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Community Development Theory

James B. Cook
Department of Community Development


People have been making careers of stimulating improvement or development of communities for generations. There is no clear point at which a type of approach directed toward this end became identified as "community development." The antecedents are many, tracking back into history, but it was in the post World War II period that the term gained popularity. Activity under this banner, much of it in the then colonial world, was enough that by the 1950s, sections of the United Nations felt compelled to attempt to define it (United Nations, 1955). From then on, agencies, associations and scholars have been proposing and promoting definitions for community development with abandon. (Sanders, 1958; Ad Hoc Group, 1963; Lotz, 1970; Warren, 1978; Christenson and Robinson, 1980.)

In considerable part, the proliferation of definitions, and consequent variety and ambiguity of meanings (Dunham, 1972), can be attributed to the fact that practice preceded theory. Principles, elements of theory, seemed to have their origins in the experience of community development practitioners (Christenson and Robinson, 1980). Armed with the desire and intent to induce betterment at the community level and a few rules of thumb as guides, agents of governments, institutions and voluntary associations fanned out to do community development. They pounded the pavements and footpaths to bring community development to the people. It all began, and continued for some time, without anything approaching a comprehensive theory.

Early community development practitioners operated without benefit of a well-articulated group of propositions as a paradigm to guide practice. They depended on a few favorite general principles. They used their own sense of the situation to determine what, when, where, with whom, about what and by which techniques they used as community developers.

For many who prefer action to theory, such a state of affairs was a golden era. Not bound by traditions or narrowly defined strategies based on unproven, and probably unprovable, theories of human behavior or social organization, operatives could engage with concrete, real communities on their own terms. Something could be done and done now by acting with vigor guided by common sense, prior practical experience and genuine respect and concern for communities and their members. So it is that many making a living at community work have had, and still carry, an impatience with, or even an antagonism toward, community development theory.

These see theory not only as constraining, but as largely irrelevant. They attribute attention to theory as emanating from academicians and high-status professionals who need to publish articles, books and grand policy papers in order to build reputations. They view community development theoreticians as people making careers on the backs of the practical vanguard of community improvement workers and organizers. They see such careers as being without substantive contact with their ostensible subject — communities. People worried about theory, the story goes, do not muck in nuts-and-bolts efforts advocating and pulling together improvement. Rather, by definition, they deal with abstractions and produce little more than esoteric analyses and commentaries for self-consumption.

The detractors of community development theory conclude that theory cannot inform practice because it is generated only at a distance. For them, progress rests with those who get their hands dirty, take their lumps in the real world and are willing to pass along their hard-won command of tactics to others dedicated to practice (Dodge, 1980). The byword of many streetwise practitioners remains, "Go with what you know." (Cox, Erlich, Rothman and Tropman, 1977.)

The place of community development theory in the field cannot be understood without recognition of such deeply distrustful views among a considerable segment of practitioners. While these represent the extreme, they highlight normal tensions among those affiliated with community development as they face questions about the functions of theory in professional practice. Practice that is recognized as the Sine qua non of community development, makes even those disposed to consideration of theory a little uneasy. They fear being branded as not practice oriented.

However, even as such animosity and ambivalence toward theory exists in the field, theoretical assertions have always been at the heart of practice-oriented community development. Perhaps some of the common principles emerged as a rationale to justify the mode of practice. Yet, for the most part, even the most vehement detractors of theory were moved into practice by a slice of normative theory. From the very beginning, community development practice has been predicated on theoretical propositions. For example, there is the standard community development prescription, "people have the right to participate in decisions that which have an effect upon their well-being" (Littrell, 1976).

The normative theory involved is not always so clearly stated; and the interconnections among the several prescriptive propositions (principles) relied on in community development practice tend not to be made very explicit. Still, over the years, an elaborate network of theoretical elements undergirding community development practice has emerged.

This network ranges well beyond a few normative propositions. It involves a wide variety of descriptive theories drawn from the social sciences and social philosophy. Therefore, the situation is not that community development lacks a theoretical base, but that this base is the product of an eclectic approach to theory building. Community development has borrowed, and will continue to borrow, models and theories from sources that seem helpful. With the variety in communities, with the variations in circumstances from place to place and time to time, and with the rapid changes going on in the total environment, community development theory has to be dynamic by necessity. The objectives of and the conditions faced by community development practitioners simply require constant situational theory building.

The tactic of using an eclectic approach in the selection of theories to inform practice and of allowing the consequences of practice to inform theory, are practical responses to the demands of community development operations. Community development theory must always be moving. Thus, it has taken on the appearance of a jumble of definitions and theoretical bits and pieces constantly being arranged, modified and re-arranged. However, this maze of mental activity and images is not haphazard. It revolves around, and is anchored in, a core of coherent definitions and propositions. This core is provisional with points in controversy, and is recognized as subject to change. After all, it is theory and not truth. As long as that is understood, it is possible to present a reasonably concise outline of the present fundamental elements of community development theory. What follows represents a somewhat simplified version of this core. Published January 1985.

Core concepts and content

Characteristics of community development

Some observers are apt to label any and all attempts to intervene in community affairs as community development. However, most commentators are more discriminating. For those directly associated with the field, there is a generally recognized set of characteristics that differentiates community development from other forms of community-related activities. Its distinguishing characteristics include:

  • Focus on a unit called "community."
  • Conscious attempts to induce non-reversible structural change. (The idea of the change being non-reversible is not always made explicit. However, it is generally understood that once structural change takes place in a community system, that system cannot return to the original configuration. Further, it is recognized that some form of structural change may be made to ward off other changes deemed undesirable or to stabilize an existing preferred situation.)
  • Use of paid professionals/workers.
  • Initiation by groups, agencies or institutions external to the community unit.
  • Emphasize public participation.
  • Participate for the purpose of self-help.
  • Increase dependence on participatory democracy as the mode for community (public) decision-making.
  • Use a holistic approach.

