Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Community has two meanings: (1) the way people feel about groups in which they are members that is expressed in group morale, cohesion, commitment, or love and (2) a form of social organization that enables people voluntarily to live together (Hillery 1992). The second definition, which emphasizes a type of social structure established to facilitate cohesion and commitment, has generated most of the social scientific research on community and will be the focus of this discussion.

Communal groups differ from highly institutionalized formal organizations in that they do not give primacy to specific goals; rather, they exist for the well-being of members and the achievement of more general goals such as prayer, rearing families, welfare of the group, sharing values, and so forth. Membership in the group is usually voluntary, and group survival depends on the commitment of members to group goals.

The most stable and widely occurring type of community is the village or city, which is based on families cooperating in a localized setting. Maintenance of the communal group relies on natural replacement through the biosocial family. As Kanter (1972) demonstrates, however, in groups in which communal ideology is strongly emphasized, the nuclear family is usually weak or nonexistent. Such communes that rely on voluntary recruits tend to be fragile structures and many do not last. The one exception is Christian monasteries, communal groups that have been in existence for almost 2,000 years. Although these groups exclude the biosocial family by requiring celibacy of their members, love known as agapé (i.e., one that transcends affection for any individual and is rooted in religious ideology) compensates for the usual sentiments and ties among biological family and kin members. In a brilliant work, Hillery (1992) describes the kind of love and commitment that has sustained communal monastic life for centuries.

A parallel to religious monasteries are Catholic religious orders of women. While the majority of these orders, a least in the West, are active orders in which members combine lives of prayer with apostolate service, celibacy is required, recruitment is voluntary, and agapé love compensates for the biological family. A number of recent studies (Neal 1990, Nygren and Ukeritis 1993, Ebaugh 1993, Wittberg 1994) describe the changes that are occurring within these orders that parallel a rapid decline in membership. While Hillery suggests that the recent changes occurring in monasteries may result in their demise, Ebaugh (1993) predicts that religious orders of women in the West will either become extinct or radically changed in terms of size and structure. The explanation offered in each case relates to changes occurring in the mechanisms of commitment that have sustained these institutions for centuries. As Kanter (1972) demonstrated, there is a strong relationship in communal groups between the sacrificial demands made of members and the degree of membership commitment; that is, the more renunciation and discipline required of members, the higher the degree of commitment that is generated. The types of changes occurring both in monasteries and in Catholic religious orders as a response to modernization and renewal are the relaxation of lifestyle demands in favor of greater personal freedom. The challenge facing these groups today is to achieve communal commitment while responding to demands, both internal and external, for renewal and increased individual autonomy.

The vast amount of social scientific research on communes and cults in the past two decades has also contributed to the analysis of communal groups. Through numerous case studies of specific groups, social scientists have illuminated many of the structures and processes that operate to generate group commitment, group harmony and conflict, recruitment, and longevity. The myriad recent studies on communal groups demonstrate that a major issue for each of them is the tension between group ideology and commitment, on the one hand, and the desire for individual freedom, on the other.

Helen Rose Ebaugh


H. R. Ebaugh, Women in the Vanishing Cloister (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993)

G. A. Hillery, Jr., The Monastery (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992)

R. M. Kanter, Commitment and Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972)

M. A. Neal, From Nuns to Sisters (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990)

D. Nygren and M. Ukeritis, The Future of Religious Orders in the United States (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993)

P. Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

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