Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Graham Crow (2002) 'Community Studies: Fifty Years of Theorization'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 3, <>

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Received: 30/9/2002      Accepted: 30/9/2002      Published: 22/10/2002


This paper reviews the ways in which sociologists in the second half of the twentieth century attempted to make sense of the major trends unfolding in their societies. It focuses in particular on the way in which sociologists have responded to the legacy of the founding figures in terms of their identification of trends such as rationalization, bureaucratization, and proletarianization. The proliferation of other trends captured by words ending with the suffix -ization (for example globalization, McDonaldization, and postmodernization) is noted, and the argument is developed that this style of theorising is valuable but problematic. It is valuable because it encourages sociologists to think comparatively, given that the trends identified necessarily have reference points in the past and that their uneven progress in different societies (or other social units) can be compared. It is problematic because there is no agreement on what constitutes evidence that these processes are unfolding, nor on the need for such evidence. A further problem relates to the issue of how these processes are considered to relate to each other. Research undertaken in the field of community in Britain and beyond over the period 1950-2000 is drawn upon to illustrate these points and to support the argument that concepts drawn from theorization at a general level are essential tools in the analysis of contemporary trends. It is also used to support the related argument that such theorization needs to be grounded in empirical evidence if it is to go beyond mere speculation.

community studies, social change, globalization, theorization


The effort to understand social change perennially leads social scientists to engage with theories pitched at a general level and framed in terms of trends captured by words ending with the suffix 'ization'. Alongside the burgeoning literature on globalization, on which subject there were already by the mid-1990's over 100 books being published per year (Urry, 2002), it is possible to identify several similar developments in the analysis of contemporary social change. Democratization, individualization, McDonaldization and postmodernization are among a number of concepts that have been discussed extensively in a range of debates. The canon of ideas put forward to make sense of the contemporary world extends to more esoteric notions such as 'housewifization' (Mies, 1994) and 'sentimentalisation' (Anderson and Mullen (eds) 1998), to cite just two examples from a potentially much more extensive list. Such theorizing is a response to and a development of the legacy of the founding figures of sociology like Marx, Weber and Durkheim in whose writings the identification of trends such as proletarianization, rationalization, and secularization featured prominently.

The last fifty years have seen both continuity and change in terms of this type of theorization. Early on in the period it was possible for Stein (1964: v), drawing on the findings of a variety of community studies, to highlight the importance of three 'large-scale social processes' that had had particularly profound effects on American social life in the first half of the twentieth century: urbanization, industrialization and bureaucratization. These processes were seen by Stein to herald nothing less than The Eclipse of Community, as the widely-discussed era of 'mass society' was ushered in. He went on to argue that other developments were unfolding, such as the trend towards suburbanization, which warranted equally close attention. Research such as Seeley et al's (1956) pioneering community study, Crestwood Heights, indicated that suburbanization was an emergent trend with potentially profound social implications. On the basis that Seeley et al's empirical findings on suburban Toronto were suggestive of a new pattern of social relationships distinct from that captured in the urban sociology of the time, Stein proposed that 'more studies like Crestwood Heights are indispensable' (Stein 1964: 275) to further improvements in theorizing social change. Just as earlier generations of community studies had charted the arrival of urban, industrial and bureaucratic patterns of social life, so new studies had the potential to help in the identification of the nascent trends by which these patterns would be superseded.

Empirical investigations of community have continued to be indispensable to the critical evaluation, modification and development of broad theories of social change. This is not least because community studies have the capacity, as Seeley and his co-authors put it, 'to pin down in time and space' (1956: 3) the nature of contemporary social life and thereby to place it in context. By grounding the analysis of social relationships in this way, community studies can reveal the local expression of macro-social forces and their impact on ordinary people's everyday activities as they are lived out in the locality. As a result of these reports into the changing nature of local social life, the emphasis on urbanization, industrialization and bureaucratization to which Stein gave such prominence has given way to alternative accounts that suggest that social development has followed a quite different course. The theme of much of the research in more recent decades has been de-industrialization rather than industrialization (Pahl 1984; Harris 1987), for example, and counterurbanization rather than urbanization (Bell 1994). A further difference is that change has come to be understood as a much messier, more contradictory and more open process than it was made to appear in the functionalist heyday of mid-century when the notion of stages of modernization prevailed and gave little acknowledgement of the scope that exists for human agency to influence the course of social development (Crow, 1997). Community studies have proved to be instructive as testing grounds for general theories of social change and have fed back into the process of theorization in ways that Stein could not have predicted but would nevertheless have welcomed.

