to one another for a certain time; a community of interactive people connected by (personal) link or links and each member of the group is aware of all the others". This and similar definitions are characterized by an exaggerated psychological approach to the specific features of the group, taking them out of their wider social context, whereas it is the social context that lends the group its status of reality (unless, of course, it is an artificial group created in a laboratory). In addition, the specifically psychological definition is confined to denote the superficial relationships within the group, which is an obvious simplification. Such an interpretation of the small group can by no means serve as an adequate social psychological concept of the collective." (op. cit. p. 109). These Western researchers "... neglected the content of group activity and worked for the most part, with insignificant material." (ibid. p. 112)

Soviet researchers approach from the side of society and emphasize the social purposefulness of collectives. "Experimental procedures... are unfortunately characterized by the interpretation of collectives deprived of their peculiar quality." (ibid. p. 114)
Solution: "The problem of interaction within the group should be connected to the society which affects the personality through group communication." (p. 115) "In communities which unite people in some socially useful activity the real alternative of adaptation is not negativism (non-conformism, resistance, independence, etc.); it is the peculiar not apparent but real quality of belonging to a community, which, at the same time, is the self-determination of the personality within the group (collectivist self-determination). (ibid.)

"In real communities the individuals gain their freedom in and by their association." (Marx-Engels, op. cit. p. 63)
Makarenko's primary collective: "A primary collective is one whose members are in permanent contact at a friendly, professional, ideological and lifestyle-related level." (Makarenko's Selected Works, in Russian, quoted by Petrovsky, op. cit. p. 120)
"In the collective social psychological phenomena are revealed which differ from those that occur in the random and diffuse groups and accidental associations of people." (ibid.)
In another context, Petrovsky interprets the primary collective as a community which is the implementation and propagation of socialist values. "In the collective, the determining elements are interrelationships which communicate goals, tasks and values of the common activity; in other words, those which have a real content." (Petrovsky, op. cit. p. 121) "In this respect, the collective is a group in which interpersonal relationship is relayed by the socially valuable content of joint activity, which is, at the same time, important for the individual." (ibid.)

We know that the dimension of "value-added" could not be grasped, at least not at a level justified by practice; for the possibility of action that is falls in line with social goals and is at the same time useful and valuable, limits the scope of movement of those voluntarily in pursuit of community. If they joined ranks, it brought no, or hardly any, result or benefit, and thus the importance of community work was degraded. This community did not call for creativity; on the contrary, it required obedience and integration and did not stand to criticism and resistance on the part of those who were trying the limits. Nor did it undertake conflicts or dialogue, and could thus give rise to no consensus. This form of community essentially confined people to leisure-social-cultural cooperation, the realization of goals set by the elite instead of full-fledged participation. Of course, these were always some who digressed from this forced track and attempted to realize their independent community ideals. Although the elite always tried to curb these efforts, every period gave rise to exemplary achievements which undermined the single-mindedness and operating mechanism of power. Although these efforts should not be underrated, we are all aware of the tremendous creative energy that was, and continuous to be wasted. Today, when the self-organization in society marks the track leading out of the crisis, we experience time and again the inability to act, to cooperate, to work together as a community. This is why our profession: community development is so much needed in Hungary today; to promote the community ideal, self-organization and self-guidance.


In the introduction we mentioned locality as a new dimension of cardinal importance in the Hungarian social development. Besides a number of other social functions, people can experience political involvement and participation within the locality framework. (The longer study analyses the notion of "community" as a synonym for "locality"; of Gemeinde rooting in locality - cf. "neighbourhood". It reminds of the Greek polis, where community meant a group of people belonging together as well as these people being bound to the same place or locality; the same connotation as land for the feudal man, or city for the man of labour division. Then the study continues:)

According to the American sociologist Roland C. WARREN (1957), if community really exists, it is identical with its geographical location which extends physical and psychological safety as a home and has to fulfil the following 5 functions:
1. Socialization, through which the community implants certain values into its members;
2. Economic accomplishment: the community ensures livelihood for its members;
3. Social participation fulfilling the general need for socialization;
4. Social control, which demands that members should observe the values of the community;
5. Mutual support: a process through which the members carry out the tasks that are too big or too urgent to be handled by an individual alone.

According to Warren, these are the five functions that prevail, formally or informally, in a multitude of forms from clustered farms to major cities. Whatever the local characteristics, these functions are always present in all human groups that sociologists call communities. (see. Human Behavior, p. 176)

R. L. Warren's approach to the community is functional. It is applicable in modern urban life which does not have a nostalgic yearning for the lost rural ethos but lays emphasis upon the solidity of its place and role: "Can the increasingly specialized parts be kept in co-ordination? Can the increasingly specialized interest groups work together for community goals? ... Conventional community theory is set up to emphasize the horizontal axis, the factor of locality, the factor of common interests, common life and common associations and common institutions based upon locality." (quoted by Plant, op. cit. p. 42)

Regarding the problem of professional groups, Good states that professions, albeit functional groups, may still be called communities because they fulfil the most important community criteria (common identity, shared values, common interests, language, etc.).

