The Collective Context of Individual Action
Moreover, these considerations of community remind us that, even though volunteers act as individuals, there is a larger collective context for their actions. For, much volunteering occurs in the context of groups, organizations, and movements that recruit, train, and place volunteers.
Further, in the context of these collective concerns, some volunteering is explicitly intragroup (helping other members of one’s own in-group, whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality) and other volunteering is intergroup (helping others who aren’t members of one’s own group). It turns out that volunteering within groups is facilitated by a sense of “we-ness” that is associated with empathizing with members of an in-group (who are, in some sense, extensions of one’s self) whereas such feelings of empathic “we-ness” do not seem to apply in helping across group lines (e.g., Stuermer, Snyder, & Omoto, 2005; Stuermer, Snyder, Kropp, & Siem, 2006).
This sense of “we-ness”—of sharing concerns with others, of psychological connection to one’s community, of acting together for the benefit of one’s community—need not be defined with regard to a specific place or geographic entity with clear physical boundaries (a neighborhood, a town, a city). But, instead, it can be a community in a psychological sense of belonging to and connecting with a broad and diverse community of people with shared concerns, whether or not they live in the same geographical area or even interact with each other. In this sense, community includes more people than one personally knows or even possibly can know—a community defined by the feelings of connection, attachment, identification, and esteem that one derives from it. For further discussion of psychological sense of community and its involvement in social action, see Omoto and Snyder (2002).
In recent and ongoing research, Omoto and Snyder (2009) are working to develop reliable and valid measures of variation in this psychological sense of community and to actually create it through systematic
interventions implemented in the context of a series of workshops led by trained facilitators. Thus, we have incorporated both the intervention and the measure of community in a large-scale field experiment that we have conducted with some 600 participants recruited through community-based AIDS service organizations in California and Minnesota. Our findings indicate that psychological sense of community, whether created by our interventions or measured with our inventory, has clear consequences for individuals and potential benefits for society. For individuals, psychological sense of community had positive health consequences, including reports of decreased likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior and greater likelihood of engaging in HIV preventing behaviors (for oneself and for others). Moreover, of potential benefit to society, psychological sense of community resulted in increased intentions to become involved in one’s community by giving money and goods to charity, joining community groups, and participating in social activism.
More generally, sense of community manifests itself in diverse forms of action. People with a strong sense of community are likely to be active in their neighborhoods by, among other things, engaging in neighboring behaviors such as lending their neighbors food or tools (e.g., Kingston, Mitchell, Forin, & Stevenson, 1999), participating in community organizations (e.g., Wandersman, Florin, Friedmann, & Mier, 1987), and engaging in political activities (e.g., Davidson & Cotter, 1989). In a larger sense, it would seem that one consequence of the interplay between the sense of community connection and social action may be the creation of a culture of service, participation, and involvement in civil society.