Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Kirsty Sherlock (2002) 'Community Matters: Reflections from the Field'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 2, <>

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Received: 6/3/2002      Accepted: 31/7/2002      Published: 31/08/02


This article asserts that community matters, not least because of the continued importance of community demonstrated by residents of a post-fordist resort town in North Australia. Far from being an outdated concept, confined to stable rural villages, (as often argued in the literature), even this extremely transient population profess a strong desire to find and maintain 'community'. A sense of community is constructed through narratives of place and lifestyle to create an inclusive collective identity. However, my fieldwork demonstrated that the ideal remains elusive. Access to social networks is unequal and the norms of community fall short of reciprocity or duty, making it a 'community without obligation'.

Australia; Community; Exclusion; Lifestyles; Social Capital; Tourism


In contrast to Mullins' (1999) assertion that community is a concept of no use or interest to sociologists, this article illustrates the importance of community articulated by residents during fieldwork in Australia. In short, community matters to my participants. Whilst exploring their attachment to the concept, it became clear that the notion of community was a social construct which had real, empirically observable, consequences for my participants. As I will argue, these consequences were varied, and outcomes were mediated by participants' access to social and economic resources.

My study indicated that community is a contested, dynamic and ultimately symbolic construct that is created and maintained through the use of narrative. This approach illustrates how individuals actively seek to create and maintain bounded collectivities through constructing notions of shared identity. The notion of community depends on shared interpretations of place, lifestyle and every day practices. These are in turn shaped by the intertwined notions of production and consumption (Edwards, 1997).

Despite the well-documented difficulties with its definition and conceptualization, the notion of community expresses something about social interaction that I believe requires further exploration. My work suggests that the continued ideological hold the concept has in popular imagination provides a basis for the formation of a collective identity and local social relations. Indeed it is precisely the contested and normative nature of community, the criticisms that led to its unfashionable status in sociology, that provides such a rich and rewarding concept for analysis.

This article focuses on a community of location, (Black and Hughes, 2001). Generally, community studies have been associated with rural settlements with strong, stable social networks. However, this community study is located in a transient, still developing, post-fordist town. Despite the different setting compared to other community studies in Australia (Dempsey, 2000; Poiner, 2000; Cowlishaw, 1988; Wild, 1974), the importance of a shared collective identity, of the notion of community, indicates the ongoing importance of community. I believe that because community can be found in many diverse sites, it is still a relevant sociological phenomenon.

The article begins by a locating my arguments in the current discussions surrounding the continued relevance of community in the sociological literature. As this is an empirically driven paper, I introduce the study site and provide a flavour of the setting. I demonstrate how participants searched for community and actively sought to construct a sense of community. However, I illustrate how the actual experience of community is much more ambivalent than the ideal narrative allows. The penultimate section suggests how participants manage this tension between the ideal and the actual. I conclude by arguing that community is an integral part of life in this small town and therefore is both useful and interesting to sociologists.

Location within Current Debates

Although community has been of interest to sociologists since the start of the discipline (Worsley, 1992), community is no longer a fashionable sociological concept (Newby, in Crow and Allan, 1994). This has been explained by listing the criticisms leveled at community studies since the 1960's. These criticisms include: definitional difficulties, the value laden legacy of the rural-urban continuum, that local level analysis is no longer appropriate in a globalized world and, following on from this, that theories of community are apolitical and lack a theory of the state. Furthermore, it is suggested that taking a collective approach to social behaviour may be inappropriate in an era when individuals are subject to accelerated individualization (Stedmann, 1997). This section of the paper provides my rebuttal to this two pronged critique and argues for a revival of theoretical interest in the notion of community.

Bell and Newby suggest that "the concept of community has been the concern of sociologists for more than 200 years, yet a satisfactory definition appears as remote as ever" (1971: 21). It is commonplace to quote Hillery (1954, in Bell and Newby, 1971) who came up with 94 different definitions for the term. This concern with definition, or what Cohen calls the pursuit of "positivistic niceties of analytic taxonomies" (Cohen, 1985:38) was partly responsible for the decreased popularity of community studies in recent years. But surely the fact that the term community is contested highlights the sociological importance of deconstructing and exploring the term (Liepins, 2000; Silk, 1999)? I believe the challenge of grappling with this 'common sense' yet complex notion that should act as an intellectual stimulus.

The notion of community has been conventionally approached in three different ways. Firstly, community can be a descriptive label for a bounded settlement. This has been rightly criticized for suggesting an ecological fallacy, as social relations can not be simply read off from the geographic setting[1]. This approach has been criticized for implicitly using a value laden binary opposition of gemeinschaft versus gesellschaft (Giddens, 1991; Bell and Newby, 1971). Despite the valid critique of the normative stereotypes surrounding this approach to community, I demonstrate that many participants made a connection between the size of the community, its 'rural' nature and an idealized social support network.

Secondly, community can be described as a local social system, and analysis explores how local social institutions are maintained within the bounded locality. This 'systematic' theory of community believes that "local sentiment … is more a result of belonging to the community – through social standing, age and time in residence – than it is a result of ecological size and density" (Goudy, 1990:180). However, critics since the 1960's, notably Pahl (in Worsley, 1992) have argued that the increasingly globalized nature of our world means that structural conditions are played out, rather than created, in local places. Meyrowitz (1985) goes further to argue that changes in communications and the advent of virtual reality mean that local social relations are no longer an appropriate subject of analysis (see also Glaser, 2001; Young, 1996).