Fifty years of Community Studies

It is well-known that community studies have had numerous critics as well as passionate advocates. Mills's criticism that 'the endless "community studies" of the sociologists often read like badly written novels' (Mills 1959:358) was aimed not only at the style in which they were written but also at their perceived failure to contribute much of substance to sociological thinking beyond an abundance of descriptive empirical data. Similar thinking lay behind Bierstedt's view, expressed in 1949, that 'We do not need another Middletown' (Bierstedt 1977: 51), the implication of which was that everything that community studies had to offer had already been said by the Lynd (1929, 1937) in their two studies of Muncie, Indiana in which the town had been given that pseudonym. For Bierstedt, further studies of the uniqueness of local social life promised only diminishing returns, and it was on these grounds that he challenged the claim that community studies represented 'sociological research par excellence' (1977: 51). These criticisms were echoed outside of North America by writers such as Glass (1966), whose suggestion that community studies were poorly researched and insufficiently theorised played a significant part in steering a generation of British sociologists away from adopting this approach. The genre has survived this critique, although the reassertion of the value of community studies has involved proponents in far more explicit discussion of the integral role of theorization in their work and the active contribution of the researcher to that theorization (Harper 1992).

Community research in the UK in the period since 1950 can be divided very roughly into three phases: the 1950's and 1960's which were dominated by 'traditional' community studies, the 1970's during which this approach went out of fashion and was replaced by a style of theorizing that attached less value to detailed empirical research, and a phase of 'rejuvenation' (to use Bulmer's [1985] term) in the 1980's and 1990's in which studies informed by a diverse array of theoretical perspectives and a renewed concern to engage creatively with empirical data made their mark (Crow and Allan 1994:13-18). 'Traditional' community studies typically devoted more attention to the description of everyday life than to its explanation in terms of abstract theoretical ideas, although they were guided by implicit structural-functionalist assumptions about the interconnectedness of the various elements that contributed to the reproduction of community life. The desire of researchers to explore these interconnections committed them to the investigation of family, kinship, work, leisure, politics, religion and other aspects of local social life as a complex whole that required an extensive involvement that was demanding in terms of time and resources, as well as being questionable in terms of feasibility. More damaging still was the criticism that community studies produced work that was predominantly descriptive in character. Kent attributes the declining popularity of community studies in the 1960's to their tendency to derive generalizations 'inductively.... on a low level of abstraction and specific to the community concerned' (Kent 1981: 137). The failure to engage more explicitly with theoretical debates reinforced the sense that any conclusions drawn were the impressionistic invention of the researchers. It was only later, when more explicit and imaginative engagement with theories of social change became more prominent among community studies, that the renaissance of the approach could occur.

There are some notable exceptions to this broad chronology. Not everyone writing community studies in the decades following the second world war followed the norms of the 'traditional' approach, and some directly challenged the ideas that were implicit in the prevailing thinking of the time. Elias and Scotson's (1965) The Established and the Outsiders stands out in this respect, being (amongst other things) an illustration of the analytical power of the conceptual framework contained in Elias's work on the civilizing process. What Elias calls the 'defunctionalization of communities' (Elias 1974: xxix), the process whereby individuals become less completely dependent upon their local social networks, is shown in this study to be quite compatible with the continuing existence of local social exclusivity. It would be equally inappropriate to treat Rex and Moore's (1967) Race, Community and Conflict as a traditional community study, anticipating as it does many of the themes later to be explored through the idea of 'racialization' in its questioning of the assumption that people who live in the same locality necessarily constitute a community. The two Banbury studies (Stacey 1960; Stacey et al 1975) can in a similar way be seen to anticipate much of what is contained in the idea of 'de-traditionalization' (Heelas et al, 1996). Nor was Power, Persistence and Change the only community study to come out during the apparently 'dead period' of the 1970's. Burton's (1978) The Politics of Legitimacy investigated the polarization of Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast against the background of Nothern Ireland's militarization, while Pryce's (1979) Endless Pressure explored the ways in which the racism confronting Bristol's West Indian community came to be institutionalized, to mention just two other publications that went against the grain during that decade. This was also the period when the research was being conducted for the studies that would contribute to the 'rejuvenation' of the field in the 1980's.

