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What does “community” mean to you?

A community brings together a group of people with any number of commonalities. Whilst academic researchers are involved in a professional community, they also benefit from studying various aspects of the lives of those in their research. How does this influence their view of community and what it means to them?

The theme of this year’s Open Access Week is “Community Over Commercialisation”. As part of this, we’re looking at different definitions of “community” used within academic research. We spoke to researchers working in diverse specialties whose open access work touches on any aspect of community. We discuss the different definitions and contexts of community and how academic research informs our views and perspectives on the meaning and value of community.

Read on to discover what a selection of researchers had to say.

Julia Bartosch, corresponding author of “Gendered publication patterns in Socio-Economic Review” in Socio-Economic Review

When I started working in academia, “community” was a fuzzy term. After a while, I got to know different communities in my research field and how they relate to my own research topics. Research areas are often very large, so “communities” are important to avoid getting lost and to create a sense of belonging. At this point, however, I realised that the communities were very different and that I felt more at home in some than in others. And I began to ask myself, why? Was it the topic at hand? The nature of the discussion? Or at the gender composition?

Among other things, this was the starting point for addressing the question of gender representation in my research field and specifically also in different communities. To be clear, gender distribution does not have to affect how much one feels at home in a particular community. But it is a powerful statement when you don’t feel at home and intuitively wonder if you are the problem. To ensure that this does not happen to everyone all the time, but especially to young researchers, I think it is important to shed light on the persistent gender imbalance in a variety of communities. In this way, academics can think about their communities in an informed way. And I hope that this can also increase political activity for future change.

Amy Gill, corresponding author of “Communities of Support for Care-Experienced Mothers” in The British Journal of Social Work

Supportive research networks are increasingly important to me as I near completion of a PhD exploring service responses to early parenthood among young people transitioning from out-of-home care. As Stacey Page, Melissa Hairston, and I describe in our auto-ethnographic paper in BJSW, “Communities of Support for Care-Experienced Mothers,” we strive to build genuine, mutually beneficial connections which nurture us as scholars raising children. 

Building community within university settings that value profit and elitism over the wellbeing of PhD scholars and precariously employed academics is challenging. My academic community is virtual. It is mostly comprised of care-experienced and first-generation academics. We share advice, encouragement, and opportunities such as open access publishing options to others from historically underrepresented groups in higher education.

“Research areas are often very large, so ‘communities’ are important to avoid getting lost and to create a sense of belonging.”

Sara Dada, corresponding author of “Understanding communication in community engagement for maternal and newborn health programmes in low- and middle-income countries: a realist review” in Health Policy and Planning

Community engagement can enable the meaningful participation and representation of minority or marginalized populations in the development of health policies and health systems strengthening. Rather than dropping an intervention or aid program into place without understanding and incorporating local lived realities, community engagement efforts emphasize working with communities that may range in size and scope. In maternal and newborn health, this community includes not only the health providers at the facility level and policymakers in the health systems, but also the often-vulnerable voices of the mothers, families, and neighbourhoods striving for accessible and equitable health services.

Sarah Nectoux, corresponding author of “Sensing technologies, digital inclusion, and disability diversity” in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

Our article “Sensing Technologies, Digital Inclusion, and Disability Diversity,” considers community as a concept marked by fluctuating rather than fixed boundaries. In examining the interplay between social difference and technology in Western Sydney—historically marked by stigmas of poverty and disadvantage, our research challenges narratives that locate community identity in disability type, language spoken, technological affordance, or place of residence. These and other factors instead coalesce and divide over time. Much of our research was conducted via Zoom during COVID, when participants felt simultaneously wrenched from their everyday communities and integrated within new circuits of online socialisation. Post-COVID, face-to-face workshops demonstrated how participants continued to communicate and navigate through technology, producing community through socio-technical practice. These participants also identified technology’s limits: the network failures, device costs, and interface constraints that inhibit inclusion. Our research underscores the need, in a digitally-mediated era, to neither relinquish nor rigidify notions of community, since these serve to bridge, in however imagined a way, across markers of social difference.

