Szabó Béla, Cluj-Napoca (Romania)
In search of the community
It is very hard to talk about “a first time” when studying the issue of community. There have been studies which backdate the idea of community to the eras of Confucius via Ibn-Khaldun and St. Thomas Aquinas (1). We can still have some doubts about the scientific consistency in these times, but have to admit that community and community studies are not the invention of the 20th century. The founding fathers of sociology were those people who were particularly interested in academic discussions on community studies. Tocqueville, Comte, Tönnies, Le Play, Marx and Durkheim have referred to community as an institution which registered a collapse caused by industrial revolutions in Western-Europe and by the democratic-political revolutions in the US and France. Debates on community have been a very hot topic throughout the 20th century as well (here we must refer to Max Weber, Parsons and Nisbet as having made important contributions in the conceptualisation of the notion of community.
Starting as early as the sixties there have been serious debates around the definition of the notion of community and the placement of this concept among the topics of sociological research. As Ruth Glass stated, community was to be “the poor sociologist’s substitute for the novel” (2) (Glass, 1966). Very probably because of the very high levels of subjectivity it involves, and the impossibility of a clear and consistent definition, community and community development were the subject matter of serious conflicts throughout the 20th century.
However, despite this there is one thing that everyone can agree upon: and this is the positive ethical charge, community is considered to be a good thing. In academic (social and political sciences) circles as well as in the world of policy-makers community is correlated with positive aspects: cultural values and virtue, but at the same time as being one of the most elusive concepts.
Before talking about community development we should try to provide a theoretical insight into the definitions of a “community”. But do communities exist at all any more? It is often said that in the post-industrial society (or on the basis of this kind of cliché) the concept of a community has become irrelevant (but there are no substitutes as far as we know which can totally replace this concept).
So we must emphasize that community is considered by some scholars to be an unused concept which is not functional when researching into local society, and which should not and cannot be the object of study for social scientists. Even though they questioned the relevance of definitional consistency, some of these scholars have produced community studies, using community not as objects of survey but as a method.
We have to mention that over time both the American and European sociologists have used the concept of community in their field-research work and have made attempts to provide at least an overview of the different ways of defining the concept of community (must mention the classical effort of George A. Hillery in 1955 of inspecting ninety-four definitions of community). As in the seventies Colin Bell and Howard Newby have pointed out the only common things in all these definitions were the elements of ‘networking’ and ‘locality’ (3).
The two authors mention Tönnies as being the founding father of the theory of community. Written in 1887, his theory which deals with the dichotomy of Gemeinschaft- Gesellschaft, has been the starting-point for sociologists (and not only for sociologists) in their “search for community” ever since. His model based on this dichotomy of community and society is one of the most widely cited models used to describe the concept of community in modern societies. Even if his theory has lots of strengths and also weaknesses, one cannot doubt that there are still elements in today’s society which can be defined as belonging to the traditional community.
After providing these brief insights into the theoretical attempts of defining the community, we would like to briefly present a programme of community-development, carried out as a possibility to enforce non-traditional resources of local and regional development.
Even if community action and community-development has had many opponents among academics and policy-makers over time there have undoubtedly been examples where development of the local community has been positively influenced by outside actions. But what does community development actually mean? Roland L. Warren considers it to be a way of achieving purposeful social change, “a campaign strategy out of which a consensus strategy for decision-making is projected for the future” (4).
Community-actions which were meant to strengthen local initiatives were quite common in the modern societies of the Eastern and Central European countries. Especially in the second half of the 19th century, the appearance of modernity and as J. Habermas sees it the emergence of the public sphere and the strengthening of the civil society have characterised bourgeois society. We have to talk about this in the context of the case-study we are going to mention, community-development action took place in North-Western Transylvania which in the 19th century as a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had undergone this kind of modernisation process. These community actions by that time were mainly conducted by intellectuals who were far ahead their times and supported by the new class of bourgeoisie, and it was directed more towards the rural people, in this case we must mention the courses for farmers and housewives which were meant to modernise the way of farming and the way of life and little by little to change the traditional mentality.
The researchers mainly carried out two forms of analysis. The representatives of the first group emphasised the importance of the descriptive researches while the second group’s general objective was to actively make changes in the field after making an accurate map of the villages. The research was often based on some kind of ideology. The most important research was carried out by the monographical school from Bucharest and by the intellectuals from Cluj Napoca, whose target was mainly the countryside of Transylvania.
The research surveys were important – and all the parties agreed on this point – because the gap between the villages and the cities had increased in time. The scholars were looking for explanations of the discrepancies and for the factors which were responsible for the poorness of the villages. Confronting the works from the country with those made abroad we can conclude that the movement was actually launched in the western countries, and in their situation this has ended with a real rural development (social transformation, new buildings such as schools, cultural centers, hospitals etc.). By contrast, in the case of the scholars from Romania the main aim was to find solutions in terms of how to bring the villages closer to the cities, and how to create real leaders. The researchers form Transylvania admit that it is important to base the development process on the local resources. The importance of the findings are still relevant to this day.