I believe the argument for 'placeless sociology' is easily refuted. Social practices must be located in social fields, which are necessarily embedded in physical places (Urry, 2000) . Being and belonging are not disembodied, abstract issues, but are rooted in an actual places (Stevenson, 1999; Jackson, 1999; Rose , 1996). Smith (1987) believes that placeless sociology encourages the separation of the local and personal from theory. Analysis has become 'leached out' of local settings, and fails to acknowledge that the focus of every day life is the "potentially endless detailing of particulars" (Smith, 1987:6).

As Crow (2000) argues, the community study can help illuminate the links between global and local structures, refuting those who suggest that the local perspective is a-theoretical and lacks a theory of the State[2]. My spatially located approach focuses on how different local actors respond to and are affected by Massey's (1996) power geometry and Soja's (1998) social- spatial dialectic. A community study explores the interplay of constraint and choice for individual actors within their collective arena (Crow, 2000). The community study is particularly appropriate for tracing how webs of power are constructed and maintained at both local and global levels (Castells, 1996). As Beck (2001) illustrates, human needs are met (or go unmet) in actual spatial locations.

The third approach to community perceives of community as a form of shared collective identity. This approach has been criticized for eliding the difference between the ideal and actual, and imbuing analysis with nostalgia for a form of collective interaction that has no empirical basis. Furthermore, this approach can reify collectivities, obscuring their differences and treating each community as a homogenous whole, glossing over internal conflict and contradictions (Worsley, 1992; Bell and Newby, 1971). However, recent discussions of community (see Glaser, 2001) argue that having a shared collective identity does not necessitate shared values. Thus a sense of community is able to exist alongside evidence of disharmony and division (as demonstrated by many community studies e.g. Dempsey, 1990).

I have considerable sympathy with this third perspective as my fieldwork indicated that participants actively sought to develop and maintain a collective identity as a community. The term community, as used by my participants, incorporates what Dempsey (1996) and Bell and Newby (1971) term communion, which is a sense of belonging, attachment and emotional self-esteem. As Bauman puts it, people search for a "dream of belonging; to be for once of the place, not merely in the place" (Bauman 1996:30 original emphasis). Whilst there was a clear division between the ideal and the actual, participants continued to believe in the ideal and actively seek it in their day to day lives.

One of the most attractive aspects of the third approach is that it engages with what 'community' means to my participants (Cohen, 1985; Ivanitz, 1998; Kenny, 1994). A sense of community is constructed and subjective, not stable and objective (Beck, 2001). Anderson (1987) concisely explains "all communities larger than primordial villages of face to face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined"(1987: 15). Community is a symbolic construct, a fluid concept, with boundaries that are continually being negotiated (Cohen, 1985).

Stinner et al (1990) argues that attachment to community is a multi-dimensional concept (see also Black and Hughes, 2001; Beck, 2001; Crow and Allan, 1995). Community means more than living in a locality, but involves some form of social attachment. Although my conceptualization of community is still focussed on analysis of a local social system (Bell and Newby, 1971) it is a social system which is actively constructed and maintained. The notion of community has multiple economic, cultural, spiritual and emotional aspects. And, although a pure ecological approach has been discredited, my inductive analysis highlights how the physicality of the place plays a central part in the social construction of their sense of community.

The second major criticism of studying community argues that the social approach is inappropriate in an individualized world. The concept of late modernity, with its corresponding focus on globalization, time-space compression, individuation and abstraction (Urry, 2000; Giddens, 1991a) has led some theorists to suggest the 'death of the social' (Rose, 1996). But I suggest that my community study helps illustrate how social structure is maintained in an ever more individualized society (Giddens, 1991a). While my analysis indicates, ironically, that individualism is a key aspect of the experience of community for participants, the continued commitment to the ideal of the social refutes those who would pronounce community dead.

This may be, in part, because as Giddens (1991a) argues, as an individual's sense of ontological security is undermined by rapid social change, they are increasingly likely to seek a sense of 'roots' in local social structures. Bell (1993) argues that community is becoming more important because the ideal is under threat from the forces of modernization, globalization and homogenization (Jameson, 2000; Ritzer, 1999). As modern societies become more fragmented, the search for identity rooted in a local community has intensified (Paterson and Connery, 1997).

There are signs of an increasing academic interest in community (Beck, 2001; Liepins, 2000; Silk, 1999) which is developing in parallel with renewed interest in the concept of social capital. Social capital refers to networks between social actors, focussing on the motivations and/or norms which govern individual behaviour within these networks, resulting in outcomes for the collective good (Winter, 2000). As Edwards and Folley (1998) argue, social capital plays a heuristic role in (re)emphasizing the social nature of human interaction and rescuing social science from individualistic approaches. A focus on community helps transcend the dichotomy between individuals and society and trace their interconnections at the collective level (Bourdieu, 2000). Individuals may have autonomous identities but these are used to create, maintain and subvert collective forms (Kiely et al, 2000; Dickens, 2000; Beck et al, 1994).