The fieldwork for Pahl's (1984) Divisions of Labour commenced in the 1970's, and was undertaken in part as a reaction to what he referred to as 'the fashion of the times... for higher-level theorizing' (1984: 3) that tended to by-pass the collection of empirical data. At the same time as Pahl's work on de-industrialization and social polarization was underway, Giarchi was preparing his account of Dunoon's militarization that was to be published, also in 1984, as Between McAlpine and Polaris. A further study to come out in that year was Cornwell's Hard-Earned Lives in which she developed the analysis of medicalization through the investigation of the place of health and illness in the everyday lives of her East London respondents. The rejuvenation of community studies in the 1980's included other studies that also took as their starting point Moore's premise that 'Sociological theory may be abstract but its consequences are not' (Moore 1982: 5), a theme developed in his analysis of North Sea oil exploitation that anticipated much of what has been said subsequently about the local impact of globalization. The potential of community studies to shed light on the nature of broad social processes by exploring their local manifestation was also drawn upon in numerous other studies in the 1980's, including Harris's (1987) Redundancy and Recession in South Wales and Coffield and his colleagues' (1986) Growing Up At The Margins, both of which took as their focus the local impact of de-industrialization. This focus continued to be the subject of studies published in the 1990's such as Warwick and Littlejohn's (1992) Coal, Capital and Culture, Wight's (1993) Workers not Wasters and Roberts's (1993) Craft, Class and Control, but this decade also saw engagement with other theories. For example, Devine's (1992) Affluent Workers Revisited offered an assessment of change understood in terms of the concept of privatization, while globalization provided the backdrop for Foster's (1999) Docklands and for the reassessments of 'community' by the contributors to Eade's (1997) Living the Global City. O'Reilly's (2000) The British on the Costa del Sol develops the point about the global reconstitution of 'community' in another context and in doing so casts doubt on attempts to understand this trend as one of 'ghettoization'.

The last 50 years in the field of British community studies have thus indeed been 'a sociological Odyssey' in the sense of a long, adventurous journey. The same can be said of developments in other countries, where community studies researchers have responded to criticisms of the genre in a similar fashion, reassessing both the methods employed and the theoretical foundations to reassert the value of the approach for sociology and its neighbouring disciplines. The chronology has not been identical in other parts of the world, but the progressive and increasingly critical engagement with broad theories of social change by community studies researchers can be identified as a general pattern (Crow 2000). In Australia, for example, the 1970's was far from being a dead period in that community studies of enduring significance continued to be produced (Wild, 1981: ch.6), and the tradition of community studies has continued to thrive in more recent decades, exemplified in Dempsey's (1990, 1992) Smalltown and A Man's Town in which one of the social processes explored is women's 'inferiorization'. Also in Australia, Richards's (1990) Nobody's Home and Bryson and Winter's (1999) Social Change, Suburban Lives both focus on the contemporary meaning of suburbanization, albeit that the former study was undertaken in a more affluent part of Melbourne than the latter. Suburbanization has also been the subject of studies elsewhere, such as Baumgartner's (1988) The Moral Order of a Suburb conducted in New York and Melko et al's (1994) Millfield on Saturday set in the Midwest, continuing in the tradition of Seeley et al's (1956) Crestwood Heights, Gans's (1967) The Levittowners and Berger's (1968) Working-class Suburb.

