What is community?

Robert Coates (Wageningen University)

Community-based approaches are now a fundamental pillar of disaster risk reduction and response. This was made explicit in the Hyogo Framework (2005-15), which directed global policies and initiatives with the by-line: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. Vulnerability and resilience work is now increasingly measured and perceived according to more or less-cohesive communities and social support networks.

Yet it is not so clear what a ‘community’ really means. Are communities the close, cohesive units they are imagined to be, and does this even matter for disaster professionals? Rather than to assume that the community in question presents the same characteristics and motivations across its members, the cities (More on cities) section of this handbook advised us to unpack ‘the social mechanisms that actually create resilience in a community’. This is a key point in what follows.

  • The first half of this chapter briefly looks at the idea of community,
  • The second half considers what community aware behaviour can add to disaster risk reduction work. Above all, here we think through what an improved understanding of community does to deliver better risk reduction and response.

Questioning community

Like ‘culture’ itself, the word community is slippery – it means different things to different people in different places. Communities are indeed often perceived from outside rather than from within: migrant communities in European cities can easily be thought of as individual units, with common languages, identities, or customs. This may contain a grain of truth but it may also be an easy generalisation that papers over numerous cracks. The differences among each groups’ members may in fact be much more pronounced, with ethnic, political, linguistic, religious, socio-economic or gendered differences pulling people in different directions, and making their communication and behaviour in disaster settings harder to predict.

But many of these ‘intra-community’ differences can of course also apply to any group of city residents. While ethnic, linguistic, religious, or class ties might very often be strong indicators of community in European cities, the extent to which members of these groups agree amongst themselves on the best approach to preparedness, rescue, rebuilding, and future resilience is an open question.

Communities very often differ in their access to power holders in politics or business – and in many cases government actions on risk reduction are not spread evenly according to, for example, risk of flood or earthquake damage in each location. Rather, timely delivery of services and infrastructure can depend as much on a group’s ability to lobby for its own interests as it can the actual cost of project implementation.

Authors have often used the term social capital to explain the bonds that community members have in common. Following research in both Italy and the United States, Putnam (2000) viewed the quality of community as lying within social networks. ‘Weak ties’—as opposed to the blood ties of family—described the practices of trust and understanding that were built around the social networks of church, work, and neighbourhood activity. The stronger these ‘weak’ ties were, the more community members relied on each other for support, planning, and organisation in difficult situations such as crises and disaster.

Yet these community ties should not be seen as straightforward, or as things that outside initiatives can build and produce automatically. While community is certainly about shared interests and values, it is also about place – that is, the experience of living together in a proximate area. Looking specifically at marginalised, working class districts, renowned social theorist Pierre Bourdieu called this the ‘site effect’: people might have origins in very different cultural or ethnic backgrounds but come together as a community by nature of dealing with the same local issues and sharing the same local memories. Be it their employment and housing situations, political or social campaigns, or a trauma, tragedy or disaster, people were brought together. Social and cultural capital could act as constraining forces for community development as much as enabling ones. ‘Essentialising’ a particular community (say, Roma people, slum dwellers) as ‘problematic’, needy or wanting therefore causes problems as it fails to deal with the issues that pulled the community together in the first place.

In a more recent essay, Noortje Marres (2005) declared that Issues spark a public into being: communities are not ‘pre-given’ things but are formed, develop, and then change according to the issues (in this case, disasters) that unite them in a common goal.

Community and disaster interventions

The above discussion helps us when considering the role of external professionals in disaster situations. We should not be romantic about the pre-existing ties that bind a disaster-affected community together, but maintain an awareness that social cohesion and mutual acceptance of other community members helps people to recover from disaster impacts. With this in mind, we must work to encourage and strengthen community bonds – not only for the mutual help that each member provides, but for the purpose of strengthening the community’s collective ability to access political, planning, and economic decision makers in a unified approach into the future.

In a wide-ranging survey of flood victims in the UK, Butler et al. (2016) found that negative impacts on individual well-being were at their most critical point one year after flood events. A large part of the health problems experienced were due to people feeling a sense of isolation from those making decisions about their future needs – whether in terms of social-organisational needs or local infrastructure. People felt like they were coping alone and that they were powerless to take actions to better their situation.

Critical to this were people’s attachments to the places in which they lived. Where adapting to future flood risk required significant change—both to infrastructure design and social organisation—people were more resistant to change and wanted to preserve traditional practices and landscape characteristics. People demonstrated little power in getting across the priorities they felt themselves in order to preserve place attachment. This directs us towards sensing a balance between ‘hard’ infrastructural resilience work and rebuilding communities’ attachments to the places in which they live in order to maximise risk reduction outcomes. Doing the correct survey and conversational work across community members, and thus including their voice in disaster management decision-making was one of the projects’ key findings – as was the need to take seriously local peoples’ descriptions of the places in which they lived, across both landscape, social and political factors.

Key ideas can therefore be considered for engaging with communities in the disaster risk context:

  • Studies on social vulnerability and resilience point to the important place of community workers in giving support, disseminating information, and connecting communities with governance institutions. In emergency situations, and throughout the post-disaster period, use of these workers should be comprehensively evaluated and supported in order to increase wide ranging benefits across communities.

  • The writing of flood plans, emergency evacuation procedures, or timelines for disaster recovery should be written together with local communities, both to gain their perspectives and to inspire the communities’ own conversations about future planning and community connectivity.

  • Social mapping can be undertaken to gain insight into how community members perceive their own situation and their relationships with other key stakeholders. This can produce surprising diversity of bodies to draw on in both disaster preparedness and response, and more critically still, reveal the relative importance local actors give to state, private sector, NGO, political or foreign bodies.

  • Assistance can be given to communities in how to influence decision makers and draw attention to their situations. Uses of the media, and social media, may be critical. Gough (2000–2002), writing on New Zealand, reported that government agencies undertook risk perception studies, where residents explored how to create communication channels to increase dialogue between themselves and government bodies responsible for disaster situations.

  • There is a tendency for community leaders, often men, to speak for everyone, but less involved parts of communities, including women and young people, quite often bear the greatest brunt of disaster impacts. Activities undertaken with youth in the past have included drama role-plays of disaster evacuation plans, or flood or earthquake preparedness strategies.


Butler, C., Walker-Springett, K., Adger, W. N., Evans, L. & O’Neill, S. 2016. Social and political dynamics of flood risk, recovery and response, The University of Exeter, Exeter.

Marres, N. (2005), ‘Issues spark a public into being: a key but often forgotten point of the Lippmann-Dewey debate’, in Making Things Public, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

NORRIS F, STEVENS S, PFEFFERBAUM B, WYCHE K, PFEFFERBAUM R. 2008. Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology 41:127–50

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster

Wickes, R., Homel, R. & Zahnow, R. (2015). Safety in the suburbs: Social disadvantage, community mobilization, and the prevention of violence. In J. Stubbs & S. Tomsen (Eds), Australian Violence. Sydney: Federation Press