My work echoes Milner (1999) who argues against the 'death of community' perspective, suggesting that post-modern emphases on the individualism of society are not backed up by empirical evidence (see also Beck, 2001). Cohen suggests that "we confront an empirical phenomenon: people's attachment to community" (Cohen, 1985: 38), which I explore in the sections below. Although I had not expected to find much evidence of a collective sense of identity, my participants continually emphasized the importance of community as a framing concept in their lives. Furthermore, my experience is not unusual as many have found that the idea of community still has resonance throughout western societies (see Silk, 1999; Ife, 1996; Bell, 1993).

Introducing the Study

Although community does not have to be located in a bounded settlement (Dempsey, 1996), my study was based in a rural town, dominated by the tourism and hospitality industry. My study aimed to contribute to local policy and planning processes by illustrating the complex and ambivalent experiences of living in a tourism town, and broadening the debate over local tourism development into an understanding of the nature of a post-fordist service economy in a globalized world. The fieldwork was carried out using an inductive approach, which sought to allow participants to identify the key issues affecting their day to day lives. Coding and analysis of my data indicated the recurrent theme of community, which was contrary to my expectations as I was working in a transient and newly established town.

Fieldwork for the study was undertaken between 1997 and 2000 and I collected data using multiple methods. The transcripts from 50 in-depth interviews provided a through overview of the different issues in the town. The interview schedule consisted of three questions (why did you move to Port Douglas? what do you like and what do you dislike about living in the town?). I used a purposive sample[3], deliberately selecting participants who varied in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, occupation, length of residence and political inclination, to ensure I accessed the spectrum of views in the town. I stopped interviewing when the accounts became repetitive despite apparent differences in the biography of participants.

I explored the issues raised in the interviews through a randomly sampled household survey using a mixture of closed and open-ended questions. The survey covered questions on migration, social networks, tourism, governance and demographic circumstances. I used a face to face format and achieved a response rate of approximately 70%, giving me 91 useable questionnaires. The qualitative data from the interviews and survey was analyzed using the constant comparative method (Rennie, 1998) and I used the SPSS software for quantitative analysis of my ordinal data from my survey.

A review of documents, including National, State and Local government policy, the local newspaper, tourism brochures and local association minutes, provided another triangulation point. This data was compared to field notes created through constant participant observation, as I lived and worked in the town for seven years. The last method allowed me to compare the participant's accounts with observed actions, as well as highlighting aspects that were not raised by participants but none the less patterned their interactions. My status as an 'insider' gave me an emic perspective, but a considerable degree of reflection was required to maintain the critical distance required for analysis.

Given my argument that the narrative of community is, in part, linked to a shared reading of the physical and social characteristics of the town, I provide a brief description for the reader. Port Douglas is a well-known resort town in the Douglas Shire, approximately one hour's drive north of Cairns. Cairns is the regional centre for Far North Queensland (FNQ), which stretches from Cardwell in the southeast throughout the Cape York region of Australia (see Figure 1.1).

Source: Modified from the Times Atlas of the World (1994)
Figure 1.Map of Queensland, Australia

The town differs markedly in socio-demographic makeup from previous rural community studies (such as Wild, 1974; Cowlishaw, 1988; Dempsey, 1990). Unlike most rural areas in Australia, which show evidence of depopulation, the Douglas Shire has grown at approximately 10% per annum, with the growth fuelled by an influx into Port Douglas (State Government Regional Profile, reported PDMG, 29/7/99). Approximately half of my participants had migrated from inter-state or overseas and most came from urban rather than rural areas. Nearly half of residents surveyed (48%) had lived in Port Douglas for less than five years, with 22% for less than one year. Only 39% had lived here for ten or more years. Very few 'original' residents survived the dramatic changes during the 1980's, and the current community consists of 'locals' who have only lived in the town for about ten years. It is this characteristic that makes it such an interesting study, as indicates that a sense of community does not have to result from relationships built up over several generations.

The social networks that exist are not only recent constructions, but also have to withstand the effects of migration flows as the town has a very transient population. Itinerant (i.e. short-term) migrants make up 30% of the Shire's population (State Government Regional Profile, reported PDMG, 29/7/99). Almost one in five of my survey sample (19%) intended to leave town within a year and 37% intended to leave in less than five years. This constant turnover of residents fragments social networks, and this is normally understood to undermine the development of a stable community. However, it demonstrate the active maintenance of a sense of community by the remaining residents.

Port Douglas is an example of discretionary migration on the basis of lifestyle choice first identified by political geographers such as Harvey (1990) and Zukin (1991). The town was founded as a port for the goldfields in the hinterland during the late nineteenth century, and was a fishing village with a permanent population of around 200 people for most of the twentieth century. However the town has been physically and metaphorically reconstructed to become the service node for tourists who come to experience where the 'rainforest meets the reef' (see QTTC, 2002; PDDTA, 2002). In parallel with destinations in newly developing countries, Port Douglas has gone from a plantation economy to a post-fordist economy[4] without experiencing mass industrial development (Hall, 1996; De Kadt, 1992). Thus it remains a beautiful pre-industrial setting with the trappings of the leisure economy, excellent transport infrastructure and supporting services.

Port Douglas could be characterized as an 'occupational' community (Collis, 1999; Bulmer, 1975). The town has a single dominant economic sector whose prosperity (or decline) effects the majority of the population, either directly or indirectly. Port Douglas is a tourism town, with 58% of participants directly employed in the tourism industry and 28% in supporting industries such as retail and transport. Tourism employment, being generally seasonal, low paid, insecure and requiring shift work (Shaw and Williams, 1997; Sinclair, 1997; Hall, 1996) has implications for the every day practices of the residents (see Sherlock, 2001).