The most impressive effect on the village-research work was demonstrated by Dimitrie Gusti (5). The monographical school from Bucharest is linked with his name and achieved real success, determining the shape of the following analyses. Gusti has analysed the villages as social units. His work consists of 500 village-monographies. His main objective was to get to know the villages, and in his last period of research he focused on society issues. His latest research work is often called action-research work. He was the one who implemented the monographical studies, which attracted a wide range of followers. The method of sociological monography developed by Gusti was also recognised on a theoretical level. In his opinion the phenomena need to be analysed in context, as their manifestations are not isolated from each other. In accordance with this concept he concluded that the geographical surroundings and the society unit (as we mentioned above, this is the village in Gusti’s way of thinking) are connected and both of them have an influence upon each other.
There have been cases in the 20th century when local priests or teachers have been the initiators of local community actions, and this is the case of a Unitarian priest Balázs Ferenc who has tried to reform the farming habits of the locals in the 1930’s in the villages of Mészkő (Cheia, in Transylvania, Romania). He did not stop the research only by describing the particularities of a certain village. He tried to make it better, to change the existing life-forms. In the economical analysis he emphasised the importance of individualisation, collaboration between the manufacturers and the identification of those possibilities whereby the grower-production can be increased. Balázs Ferenc put his suggestions into practice, being the first to contribute and to lead the villages through a developmental process. All that he made and organised in the villages can be considered to be community development, because he successfully merged the individual and community farming and management. Of course his activity was not only targeting the local economy, but also aimed to increase people’s knowledge and the amount of information at their disposal. He organised schools and carried out numerous presentations.
For the post communist Romania the word development became a fundamental concept in almost every public discussion. In this context discussions arose concerning local community development, and community development in general – this right in fact was a re-attained after a long period of time when the majority of the decisions regarding development were made at a central level and the feelings of belonging and responsibility were destroyed. After more than a decade of practicing democracy we can surprisingly observe that policies implemented in this sector did not reach their targets at a local level in the majority of cases. Generally this occurs in the case of communities from rural areas, without a clearly defined and general conception of the development.
Another aspect of the Romanian administrative life (and also the community development) after the ‘90s consists in broadening the project managements, and making it one of the main principles in the everyday life for the public administration and for the protagongists involved in the local development processes.
Applying the principles which represent the basis of the project management process in practice is quite difficult with the existing human resources available in the area of public administration in Romania. Although, in the last few years many universities created new specialisations concerning public administration with qualified staff and with competing curricula, the motivation of the public functionaries is low. This can be explained by their material situation (salaries in the public administration in general are low) and by the legislation concerning corruption (the public functionaries do not have the right to have extra income even when they are involved in projects with extra-budget funds).
This situation must be merged also with the weak development of other agents of development that existed at the community level in the rural areas. As the Rural Euro Barometer (2003) demonstated (implemented by the Gallup Organization requested by the Foundation for Open Society) only 7% of the rural area population has somebody from the family who is an associate in a private business or entrepreneurial enterprise. The same source indicates that at the level of the rural communities there are no other forms of organisation than the local administration, which is involved in solving the communities problems. 73% of the persons interviewed stress this fact.
Another strategy for purposeful social change was the help given to local organisations, to certain groups in order to organise cultural and artistic events and by this to stir the still water of the Transylvanian villages. We have to mention this even though these efforts seemed to die out after 19450 and were replaced by other actions which were imposed to the local people by the political power of that time and their main aim was to impose very strict control upon local community life.
After 1989 civil-society and the NGO’s tried to rebuild the sense of solidarity that had long since disappeared and community actions without - as we have mentioned above - too much help from the local and central authorities. In most of the times with external help, religious (and not only religious) associations undertook the task of rebuilding the social capital, the trust in each other and local society. We mention religion and the role of the Church as very important aspects in the traditional rural (and not only rural) communities as the polls and several surveys in Romania have demonstrated from 1989 onwards, that the institution of the Church had always been the institution that was most trusted by the people, having the highest amount of social capital and so community-actions involving NGO’s with religious affiliation achieved greater success, as the local people had more trust in them.
This is the case with the community-development action we would like to present it briefly as follows.
The programme of community development was carried out in the rural settlement of Mera, situated 14 kilometres north west of Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvar which is the most important economical and cultural centre of the region of Transylvania.
With a population of almost 1450 persons Mera can be considered a large rural settlement, now administratively belonging to the commune of Baciu/Kisbacs. It is part of the micro-region of Kalotaszeg (more specifically the so-called Cifrakalotaszeg), with impressive ethnographical and historical potential. Locals have been very successful in exploiting this potential to make embroidered and usually sell them to foreign tourists at a good price.
This and the traditional agriculture based on the raising of the oxen can be considered as elements of the village’s economic strengths.
Whilst referring to the cultural and ethnical specificity of the village we have to mention that the overwhelming majority of the population (around 90%) is Calvinist, and as is the case in the other rural communities in Romania, the institution of the Church is the most popular institution. During the last census in 2002 85% of the population was of Hungarian nationality. These two elements: the confessional and ethnical identity of the local population have played an important role alongside the community-development programme.