Tony Lawson, corresponding author of “The human person, the human social individual and community interactions” in Cambridge Journal of Economics

Community has for so long now been so fundamental a focus of my research, much of it systematised under the head of social positioning theory. Community—by which I understand a social totality of relationally organised human persons and other entities—is a basic unit, or the ground, of all social constitution, the starting point (or a presupposition) of all relevant social analysis and the ultimate context of all emancipatory (and emancipated) endeavour. 

Most social constitution takes the form of creating components of communities—teachers, students, employers, employees, money, corporations, Cambridge college high tables, hospitals—by way of relationally organising human persons and other entities that are (mostly) already in existence, forming thereby novel relational entities. Human emancipatory activity, concerned with bringing about a world in which we all can flourish in our differences, necessarily focuses centrally on transforming these community social relations, not least by absenting all aspects that are oppressive and/or discriminatory or otherwise harmful.

“We share advice, encouragement, and opportunities such as open access publishing options to others from historically underrepresented groups in higher education.”

Shahreen Chowdhury, corresponding author of “A holistic approach to well-being and neglected tropical diseases: evaluating the impact of community-led support groups in Nigeria using community-based participatory research” in International Health

Community represents the bonds that tie people together. Although often understood in geographic terms, it can also transcend boundaries through shared values, perspectives, and identities. Community can also be understood through different scales—micro communities referring to localised, interpersonal relationships; meso pertaining to larger groups, organisation, or regions; macro extending to societies, nations, and broader collective identities.

In our paper, we use community based participatory research (CBPR), which focuses on community at the meso level with those living at the heart of issues. People affected by neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) through their shared lived experience actively designed support groups. As community spaces of healing, support groups fostered a sense of belonging and empowerment, highlighting the power of community in transformative action.

Ryan Stoldt, et al., authors of “Using racial discourse communities to audit personalization algorithms” in Communication, Culture and Critique

Despite being something most people are involved with and connected with, community is a complicated word. It serves as a sociopolitical construct organized by and within groups of people who share similar tastes, interests, beliefs, identities, or sociohistorical ties as well as a disciplinary mechanism employed upon groups of people to sort and organize them as a means of control.

In Algorithmic Personalization & Society’s research on personalization algorithms, we see technologies as one form of control used to discipline communities. Personalization algorithms sort people into different communities, shaping what content people see and their overall experience online. In doing so, these algorithms often (re-)create the racist and sexist systematic failures of life offline and exacerbate other cultural issues like hyper-partisanship and radicalization. At the same time that we see personalization algorithms as a means of disciplining communities, we also care about how groups of people that come together based on shared commonalities experience, make sense of, and even push back against forms of control online.

Bernadette Brady, corresponding author of “An exploration of the experience of pain among culturally diverse migrant communities” in Rheumatology Advances in Practice

My understanding of what “community” means has evolved over my research career. As I began to shine a light on other cultures and examine their beliefs, values, and norms, I began to critically reflect on my own culture and sense of community. I had been conditioned to value individualism and strive for independence and self-reliance. Yet, as I examined the sense of harmony and belonging that was associated with the collectivist cultures I was researching, I began to take on a new sense of “community”.

“Community” for me now transcends ethnicity, language, physical appearance, education, professional status and so many constructs that serve to separate us. It is about recognising the commonality in the human experience. My research now focuses on equity and ways to overcome differences that divide to ensure everyone can achieve good health and well-being.

Continue the conversation and leave us a comment: what does “community” mean to you and how does open access research influence this?

Editor’s note: Sarah Nectoux copy updated on 2 Nov 2023.

Featured image by Brooke Cagle, via Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Mike

    To me, “community” implies a sense of belonging, mutual support, and the idea that individuals within that group are connected in a meaningful way. Communities provide a sense of identity, shared responsibility, and often serve as a source of social, emotional, and practical support. They can be a powerful force for positive change and a source of camaraderie and connection in our increasingly interconnected world.

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