Participants drew my attention to how the narrative of community was intertwined with the history of the town. Being an occupational community has influenced the social and cultural context of the town. Participants stressed the newness of the community, which had been forged from incoming entrepreneurs attracted by the development of a tourism industry. Once the industry was developed, Port Douglas began to attract discretionary migrants on the basis of lifestyle choice. Thus, the tourism development has created both the economic and lifestyle attractions for new migrants, but simultaneously, the conditions of transience and stratification which explain the more ambivalent experience of community by many participants.

Despite the fact that the town was created by a global industry (tourism) and residents partake in consumption patterns typical of a western, post- fordist capitalist society, their sense of being unique, very different from urban Australia, is a sustaining community narrative. Participants were proud that 'their town' was becoming one of Australia's most popular destinations (Port Douglas Mossman Gazette (PDMG), 20/9/00:1). They drew attention to the vibrant, cosmopolitan and dynamic nature of the town and to the fact that international visitors (including the rich and famous, such as Bill Clinton, Madonna and Kylie Minogue) want to visit their town. As argued in the section below, the fact that Port Douglas is different from both urban and other rural areas in Australia, provides a unifying collective identity.

The Importance of Community

In this section, I demonstrate how participants continually emphasized the importance of having a sense of community and a sense of belonging. The importance of social networks, face to face interaction and a sense of inclusiveness fostered by recognition, good natured gossip and shared socializing were key components of this sense of belonging. Migrants come to Port Douglas hoping to find an oasis of community. An interviewee explained: "I love the people aspect of this town more than any other thing, it is a tight knit community basis which feels good. You walk down the street and every second person knows your name" (John[5], a self- employed man in his thirties who had lived in Port Douglas for five years). This was the primary attraction of the town for almost a third of my participants[6], highlighting the strength of their desire to find community.

My fieldwork highlighted how the narrative of community was linked to a 'sense of place', a connection between the human and non-human constituents of the place. One participant said "I loved the place as soon as I arrived, felt an empathy with the place, it was as if I belonged here" (Stephanie, a teacher in her thirties who has lived in Port Douglas for three years). Another said "the environment … it's absolutely stunning. I was in Port Douglas four years ago and I felt this really strong energy – almost spiritual, if you know what I mean. That's what brought me back" (Alice, a public servant in her twenties, who has lived in Port Douglas for three years). Iconic notions of the 'reef and rainforest' abound in participants' perceptions of Port Douglas[7]. Participants stressed the attraction of the tropical landscape and intimated a link between the spatial context and the social networks they sought to maintain (see Sherlock, 2001a).

Although I have been arguing for a social rather than ecological reading of community, the way that participants often linked their discussions of community to their physical surroundings highlights the role that their environment played in maintaining the community narrative. The discourse of community, in part, rests on an idealized attachment to the local natural environment. The fact that this environment is marketed globally as a desirable destination[8] strengthened my participants' pride in their collective 'home'.

Although I am uncomfortable with the rural-urban continuum approach to community, many participants contrasted Port Douglas to their previous urban place of residence. In the words of one survey participant "that's why we wanted to come here, we wanted to find a sense of community. There is much more community spirit here than where we came from"(participant 33, a woman in her fifties who work in retail and has lived in Port Douglas for a year and a half). The nurturing qualities attributed to the sense of community in Port Douglas were contrasted to the anomic character of urban life. For example, one participant told me "you get a real sense of community here ... I find the city such a cold place after living here" (survey participant 28, a Canadian woman in her thirties working in tourism who has lived in Port Douglas for three years). Another explained "I feel safe here, I am sick of living in big cities" (Annie, a grandmother in her sixties who has lived in Port Douglas for seven years).

The notion of 'authenticity' (Urry, 1995) was never far from the surface of these discussions. Despite the constructed character of the town, participants imbued Port Douglas with the same nostalgic qualities found in most studies of rurality (Tonts and Greive, 2001; Lawrence et al, 1996). One participant explained that "this town has the image of a laid back typical Australian sleepy town full of interesting characters that you don't find in the cities. They are interesting as they have a totally different philosophy to the city and that's what people come here for"(Bob, a man in his forties who has lived in Port Douglas periodically since 1980).

Whilst nostalgic qualities of small town living were used to develop this narrative, participants were quick to indicate that Port Douglas was different from most other Australian rural towns. Port Douglas is defined as different in its physical setting. Participants contrasted its mix of its cosmopolitan cafι culture, luxury shops, restaurants and hotels in a tropical setting of world heritage listed natural beauty, to other local towns in the area. Within Australia, Port Douglas is depicted by the media as unique, even when compared with other up-market tourism destinations such as Bryon Bay and Noosa. Nearby towns such as Mossman, which is an occupational community based on the sugar cane industry, are geographically close (15 kilometres) but utterly different in terms of the facilities and atmosphere.

However, the biggest difference is social, in the contrast between the accepted carpe diem lifestyle in Port Douglas and the more traditional, constraining norms found in most rural towns. Residents celebrated the inclusive nature of their community, as illustrated by the following participant, who claimed "millionaires, gay people, fishermen, you can catch them all at the local pub" (survey participant 11, a man in a twenties, working in hospitality, who has lived in Port Douglas periodically since 1997). The words 'laid- back' and 'relaxed lifestyle' peppered interview and survey transcripts, with participants highlighting the freedom to construct new identities and the lack of moral censorship towards alternative lifestyles. Both the participants' words and participant observation reinforced the dominant celebration of hedonism.