Also in the USA, Pappas's (1989) The Magic City explores the meaning of privatization in the context of unemployment, while Harper's (1987) Working Knowledge uses photography to convey how a marginal rural area and its people come to be 'nonstandard'. Across the St Lawrence River in Canada, Rayside's (1991) A Small Town in Modern Times charts how broad patterns of social change are producing the fragmentation of local social relationships. Canada is also the location of Porter's (1993) Place and Persistence in the Lives of Newfoundland Women in which she finds conventional theories of proletarianization wanting because of their oversights relating to the multi-faceted nature of women's work. Historical sociological research into community relationships has also enjoyed a revival of interest in recent decades, as Hall (1990) notes in the course of reporting on his New Zealand research, a point nicely illustrated in studies like Williams's (1991) The Welsh in Patagonia, Porteus's (1989) Planned to Death, Lummis's (1985) Occupation and Society and Clark's (1982) Between Pulpit and Pew. These and numerous other studies support Hall's contention that the community studies approach 'has re-emerged out of seeming oblivion with a vitality that belies the earlier criticisms levelled at it' (1990: 101). Hall goes on to argue that this outcome arises out of the preparedness of researchers to engage with mainstream theoretical issues and thereby to go beyond purely local concerns, and the rest of this chapter is concerned with the place of community studies in the theorization of change.

Community Studies and the Theorization of Change

The contribution made to the rejuvenation of community studies by the greater preparedness of researchers in the field to engage with theories of social change has a number of dimensions to it. First of all, there is the (essentially negative) point that theories of social change that are not grounded in empirical research are open to the charge of being speculative. Marshall's epithet 'data-free sociology' (Marshall 1997: 16) may reasonably be applied to Beck's writing on individualization in which he advances little in the way of systematic evidence to support the claim that 'traditional forms of community beyond the family are beginning to disappear' (Beck 1992: 97). It is equally applicable to his related claim that globalization 'may also lead to the destruction of local communities' (2000: 50). Such pronouncements are generally at odds with the evidence that is available through community studies that show the continued importance of place-based solidarities built around the idea of 'community'. Where general theories of change are framed in terms of understanding the past as 'traditional' they are in addition guilty of vagueness about the specification of the benchmarks employed to compare former arrangements with the present (Crow, 2002). Community research has been prompted in part by the perceived deficiencies of such 'data-free sociology'.

The contribution of community studies to the theorization of social change is not only a matter of the benefits of an empirically informed approach compared to the shortcomings of analyses that remain at the level of theory, important though this feature is. A second point is that community studies have the potential to act as testing grounds for general theories of social change, allowing researchers to explore what processes like globalization and de-industrialization actually mean for the everyday lives of ordinary people at a local level and to reflect on these theories in the light of findings that turn out to be at variance with the expectations derived from them. This was the case for example in Pahl's (1984) study of Sheppey's informal economy which by no means resembled the predicted effects of de-industrialization. Harris's (1987) discovery that workers were far less likely than he had expected to be geographically mobile following redundancy provides another illustration of the potential of community studies to flag up areas in which theory and evidence are at variance, and of how better understandings of the social world emerge as a result. The expectations about the caring capacity of working-class communities on the basis of which St Leger and Gillespie's (1991) Informal Welfare in Belfast was researched were also not confirmed unproblematically, and the capacity of the community study method to throw up 'serendipitous findings' (1991: 163) proved a valuable complement to the testing of particular hypotheses. In the very different setting of post-revolutionary Romania, Kideckel's (1993) The Solitude of Collectivism dispels the notion that the process of decollectivization could be either straightforward or even, and the study goes on to draw conclusions about individualization and civil society that contribute to the debate on post-communism more generally. The echoes of Kotkin's (1992) account of de-Stalinization in the Soviet town of Magnitogorsk confirm the potential of community studies to capture the everyday meaning of social changes taking place on a grand scale.

The findings of community studies have encouraged the rethinking of general theories of social change in a number of cases, and in the process have challenged the perception of social change as something brought about by deterministic forces. Cornwell's Hard-Earned Lives contested the theory of medicalization by arguing that people 'are not fatalistic, passive, or ignorant, nor are they dependent on medicine in the way some structuralists and radical accounts imply'; for Cornwell, people are not 'passive and dependent' (Cornwell 1984: 21, 204) in the face of medicalization, which should not be understood as an irresistible force. A similar argument underpins Hayter and Harvey's (1993) The Factory and the City which charts the active responses of Cowley's car workers and their supporters in the surrounding community to the pressures for industrial restructuring in the context of globalization. Pappas's account of the Ohio town of Barbertown likewise challenges the conventional wisdom that economic insecurity generates a retreat from collective action, as if privatisation were 'an autonomous force in society, an abstract historical process'. Rather, Pappas argues, 'people function not as automatons playing out a script but as knowledgeable actors' (Pappas 1989: 179, 128) whose knowledge of local conditions provides them with a resource upon which they can draw to regain a degree of control over their lives in the context of economic restructuring. A fourth example of a community study challenging deterministic conceptions of social change is Young and Schuller's account of how the loss of the routine of the working day that comes with retirement need not condemn people to involuntary marginalization, since many of their respondents 'had been able to use their freedom to good effect' (1991: 125).

