Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The word’s evolution makes a nice metaphor for the rise of American individualism—and the decline of trust in American institutions.

For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define “community,” they’d very likely give you an answer that involved a physical location. One’s community derived from one’s place—one’s literal place—in the world: one’s school, one’s neighborhood, one’s town. In the 21st century, though, that primary notion of “community” has changed. The word as used today tends to involve something at once farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s identity. “A body of people or things viewed collectively,” the Oxford English Dictionary sums it up. Community, in this sense, is not merely something that one fits into; it is also something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery. It is based on shared circumstances, certainly, but offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is active rather than passive. The LGBTQ community. The Latino community. The intelligence community. The journalism community.

For Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort:Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, that semantic shift speaks to a much broader transformation in American life. It speaks to the rise of the individual as a guiding force in culture; it speaks as well to the declining power of institutions to offer that guidance. As Bishop told a group at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: “It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.”

That change is on display, he said, in many facets of American culture, political and otherwise. Marriage, Bishop noted, is today commonly conceived less as a semi-self-sacrificial commitment—forsaking all others—and more as a means to deeper personal fulfillment. Journalism today is more and more commonly rendered in the first person, explicitly or implicitly, because the personal voice strikes many readers as more trustworthy than the institutional. In business, often, the willingness to break rules  (“radical creativity”) is valued much more highly than the ability to fit in.

“I’m not saying any of these are good or bad,” Bishop noted. “It’s just a switch in how we’re living in the world.” And that switch is perhaps most obvious in electoral politics, which, Bishop argued, has become “less about issues now than it is about asserting one’s identity.”

You could also argue that the issues are entirely about identity, and vice versa. What’s clear, however, is that the notion of “identity” itself—the word skyrocketed in usage starting in the second half of the 20th century—is changing our understanding of “community.” What is also clear is that identity, as a concept, is becoming solidified in American culture.

That’s in part a response to our changing communications technologies, Bishop pointed out. For one thing, Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and Snapchat and their many fellow services emphasizes identity through a combination of consumption and performance: On Facebook, for example, one’s favorite music and one’s favorite news sites and the memes and jokes one shares suggest, in the aggregate, not just what they like, but who they are. For another thing, social media services, as information-sharing platforms, elide the gatekeeping function that traditional media once played. Friends trump faceless organizations. Familiarity trumps expertise. The digital world has both allowed for and ratified a culture of extreme individualism. As far as information goes, as Bishop put it: “I get to decide what’s true or not.”

What will that situation mean for the country, as a collection not just of individuals, but also of communities? There’s reason, in one way, for pessimism. Alain Ehrenberg, in The Weariness of the Self, notes how psychologically exhausting it can be to be so constantly self-reliant. (As Bishop put it, “we’re not capable of doing that kind of self-construction every day.”) So identity construction, Ehrenberg argues, is at the root of things like depression, drug use, and even suicide. Defined that way, “identity” as a concept might, paradoxically, prove a challenge to American individuals.

And yet—here is the optimistic take—identity is also politically empowering. “Community,” in the transcendent sense of the word, is empowering. The culture of individualism Bishop argues for may bring Bowling Alone-style sacrifices of social capital in physical communities; it can also bring with it, however, a different kind of social capital: one in which the individual person, rather than the group, is primary. One in which the very thing the founders wanted for the country they envisioned—a people who were united not just by mutable circumstance, but also by shared values—is realized. “Community,” after all, the OED notes, is rooted in the Middle French communité. The word may have come to suggest a “body of people who live in the same place,” but, initially, it meant something much simpler and much more powerful: “joint ownership.”

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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