Thus, it is a very different notion of community to those constructed around traditional values such as Smalltown (Dempsey, 1990) or Bradstow (Wild, 1974).

In fact, the transience is seen as contributing to the vibrant nature of the town. As one interviewee explained, "it is a small town with that small town feel about it but because of the flow of people in and out it is not as stagnant as other towns of its size. Everyone is from everywhere and you are encouraged to be an individual, almost not to conform, which is positive"(Jane, a woman in her twenties, working in hospitality, who has lived in Port Douglas for six months). I often heard residents repeat the homily, that it takes ten years to be a local in most towns, but you can be a local in less than six months in Port Douglas. As such, access to the collective identity as part of the community is far easier and quicker than in most rural towns (Maclean, 1997; Dempsey, 1990).

Despite the ambivalent realities (see section below), participants showed a fierce loyalty to the ideal of belonging and worked hard to maintain the narrative of community. I concluded that the sense of community was constructed and maintained through shared narratives and 'invented traditions' (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983). These may be community events that create an esprit de corps (Dempsey, 1990) or a commitment to a particular lifestyle. My analysis suggested that the narrative that sustains the collective identity for Port Douglas could be best described as 'anything goes'. In this way, the means by which participants sought to construct and maintain a narrative of community were different from strategies reported in other community studies.

This narrative of collective identity can be demonstrated through the description of a local festival. The Port Douglas Carnivale is held in May each year and was begun in 1994 as a celebration of the unique lifestyle of the town (PDMG 29/5/97). It consists of a street parade on the Friday night followed by a street party in which the main street is closed off to allow people to eat, drink and dance in the heart of the town. The following day consists of a sand modeling competition on the beach, a yacht race and mini-triathlon with a wine and food festival at night. The final day is based at the marina with a seafood festival followed by a rock concert at the sports oval. The emphasis of the Carnivale is on gourmet food, plenty of alcohol, dancing and socializing, indicating the links with the ludic festivals of excess in European history (Zukin, 1991).

The Carnivale demonstrates key elements of the Port Douglas lifestyle. Contrary to most rural Australian towns, identity is premised on consumption and residents adopt a lifestyle that involves being seen in the cafes, restaurants and nightclubs in the town. Sociability is stressed, with many residents (including those new to town) developing informal cliques/tribes centred on particular cafes, bars or workplaces. The lifestyle is relaxed, as reflected in a casual attitude to time, punctuality and dress. Indeed, a marker of an outsider is someone who is on time and/or smartly dressed. Thus, the Port Douglas narrative of community provides a sense of collective identity alongside a celebration of heterogeneity.

It is clear that participants 'owned' the notion of being members of a social collectivity, a marker of community (Black and Hughes, 2001). The active nature of the construction of community became increasingly clear to me during my fieldwork. This indicates how community can not be merely 'read off' from the physical setting, but involves symbolic work by the members. No doubt the transient population helped to highlight the ongoing work involved in maintaining social networks and an inclusive narrative of community. It was precisely the fragility of 'community' that emphasized the vital role of having some over-arching, binding sense of place, which newcomers could adopt and use to gain access to social networks.

My study indicates that participants want a sense of community, and they perceived that this was linked to the size of the town, its 'rural' character and their shared sense of place. However, their analyses were complex as many recognized the implied nostalgia in these accounts and pointed out that their sense of community was about a celebration of heterogeneity, contemporary lifestyles and difference from traditional rural towns. Their words highlighted how community was not static, but dynamic, something maintained by active symbolic work by community members.

The Ambivalent Experiences of Community

The symbolic narrative of community acts to maintain a sense of collective identity, which I found many people were searching for. However, it also acted to camouflage and detract attention away from the less positive aspects of living in the town. The ideal representation of community was not borne out in reality. In fact, critical analysis highlights the contradictory and contested nature of the Port Douglas community. The discursive work by residents in creating the ideal of community did not appear to be matched by practical collective action. In fact, the very components that are used to create a narrative of a collective identity actually contribute to the ambivalent experience of community.

The flip side of the hedonistic ethos in Port Douglas is the lack of commitment and social responsibility shown by residents. Despite the idea of community being attractive, there is very little practical demonstration of community building in terms of collective action for the collective good. Parallel to Richard's (1990) findings, Port Douglas residents are anxious for a youth club, as long as some one else runs it. A survey participant complained: "the trouble is that Port Douglas, is that people want things but expect some one else to do it for them…when people say this should be done, they should ask who is prepared to do it? " (survey participant 82, a self employed man in his fifties, who has lived in Port Douglas for ten years). Another gave an example of the high numbers of people who use the Surf Club for its subsidized training courses[9] but fail to provide any voluntary support in return.

Port Douglas has few voluntary organizations in comparison to other rural towns of its size (Dempsey, 1990; Williams, 1981). The few that exist all complain of falling voluntary membership. Participants highlighted community apathy when it comes to supporting sporting teams or fundraisers. In the words of one interviewee "I have lost count of the number of things that have started up only to fold again" (Jamie, a retired woman in her sixties who has lived in Port Douglas for 12 years). Sporting events are often cancelled or matches forfeited as the Port Douglas side is unable to field a full team (PDMG, 27/4/00).