It may be possible to identify something of a sea change here in that the prevailing mood of regarding large-scale social processes as unstoppable is far more likely to be contested now than it was fifty years ago. There was, for example, a strong vein of fatalism in Rees's analysis of change in the Welsh countryside, captured in his suggestion that 'pre-industrial standards are... being rapidly replaced by modern ones' (Rees 1950: 145). Williams's (1956) account of Cumbria from the same period also treats traditions as doomed in the face of the urban, industrial onslaught, as does Brody's (1973) portrayal of the 'demoralization' of rural Irish communities. This sense of fatalism is not confined to isolated rural community studies. It is there too in Homans's (1951: ch.XIII) analysis of Hilltown's subjection to external forces, and in Vidich and Bensman's (1968) Small Town in Mass Society, although in this latter case it is qualified by the authors' suggestion that the inhabitants of Springdale engaged in 'self-deception' in order to avoid having to face up to the facts of their situation in which their values had come to be 'at odds with the institutional realities of their community' (1968: 320).

The observation made by Abrams that the sociology of community has been characterised by 'a body of theory which constantly predicts the collapse of community and... a body of empirical studies which finds community alive and well' (Abrams 1984: 16) registered a growing dissatisfaction with the 'loss of community' perspective and its theoretical underpinning by functionalist ideas of social systems over which individuals had little control. As a result, the idea of resistance to large-scale social forces representing a futile effort is more contentious for the current generation of sociologists than it was for their forebears in the 1950's. It can be argued that it is precisely because people do not regard globalization as unstoppable that they were prepared to contest the vision of the redevelopment of Docklands that powerful groups sought to impose, as Foster suggests by saying that 'Individuals are important in making and shaping processes' (Foster 1999: 344, emphasis in original). This is the message of other studies too, for example Finnegan's (1989) The Hidden Musicians in which the focus is very much on people's 'shared and purposive collective actions' (1989: 305, emphasis in original) that do not fit neatly with the social structures that surround them. The same point underpins Thompson's observation that the people of Shetland 'live as if they have real choices to make' (Thompson 1983: 308) and are in control of their destiny.

The use of community studies research to contest the notion of general patterns of social change as unstoppable forces is rooted not only in the propensity of community studies to throw up unexpected findings and their capacity to reveal the scope for agency; it is also a reflection of the contribution to comparative analysis that they have the potential to make. There are two dimensions to this, relating to comparisons across space and comparisons across time. Studies drawing comparatively on research conducted in two or more locations help to make the point that processes like de-industrialization do not unfold in a uniform fashion (Warwick and Littlejohn 1992). St Leger and Gillespie's (1991) research into the changing context of care serves a comparable purpose, just as Abrams's (Bulmer 1986) multi-location study of neighbouring did. Community studies also have the potential to facilitate comparisons across time, both by the inclusion in studies of historical background (as, for example, Foster (1999) and Pahl (1984) do) and through the opportunity that they afford for re-studies. Stacey and her colleagues' re-study of Banbury was undertaken in part because of 'the opportunity of testing the predictions of the first study' (Stacey et al. 1975: 4) that it offered, and the more general expectation that local social systems had been undergoing transformation in the period since the first study. A similar rationale underpins Bryson and Winter's (1999) restudy of the Melbourne suburb of 'Newtown' after a gap of a quarter of a century.

Re-studies that involve a complete change of personnel, such as those by Devine (1992) and Warwick and Littlejohn (1992), offer a somewhat different perspective to those where there is more continuity in the research teams involved, but they have just as much scope to shed light on how trends unfold over varying periods of time. In the extreme, the town of Muncie, or 'Middletown', has been re-studied not only by the original researchers (Lynd and Lynd 1937) but also by a succession of others right down to the present (Caccamo 2000). As befits a study that has been described as 'for the sociologist of the community what Durkheim's Suicide is for sociology as a whole' (Bell and Newby 1971: 82), the original Middletown 'became a sociological reference point' to such an extent that it has even become possible to speak of 'the science of Muncieology' (Vidich 2000: ix). The closest equivalent to this in the UK would be the East End of London where the various studies arising out of the Institute of Community Studies (Willmott 1985) have provided a point of reference for much subsequent research, such as that by Cornwell (1984), Holme (1985), Foster (1999) and Phillipson et al. (2000).