If we accept that any experiment is desirable for regaining the sense of solidarity and interaction, characteristic features of rural society that failed amidst the world's migrating peoples and complex institutions, if the word community has any meaning at all, then functional interest groups have to be taken into consideration.


K. Davis emphasizes locality: "The community is the smallest regional group that encompasses all aspects of human life." (quoted by GERGELY: A települési... p. 23) He also draws attention to the arguments of Martindale, who "having defined the institution as set solutions for community problems, describes the community as follows: 'The community is a comprehensive system of institutions which provides the basis for a whole way of life.'

He considers that the principles of community formation are movement towards stability, the internal consistency of institutional systems and completeness. About completeness, he writes, 'The adaptation of institutions to institutions takes as long as a system emerges which is complete enough to meet the usual community and individual requirements. In short, this adaptation progresses towards settlement through the establishment of a fulsome way of life.'" (ibid)


According to Raymond Williams, the hierarchy of status may have several meanings. For the individual, it may mean being a subject of the community, or servant, rather than being a member of, the community. ("Membership" in the context of the modern individual community ideal includes the momentum of participation, authority and power; thus, the understanding of the functional community is of decisive importance in the modern world, as it means the conscious recognition of articulated interests in the collectivity. (quoted by Plant, op. cit. pp. 48-49)

This leads us to the question of democracy.


If Warren took a functional approach of communities, he is our predecessor, for this is the main consideration during our work shaping the society. Freed from the pressures that limit communities' scope of movement and liberty, rid of the constraints whereby the community has to meet and implement certain values, we can say that the community is indeed a notion that carries value; for us, this quality is the joint action of people with a freely defined content for their fulfillment, self-realization and improvement of their situation, which is, in an indirect way, for the good of the public.

In this sense we have to clarify the social role of communities in today's Hungary.

Communities are the basic institutions of civil society and democracy. The system of democratic institutions is not equal to a multi-party system, local governments, the respect for human rights, the possibility to practice the right of participation, representation and choice, etc. In a democratic society people realize their intent, skills and activity through a gamut of communities: cultural, charity, health and environment protection, self-help but even political , economic and financial groups. They express their opinion and contribute to eradicating social shortages and promote public good. A democratic society is structured both formally and informally.

Communities are the practice fields of democracy. Instead of the simplified and routine practice of restricted situations they put people in new and direct communication. Community practice is an opportunity to speak up, to participate, to listen; it teaches to argue and tolerate others - of course if the groups is motivated by a case that is important for everybody.

Communities are the alternatives of power. In case of a structured local society, there is an alternative, as indeed we experienced it at the local elections. Leaders often see this as the "danger" of community work. However, democracy does not mean holding on to positions eternally. The main cause of isolation and lack of community is the strength and rigidity of artificially created dependence: the confiscation of property, abuse of the law, centralization and merging of economic and political power, industrialization and urbanization, the annihilation or, in the absence of real aims, the loss of meaning of informal community life, etc.

Communities at the same time fill a gap. Constant change is a hallmark of the functioning of society rather than an accident, as many feel nowadays. Instead of our former "stillwater" society, we perceive a society with a continuously increasing speed of operation in which the knowledge needed for adaptation proves to be insufficient or inapplicable and therefore needs constant change. Similarly, institutions constantly change, and they function satisfactorily if they move, from bottom up, quickly and flexibly to attenuate or eliminate constantly appearing shortages even if they cannot handle them at the very moment and place of their emergence. Because we lived so long with tasks being solved by state institutions, it is unusual in Hungary to see private organizations undertaking public functions and officially receiving state funding for it. Still, this is the way of the future, and to some extent, of the present.

If the community fills a gap instead of being merely refreshing futility, the salt of life of the warp of solidarity (and that in itself is a great deal!), its maintenance and promotion is not a favour or luxury granted by the power but an "investment". Self-organizing communities tackle a series of social problems quickly and free of charge which the official power cannot solve; or if it can, the solution is inadequate, expensive and untimely. Communities continuously reduce social shortages and develop society, making their own and one another's life healthier and more meaningful.

Those this line of thinking may seem to suggest it, we do not believe that the community is the solution for all social problems if it has a well-established network webbing society. Basic social activities are organized formally and are subjected to fundamental economic, financial, environmental, etc. considerations. Society as a whole, on the other hand, is not the sum total of an adequate number of professions, formal institutions and formal organizations of appropriate quality and efficiency, all of which are set up to eliminate the element of accidentalness innate in human beings. Fortunately accidentalness, new approaches and events, the manifestations of what we call human resources (still?) have a part to play, albeit sometimes with difficulty, in the life of societies. Society is a living and constantly changing system in which new need emerge and old ones phase out. As a result, the institutions established to cater for these needs also have to change. In this process, the role of self-organizing communities is immense: they are the first to discover shortages and attempt to remedy them, and it is their good solutions that are institutionalized so that the whole process can start anew, with them, or with other actors.

Freely established self-organized community action needs (would need) encouragement and professional assistance in all so-called mass societies, and particularly in emerging democracies. However, the discussion of the narrower professional issue would require a new endeavour.

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