Likewise, as the sense of community is intrinsically linked to the physical landscape for many participants, it follows that the increasing environmental pressures being created by a booming tourism industry must undermine the ideal image of a community in paradise. I found that 58% of survey participants agreed that tourism inevitably causes damage to the environment and almost all participants expressed the desire for environmental protection. Planning and growth management, and environmental protection and conservation, were the two highest items on the community needs assessment section of the survey, and both recorded higher average scores than a comparative state-wide survey. However, only three participants were members of local environmental organizations, dedicated to turning this expressed need into real local action.

Some participants attributed the lack of collective action to living in a tourism town. As Wilkinson notes "building a community takes considerable time and energy" (Wilkinson 1996: 22; see also Crow and Allan, 1994). Over half of participants who have not joined any formal voluntary organizations[10] explained it was due to a lack of time (see also Macbeth, 1997). There is a significant relationship between voluntary membership and shift work (SIG .005, Cramers V .298), with those working shifts least likely to take part in local organizations. Casual labour generally works erratic hours with ever changing rosters, which make a regular weekly commitment impossible. Furthermore, the female participation rate was 80%, paralleling Richard's finding that "community was run by women and now women are not there" (Richards, 1990: 234). Many participants believe that most residents do not have the time, energy or commitment required to create and maintain collective organizations.

I did find that a number of participants took part in informal social networks on a regular basis (such as barbecues, beach parties etc). These activities were spontaneous and seemed to provide an important social bonding function for the transient population who were not able to commit to formal organizations due to their short-term residence and demands of shift-work. While I argue that social networks can be created through these lifestyle-based gatherings, they lack the commitment to collective good that accompanies theories of social capital and voluntary organizations (Black and Hughes, 2001). It became clear through both participants' accounts and participant observation that active social networks did not mean mutual support or reciprocity. Instead, the informal social networking in Port Douglas is focussed on shared consumption and pleasure rather than notions of local citizenship, duty and obligation.

For some, the 'anything goes' lifestyle actually mitigates against lasting social bonds. As one participant explained "I have found it incredibly hard to make friends … unless you are loud, into alcohol and drugs and partying, it's a hard scene to break into" (Mary, a woman in her thirties who has lived in Port Douglas since a child). Another added that "the downside of being a party town is that for a lot of people that is all it is to them which means things are a bit superficial … friendship revolves around the social scene and being out drinking" (Megan, a woman in her twenties who has lived in Port Douglas for three years). Although participants came searching for authentic relationships, it appears that the celebrated hedonism of the town undermines the possibility of these connections, which take time, energy and commitment (Cox, 1995).

The transitory nature of social relationships in Port Douglas is a barrier to creating meaningful and long-lasting bonds (see also Thompson and Tambyah, 1999). Many networks created are better described as occupational cliques such as friends and flat mates who work together or parents with children at the same age and school. These networks tend to remain closed to others who do not share these same characteristics, which does not help create social capital, only club capital (Winter, 2000). As one local entrepreneur put it " most people in this town mix with each other for what they can get from each other and out of the town … We are the first to be called on for help but the last to be invited to functions" (Sophie, a woman in her fifties who has lived in Port Douglas for fifteen years).

During my fieldwork, there were examples of what Poiner (1990) calls communion, an intense emotional reaction to extreme events in which notions of duty and reciprocity are activated. These included fundraising for an injured resident, the funeral for a popular local character killed in an accident and the aftermath of Cyclone Rona. Whilst these were wonderful demonstrations of 'esprit de corps', they were notable because they were extraordinary, occasional and did not result in on-going supportive community action. Indeed, participants celebrated the sense of selflessness and social responsibility created by these events because these were novel emotions.

In this way, Port Douglas can be characterized as a 'community without obligation', a community in which the sense of belonging is only pursued so long as it does not compromise the individual's freedom to maintain their chosen lifestyle. This is close to Greer's (1987) 'community of limited liability'. Issues of reciprocity and duty are to be avoided as they may pose a threat to the individualist 'culture of contentment' (Paterson and Connery, 1997; MacCannell, 1992; Galbraith, 1992). The Port Douglas lifestyle revolves around privatized consumption and while this forms a symbolic narrative for an imagined collective identity, it also undermines collective social action.

For example, an interviewee suggested "the only thing most people in Port Douglas are committed to is making money" (Petra, a teacher in her sixties who has lived in Port Douglas for 14 years). Participants felt that the residents of the town were becoming more selfish with one arguing: "in the past people thought about their duties and obligations but now all people think about are their rights and privileges. Everyone seems to want something for nothing in our society"(Terry, a retired fisherman in his sixties who has lived in Port Douglas for thirty years). This is not surprising, given that participants admitted they were attracted to Port Douglas due to its economic opportunities and the 'anything goes' lifestyle.

Whilst the ideal of community highlights the inclusive nature of the town's social networks, participants are still subject to stratification through their differing access to material, social and cultural resources. Residents have to work hard to ensure they can participate in the lifestyle at the heart of the community narrative in Port Douglas. Both economic and cultural capital are required to eat out in the famous restaurants, partake in leisure activities such as sailing, scuba diving and sea fishing or enjoy the shopping facilities (see also Edwards, 1997). For those who work in order to play, the issue of having time to enjoy the 'leisured lifestyle' becomes equally important. In the words of one participant "I see a lot of people who came up here on holiday and stayed, thinking this is paradise, running into trouble. It is not easy to live here on a low income. Young couples really struggle on their wages and have no leisure time to enjoy the beach, or the weather or the place, they are always running from one job to another to childcare and back. It's not the same as being on holidays" (survey participant 55, a female voluntary worker in her forties who has lived in Port Douglas for twelve years).