Community research over the last fifty years has involved a considerable amount of revisiting, sometimes literally involving the original fieldwork sites, and sometimes involving the original themes of an earlier piece of research. An example of the latter is provided by Albrow, whose critical engagement with mainstream community studies includes the observation about The Established and the Outsiders that 'Elias and Scotson's work now appears as a prescient forerunner of globalization research' (Albrow 1997: 42). The same claim is made about Vidich and Bensman's Small Town in Mass Society by Hughey (2000) in his foreword to the latest edition of that study, published over four decades on from the original. There is also a contemporary ring to Rosser and Harris's (1965) The Family and Social Change in which the contrast between 'the cohesive society' and 'the mobile society' (1965: 299) repays re-reading in the context of more recent discussions of individualization. The same point may be made about Frankenberg's (1969) Communities in Britain in which 'individuation' and 'uncertainty' are discussed. The familiar accusation levelled against community studies of the early post-war decades was that their functionalist assumptions led to the neglect of the dynamics of change, but a re-reading of studies like Dennis and his colleagues' (1969) Coal Is Our Life reveals a different picture, as Warwick and Littlejohn's re-study shows, not least because of the distinction that it develops between centrifugal and centripetal forces (Crow and Allan 1995). Coal Is Our Life also provided 'a point of departure' (Williams 1981: 10) for Williams's Open Cut and the discussion there of proletarianization and its impact on gender relations.

The frequent revisiting that has characterised community sociology over the last 50 years I have suggested above can be accounted for by a number of factors. The first of these related to the way in which community research has the potential to 'ground' what otherwise, in the absence of empirical evidence, might remain elusive and speculative ideas. This connects to the second point that community studies have a solid track record as testing grounds for general theories of social change, in which there is the potential to confound expectations and force the re-thinking of those theories. Thirdly, community studies have the capacity to show that social change does not unfold in the deterministic fashion in which abstract theories like those of industrialization, medicalization and globalization are open to being read. The capacity of community studies to reveal the active engagement of individuals and groups in the re-making of their social worlds is also a product of the comparative dimension of this type of research. Comparison with earlier studies may also shed light on contemporary debates, in the way that Albrow argues that Elias and Scotson's study can contribute to debates of globalization even though that particular term is of more recent provenance. On this basis we might usefully look again at Birch's (1959) Small Town Politics in the context of current debates on democratisation and on globalization, the two Banbury studies (Stacey 1960; Stacey et al. 1975) in the context of current debates on de-traditionalization, and Seeley et al.'s (1956) Crestwood Heights and Jahoda et al.'s (1972) Marienthal in the context of current debates on routinization. We might also look again at Stein's (1964) The Eclipse of Community with a view to asking what has changed to displace his big three ideas, urbanization, industrialization and bureaucratization, from their former pre-eminent position.

The purpose of proposing such a journey is not to suggest that there is nothing new to be discovered. The revisiting that has taken place has often been critical both of what was said in previous research and of what was overlooked. This is rightly so, but there is more to revisiting than this. It is, as Cornwell has observed, 'not novel to criticize Young and Willmott for romanticizing Bethnal Green' (1984: 44). The more positive purpose of continuing to revisit is that the community study method promises to ground the analysis, and to do so, moreover, in away that attempts to discover the interconnected nature of the various social forces at work. Community studies are holistic, and by this token are able to engage with several big ideas at once. Foster's (1999) Docklands study engages not only with the globalization debate but also has things to contribute to debates on de-industrialization, democratisation and racialization (albeit that these latter are not referred to explicitly in these terms), just as Warwick and Littlejohn's (1992) Coal, Capital and Culture has things to say about social polarization, localization, privatization and feminization, amongst other things. In doing so they direct attention to the more general role played by research in the community studies tradition that has constituted an important part of the sociological Odyssey on which we continue to be embarked.


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