The two NGO’s which have played an important role (mainly they were the main protagonists amongst the “outsiders”) were both promoting the Christian values of the Reformed Church. The CRWRC and the Diakonia Christian Foundation have followed a “baby-steps” approach in terms of their involvement in the life of the local community.
Before we go into more detail about the CDP (community-development programme) we will make a short presentation of the Christian Foundation Diakonia, which has played the lions’s part during the performance of the CDP.
Whilst there was a greater emphasis upon the social and economical life of Romania in the last 5 years NGO’s and especially those which had a non-profit profile were not really supported in anyway by the state. Due to the fact that all the existing civil organisations (cultural and religious foundations, association, etc.) were prohibited after 1950, in the nineties the revived or newly founded NGO’s were considered to be a kind of competitive actor to the formal governmental pratogonists (the communist regime) and the ruling powers tried to marginalise them.
The Foundation of the Diakonia was founded (actually re-founded as it was operating between the two world wars) under the patronage of the Transylvanian Calvinist Church. Its main field of activity comprised the medical services and from the late nineties the field social services. We have to stress this because the first baby-step the Foundation took in Mera was the implementation of a family-doctor’s surgery in 1998. This had been a good starting-point in building up trust between the local population and the Diakonia as the social services and especially health-care services were quite poor. The medical profession had revealed the medical problems of the population and thus the social deficiencies of the locals and mainly with the collaboration of the local Calvinist Church and the priest and not so much with the assistance of the local government of Baciu/Kisbacs. This way the NGO could implement a program identifying the immediate needs and thus objectives which could contribute to the improvement of the social conditions of the local population, and especially some sections of the population which were more exposed to social exclusion, such as the children and the Romas.
With the help of the volunteers a survey has been carried out by the Diakonia Foundation in 2000 and the results demonstrated that a percentage of 3% of the local population is illiterate and 44.13% have very poor levels of literacy, 11.94% of the population lives in very poor social conditions and many children have a very bad social and family background (drinking problems, unemployment, etc.). More than 8% of the children under the age of 14 have never been to school. The results of the survey have shown that the majority of the children in need were Romas.
Another quite shocking finding was that there were a large number of of adults who did not have any ID cards and they could thus not benefit from any social services. One of the first steps was to establish a social service-office (with the help of the local authorities).
After this first evaluation step in 2001 a program has been launched where the children with a poor situation could benefit from the guidance of the trained school-trainers and a social-worker.
The after-school children-program which involves the participation of more than 20 children (mostly Romas) has provided the children the basic knowledge and help to ensure they are more successfully integrated within the society (Now the group has around 50 children). They had also benefited from a warm meal and clothes (donations from partnering institutions of the Diakonia). Besides the teaching of the basic norms of behavior they interiorise the Christian values, the local norms. This program was the first step only, as the Diakonia (and the CRWRC) has initiated lots of other specific activities in order to capture all the segments of the local society.
One of these was the organisation in 2002 of the Days of Mera Village, which was meant to enforce the local identity of the villagers. The event that is organised on an annual basis was a success and managed to attract all the people- by the year 2006 they had organized (in the last few years the locals have played a much more active part in the organization) the Days of the Village and it has also become an attraction also for tourists.
Figure nr. 1: Map of Mera
Another important community development project has been the construction of a so-called community house (in 2007 it will be finalised). We must outline the new projects which have started:
The enforcement of local identity can be seen through the placement of the new old wooden carved-gates which are part of the traditional architectural landscape and the folk-dance group’s activity has been much more intense since then.
The local community has become stronger and taken a few steps which proved they can organise themselves. After 10 years they have elected a new president for the RMDSZ (The Democratic Association of the Hungarians from Romania) and have formed a local foundation “Kankalin” (Primrose) which can better represent and promote the interests of the locals.
Two other projects are the Women’s Project (supported by the CWRWC and carried out by two skilled social-workers) which was launched in September 2006 and where all women were free to join and the other is the continuation of the football-team’s construction (it was one of the first measures taken by the Diakonia and the locals to diminish the social distance as Roma and Hungarian boys played together in this team and won the Kalota Football-Cup).
These measures have shown that the project of community-development proved to be a success and can be seen as an example for other community studies and other community development projects.
Colin Bell and Howard Newby, ‘Community studies’, Plymouth, Clarke,Doble & Brendon, 1975,p. 25.
Ruth Glass, ‘Conflict in Cities’, p.148 in Conflict in Society, London Churchill, 1966.
Roland L. Warren: Types of Purposive Social Change at the Community Level, in: Readings in Community Organization Practice, ed. By Ralph Kramer and Harry Specht, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1969. pp.134-150.
Csite Andras-Kovách Imre (1995) Posztszocialista átalakulás közép- és kelet-európa rurális társadalmaiban in Szociológiai Szemle, vol 2 pp. 49-72.
Glass, Ruth. “Conflict in Cities.” In Ciba Foundation (A. de Reuck and Julie Knight [eds.]), Conflict in Society. London.
Szabo Bela, PhD., works as university lecturer at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca and community care co-ordinator in Romania. Contact: email@example.com
Picture: www.pixelio.de (Photographer: Thommy Weiss)