Furthermore, analysis of the few examples of collective action highlighted the way those marginalized in terms of broader power relations e.g. class, race, age and gender were also marginalized within community activism (see also Maclean, 1997; Peel, 1995; Bell, 1993; Richards, 1990; Goudy, 1990; Cowlishaw, 1988; Wild, 1974).

The majority of community organizations and community action serves to protect the economic and cultural capital of the Port Douglas elite, rather than representing the diverse constituents as the myth of inclusiveness might suggest (see Sherlock, forthcoming). As Winter (2000) argues, community organizations do not always have positive outcomes for community development. Instead they can create 'dark side' outcomes based on 'club capital', which serves vested interests, rather than social capital for the whole community.

These reasons may explain why many participants believed the sense of community was under threat. Nearly a third (30%) of survey participants believed that whilst there is still some sense of community in town, it is becoming more divided and diminishing in strength. A further 16% felt there was no sense of community in town at all with four participants claiming they were leaving due to the diminished sense of community. The lack of community spirit was ranked second only to the cost of living by the focus group when assessing what they disliked about living in Port Douglas. This is quite startling given that most people tend to over emphasize the sense of community in these types of surveys (Dempsey, 1990).

Managing the Contradictions

Although they stressed their search for the positive aspects of community, many participants also highlighted the disjunction between the ideal and the actual, discussed above. My analysis suggests there are various strategies by which participants reconcile the difference between the ideal and actual experience of community in Port Douglas. These include individualizing negative experiences, compensatory mechanisms and the economic imperative to maintain the myth. I argue that all the strategies are effected by access to material and social resources.

The high level of people who leave the town, or are planning to leave, provides some explanation for how the ideal of community survives despite the disparity between it and many residents' actual experiences. Many of those who were frank about the problems they were facing were intending to move away. Capturing the paradox of community in Port Douglas, participant 74 explained how she was leaving because "Port Douglas is a small town but not a rural town. It is too isolated from the rest of Australia and lacks the facilities of a more urbanized area but it is too developed to have a rural lifestyle" (a self-employed woman in her thirties who has lived in the town for fourteen years). Simply, those who do not find that their expectations are met and those who are unable or unwilling to manage the tensions tend to leave again.

I found the majority who chose to stay in town had superior resources, which enabled them to cope with the individualism in the town. I found that 60% of survey participants in the lowest income quintile intended to leave, whilst 58% in the top quintile intended to stay. Likewise, wage earners were significantly more likely to be intending to leave than self employed (SIG .053, Cramers V .364). Often the 'stayers' had both financial and social resources, they were in the club as it were, so they benefited from the club capital developed through business networks in the town. Furthermore, their resources meant they had better access to the privatized lifestyles of consumption, around which the narrative of community is built.

There were other compensatory mechanisms. These included having strong family networks in the area, although only one or two participants fell into this category. Others were passionate about the natural environment and formed bonds with nature rather than people. Many of those working in ecotourism stated that they were prepared to put up with the disadvantages of living in Port Douglas in order to experience the reef or the rainforest on a daily basis. Others again were unusually self-contained individuals who enjoyed a relatively solitary lifestyle and the freedom that came with this community of no obligation. However, it is notable that these compensations are short-term and are unlikely to provide an adequate safety net if they get into emotional or financial difficulties.

Those expressing unhappiness with the realities of living in Port Douglas tend to be stigmatized for personal failings, rather than residents questioning the structural nature of these problems. This resonates with other studies, as the discourse of the rural idyll can silence concerns over deprivation and poverty (Bell and Newby, 1978; Newby, 1998; Alston, 1999). Many participants admitted to feeling isolated and without support networks, despite the ideals of community that they sought to find in Port Douglas. Their hardship is aggravated by a sense of relative deprivation due to their daily interaction with affluent tourists and wealthy residents (Moon, 1995; Alston, 1999).

Pearce et al (1996) suggest that discretionary migrants are trapped by their idealization of place, for they feel unable to admit that their choice of destination was unwise without shattering their dreams. Taking this further, I believe there is a connection between the way that participants blamed themselves for feeling lonely and unsupported and the desirable destination discourse promoted by the tourism industry. The notion of community is used to sell tourism, and visitors to the town continually praise the combination of natural beauty and unique culture. Residents both contribute to and reflect this marketing discourse, with participants who had very real material and social problems continuing to talk about living in paradise.

One of the motivations for maintaining the idealization of the Port Douglas community is the residents' dependence on a continued buoyant tourism sector for their economic wellbeing. This was expressed by many participants, including Patricia, who criticized other participants expressing dissatisfaction with their experiences, and said "People need to get happy … need to make an effort to be a good member of society and the community. You don't have to contribute a lot, you just have to be ready to smile and be a PR person for the town" (a self-employed woman in her forties). There is a plausible link between being an occupational community which relies on a positive destination image and the robust narrative of the idealized community.


