Community as "Interaction"

The interactional perspective emphasizes the central roles that local interaction and capacity play in the emergence of community among people who share a common territory. Included in this common territory are the often shared common histories, traditions, and cultures unique to the place. From this perspective, community is best thought of as a dynamic process. It represents a complex social, economic, and psychological entity reflective of a place, its people, and their myriad relationships (Bridger et al., 2003, 2009; Kaufman, 1959; Wilkinson, 1991). As a field of social interactions, community emerges from the collective actions of its diverse members. This collective capacity allows citizens to participate purposively in the creation, articulation, and maintenance of efforts designed to support and/or change social structures. Included are activities designed to promote, retain, and preserve local cultures.

What is unique about the interactional approach is its emphasis on the emergence of community. Unlike other theories of community organization (structuralism, social systems theory, social capital), community is not taken as a given. Instead, it is developed, created, and re-created through social interaction (Bridger et ah, 2009; Wilkinson, 1991). In this process, the collection of diverse individuals creates an entity whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. In the context of culture and cultural preservation, the interaction across age ranges is essential to local development and well-being. In all localities, there are groups of people that are organized around various interests and goals. Instead of describing these entities as well-defined systems or subsystems, they are viewed as relatively unbounded fields of interaction from an interactional perspective. Examples of such social fields include local groups exclusively addressing issues such as education, economic development, social services, health care, and recreation. Social fields can also be reflective of other types of groupings that represent age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other personal characteristics.

For community to emerge within a local society there must be a mechanism or process capable of connecting the acts occurring in the special interest fields into a cohesive whole. This is accomplished by the development of the broader community field. Like other social fields, the community field is made up of actors, agencies, and associations. However, unlike these more narrow fields, the community field does not pursue a single set of interests. Instead, it creates linkages and channels of communication between and among the actions and interests of other social fields (Wilkinson, 1991).

The community field cuts across organized groups and integrates these other fields into a generalized whole. This is accomplished by creating and maintaining linkages among fields that otherwise would not interact and would generally be focused on more individual interests. Through this process of interaction, an awareness of common interests emerges, as do opportunities for involvement in activities for meeting common needs. In the course of this process, the community field creates a larger whole—one that is unbounded, dynamic, and emergent. As it builds linkages across class, race, and ethnic lines; organized groups and associations; and other entities within a local population, the community field provides the interactional context supportive of individual and social well-being (Bridger & Alter, 2008). As these relationships are strengthened, they simultaneously increase local capacity to address the many problems and issues that inevitably cut across special-interest fields.

As the community field arises out of the purposive interaction among various special interest fields in a locality, it in turn influences those special interest fields and asserts the wider community interest within local social activity (Wilkinson, 1991). Because the community field plays such an important role in fostering general well-being, it is the primary focus of community development efforts. In short, the main goal of development is to strengthen and institutionalize the community field by finding points of intersection between and among other social fields. This includes the establishment and maintenance of communication channels and other efforts cutting across typically diverse social and community divides.

As the various social fields adapt to and act in response to a constantly changing environment, groups and organizations take on the quality of “agency,” which reflects not only the motives of people to act, but also their capability to do so (Brennan, 2007; Lulo & Swanson, 1995; Wilkinson, 1991). This adaptive capacity is reflected in the ability of people to manage, utilize, and enhance those resources available to them in addressing local issues (Brennan & Lulo, 2007; Bridger & Lulo, 1999; Wilkinson, 1991). Community agency reflects the creation of local relationships capable of increasing the adaptive capacity of people within a common territory. The key component to this process is found in the creation and maintenance of linkages and channels of interaction across local social fields that otherwise are directed toward more limited interests (Brennan et al., 2009; Lulo & Bridger, 2003; Theodori, 2005).

When considering cultural preservation and intergenerational development, the ability to establish communication and interaction between young people and older members of the community can directly shape the preservation of cultures, while contributing to individual and community well-being. Activities focusing on traditional music, storytelling, and other related activities would be seen as excellent venues for interaction and communication.

 
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