Barry Wellman and Barry Leighton: “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities”

Similar to Wirth’s work in defining urbanism, Wellman and Leighton set forth their notion that there are three key variables when defining communities: networks of interpersonal ties; common locality; and solidarity sentiments. When defining a community, sociologists are not primarily concerned with geographic boundaries such as those that define districts and neighborhoods. Instead, urban sociologists are more concerned with social structures that impact members of a community, specifically, post-industrial bureaucratic structures and systems that have transformed the way in which individuals associate with others. This is referred to as the community question.

The text outlined three different arguments that explain the way in which urban communities are transformed by urbanization and structural changes that accompanied it, and they way it reshaped community membership and network ties. The first argument, community lost, is, well, to put it bluntly, sounds dismal. The authors state this type of community diminishes the amount of ties as well as weakens any ties available, and makes it difficult for members to receive assistance. This reminds me of Wirth’s deterministic theory in that when members are isolated and separated from networks and communities, they feel unsupported and alienated. Since these communities are believed to lack social control, bureaucrats step in and implement policies of social control for the presumed ne’er do wells, rather than address the structural issues facing the community.

The second, community saved, is representative of strong networks and ties. Unlike, community lost, saved communities maintain in spite of bureaucratic institutions in that these communities continue to provide strong neighborhood ties and support for its members. These members are heavily involved usually in a single community where relationships are extensive but closed to other members. These characteristics are theorized to lend themselves to self-regulating communities that can provide support to its members, thus mediating member’s interaction with larger social institutions.

The third, and final community argument is that of the liberated argument. These communities experience weakened communities similar to the lost argument, but still maintain useful primary ties as demonstrated in the saved argument. As the label implies, these communities are liberated in the sense that members are “free” to develop ties with outside networks. Although they become limited members of many networks, they develop ramified networks, which in turn open their world up to additional resources outside of their primary community. They create many diverse relationships with unlikely people increasing the likelihood that they could acquire things or get things done in fewer steps; “hop-skip people” as Jane Jacobs labeled them.

While reading this, I found myself comparing bureaucracy and rational relationships to a sickness. It is echoed over and over again that communities and people need to be protected and healed from the bureaucratic institutions that have crept in since urbanization in the industrialized West. Wellman and Leighton speak of “structural salve” and “antidotes” to fix urban neighborhoods and networks. I wonder how these structures have continued for so long if their effects are negatively impacting communities.




One thought on “Barry Wellman and Barry Leighton: “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities”

  • September 9, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Good summary.
    The authors spoke about communities without proximity due to transportation and new communication methods. Also, there has been some issues with the way the concepts of “neighborhood” and “community” have been used as interchangeable in past scholarly research. As Sociologist we tend to study social structure as primary and spatial location as secondary. In regards to community lost argument it is more nostalgic than reality as we can never return to that ideal. It appears that the community lost ideology is in line with the “social pathology” thought and the community saved ideology is in line with a somewhat “strength” approach that believes even in all of the urban chaos people are survivors and make even limited networks work for the best in a bad situation. “In political analyses, rioters, far from being socially disorganized, are now seen to be rooted, well-connected community members (p. 62).

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