This article highlights the continued relevance of the community study tradition. Firstly, my study illustrates how a sense of community can be constructed in a social setting that differs from the majority of previous community studies. It dispels the myths that equate a sense of community with long established, closed social networks, by indicating how participants were able to develop an idealized social construct which they called community despite living in a transient, dynamic and rapidly developing town. By virtue of using a setting very different from 'traditional' community studies, it illustrated the multiple sites and interpretations of community (Moody, 1997). Far from being an 'out-dated' concept, I believe my study has shown that the community ideal is a contemporary phenomenon.

Secondly, it has demonstrated support for the 'systematic' model of community. It is the relations of social bonding rather than just propinquity which create a sense of community. This sense of community is constructed through a shared narrative. The narrative of community acts as a tool for integrating transient individuals into a collective identity. These narratives depend on signifiers, such as lifestyle and festivals, to be sustained. Thus it moves the debate on from a functional or determinist perspective to an actor orientated perspective, highlighting the symbolic work undertaken by my participants to develop this ideal.

Thirdly, the study makes a case for moving the discussion of community on from the debate over the rural-urban continuum. Participants constructed a narrative of a tropical idyll, highlighting the unique character of a town neither typically urban nor typically rural. My analysis indicates how participants selectively used aspects of rural and urban discourses to characterize the town, and in turn, the collective identity that they constructed. The analytical interest in the connection between the spatial and the social needs to focus on how the spatial is used in social interaction, rather than merely describing the setting.

Fourthly, I indicate the disjunction between the narrative of idealized community and the actual experiences of being part of the community. Although the ideal of community is a strong reference point for residents, the reality of community is somewhat more ambivalent. The strong ideal model of community based on social bonds does not necessarily result in corresponding emotions of trust and reciprocity. Whilst there can be moments of 'communion' around issues, the support offered by these networks is temporary, spontaneous and short-lived. This suggests that community is a negotiated and inherently unreliable symbolic construct.

Fifthly, the study highlighted how the narratives of community serve to mask the less positive aspects of living in Port Douglas. In particular, these narratives hide the way in which some individuals are excluded by the boundary building nature of community in action. I found more evidence of 'club capital' than the more widely discussed (and beneficent) social capital. 'Vertical' or exclusionary stratification layers such as class, gender, status, age and sexuality have more power than 'horizontal' or inclusionary identities based a shared sense of place or collective sense of community. This reinforces the critiques of community narratives found in previous studies (Poiner, 1990; Maclean, 1997), and indicates how a community study perspective can illustrate the choices and constraints faced by socially embedded actors.

Sixthly, the study reiterated that the ability to contribute to or resist the dominant narrative, like all ideologies, is tempered by the individual's access to economic, social and symbolic capital. I also found that although the drawbacks to living in the town were freely expressed, these somehow were not able to deflate the ideal of living in a tropical paradise. Maintaining a positive narrative of community is the responsibility of all residents, and participants' whose individual experiences failed to live up to the ideal were stigmatized. Those who are unable or unwilling to manage this disjunction tend to leave town, leaving the hegemonic ideal unchallenged. It tended to be those with superior resources who were able to manage or compensate for the disjunction, indicating a connection between social and material structures.

Finally, my study indicates that community studies continue to have a normative content, but this adds to, rather than detracts from, the complexity of the analysis. Many participants showed a reflexive, ironic and self-aware understanding of the nostalgic and romantic overtones often accompanying their discussions of community. These were often manipulated in the construction of the ideal. However, these normative overtones also trapped many participants into individualizing their negative experiences and compounding their structural and social issues with a sense of personal inadequacy. Thus, far from being a somewhat irrelevant concept for understanding contemporary social relationships, as it is often portrayed in the literature (see Worsley, 1992), the symbolic construct of community had very real, often negative, outcomes for my participants.

Critics of community studies often argue that this disjunction between the ideal and the actual undermines the credibility of the analysis. However, I argue that it is the way that residents continue to contribute to this ideal notion of community, despite this obvious disjunction with reality, that is interesting. Furthermore, I concur with Taksa, who argues that "scholars have a duty to explore this obvious disjunction between the reality of community and the aspiration for close bonds which characterize the use of the term during times of political, social and economic fragmentation" (Taska 1994:25). Whether sociologists believe community to be positive with transformative potential or negatively imbued with nostalgic Fabian ideals (Kenny, 1994), it continues to be an important aspect of our social world and deserves our close attention.


1Goudy (1990) illustrates how the 'ecological' model of community continues to link settlement size and density of social relations to explain community attachment.

2While space does not permit me to expand on these issues, they are explored at length in Sherlock (2001).

3Having lived in the town for three years prior to starting the research, I had an overview of the varied biographies of my initial participants. I used these participants to suggest further participants, and reviewed my sample to check I had penetrated all the different social networks in the town.

4I retain the term post-fordist although Port Douglas was never 'fordist' as it is usefully captures the essence of changes brought about by the service economy (Allen, 1992).

5Names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of participants

6The sense of community was mentioned by nearly all participants, but for over one half of those surveyed, the economic opportunities offered by a resort town were seen as the most important.

7See http:\\ and http:\\ for examples of these images.


9Most deck hands have to have these first aid and lifesaving qualifications to get a job.

10Other reasons for not joining were 'No groups or societies representing my interests' (22%) and do not like formal groups (21%). Kunnan (2000) notes that 'lack of time' is a pervasive feature of contemporary life.


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