Some confusion arises because those in related professions frequently shorten the list of distinguishing elements of community development. Often an incomplete criterion is applied, usually involving only the first five items. The position of community development is clear in that it involves more than the concept of public participation. It is the function and mode of citizen participation in the process that separates community development approaches from other types of planned interventions. In addition, community development is distinguished by application of a holistic, rather than a sector, point of view.

Because of the misconception that any kind of public participation is sufficient to mark an effort as community development, it is common for programs and projects to be erroneously labeled. In fact, there is a considerable body of literature ostensibly providing critiques, explanations or evaluations of community development that uses subject operations that are uncharacteristic of the field. The authors simply made a mistake by selecting projects which, in terms of community development theory and practice, are closer to anathemas than examples. Not being very well acquainted with community development, they chose projects that actually violate its fundamental principles.

For example, Marjorie Mayo includes under community development those programs of colonial regimes aimed at engendering popular support for government activities. She notes that the objectives were to sufficiently indoctrinate colonized people so that they would participate voluntarily in government schemes for economic expansion (Mayo, 1975). While such programs exhibited the first five characteristics, they did not constitute community development.

Such activities of colonial regimes, and the many similar economic development tactics inaugurated by Third World governments after independence, are diametrically opposed to the community development approach. By definition, the critical characteristics of community development are associated with notions of self-help and participatory democracy. While the job of building theory around the basic values supporting these ideals is complex and incomplete, they are the foundation for community development. Unless the element of self-help and the incremental opening of the decision-making systems to participation are features of an approach to community improvement, it should not be designated community development.

Functions of theory

Theory involves propositions or hypotheses that are problematic and not verified (though they may be verifiable). A theory is constructed by formulating a coherent group of propositions designed to help understanding and/or making judgments. The most familiar type of theory is that classified by content and generally associated with the several disciplines. Each discipline specializes in attempting to explain a particular class of phenomena. The content of these disciplinary theories is more or less restricted to particular types of circumstances and events. As a matter of course, theories tend to be differentiated in this way. Therefore, the usual pattern is to speak of political theories, economic theories, natural theories (physics, chemistry and astronomy), sociological theories and on and on down the catalogue of disciplines.

Because of the wide-ranging circumstances and workings of communities, content from almost all of the disciplinary theories at times may be relevant in community development. Therefore, community development theory has used and will continue to borrow from the theories of the standard disciplines. In a very real sense, most theoretical developments of the disciplines form a reservoir for community development theory.

Perhaps the disciplinarians would be shocked or even dismayed at the application of their theories. They would be surprised at how their theories may be synthesized with conceptual frameworks which they would consider foreign. While the disciplinarians may be puzzled or annoyed by community development's use of their theories, the field works on the assumption that when disciplinarians publish their work, it becomes public property and available. As those practicing community development have neither the time nor the talent to attempt to re-invent the wheel, they regularly take theories from the disciplines and often amalgamate them into community development theory on the scene. For example, if economic stimulation is a salient issue in a rural area, community development will look at and use any or all appropriate theories of economists (Edwards, 1976).

The demands of practice are such that thinking about theory in terms of its content within the separate disciplines is not a practical approach. The object of community development practice is improvement in operating communities. Fundamentally, it is an activity that is normative in nature. That is, it deals with what ought to be, or what is better. The practitioner needs theory that will provide a guide for behavior in very specific circumstances. Thus the primary functions of community development theory are to provide norms or prescriptions for the practitioner's actions and a model of practical help to communities. Action takes place relative to existing conditions that vary according to community, time and setting. Therefore, a number of questions have to be addressed before establishing specific prescriptions for professional behavior and actions in a particular situation.

As a result, community development theory tends to stress classification of theory, not by discipline, but by function. Theories are organized in terms of the questions they attempt to answer. There are five basic questions and five basic types of theories involved with guiding community development practice. These are:

Type of question Type of theory
What is? Descriptive
Why is it? Explanative
What would happen if ...? Predictive
What would stimulate learning? Heuristic
What should be done? Prescriptive

Community development theory provides a guide to what should be done in a given situation. In order to do so sensibly, tentative positions must be derived through the application of descriptive, explanative, predictive and heuristic theories.

Systems framework

The process of working toward practical prescriptions for behavior supporting community improvement is no easy task. Even in the best of circumstances the process will be complex, imperfect, incomplete and on-going. Community development theory heavily depends on general systems and on social systems' conceptual frameworks to organize and relate the ideas, intelligence and information uncovered and created in the processes of engagement. Systems frameworks have a number of advantages. Descriptions, explanations, predictions and prescriptions can be expressed readily in system terms. Placing questions and events in the context of a system also has proven very stimulating or searching out relationships and patterns of interactions. In addition, system frameworks have the advantage of being used generously in many disciplines ranging from biology to sociology. Finally, the systems framework has the advantage of being compatible with a holistic approach (Bertalanffy, 1968).

Community development theory ordinarily treats communities as systems. They are conceived as entities that reasonably can be differentiated from what is around them (environment). They have some kind of boundaries, and interactions take place across the boundaries with the environment. Transactions from the environment to the community systems are inputs. However, the community systems are selective in what is accepted as input, and have a criteria by which to sort acceptable inputs from other potential stimuli, coding. (At this stage of elucidating the model, discussion is limited to a stimulus/response framework. Eventually, open systems theory is added to take into account the possibilities for spontaneous internal action and other forms associated with living behavior.)

Community systems do work and perform transformations with inputs. The products of the work are discharged into the environment, outputs. Information about the reaction in the environment may be transmitted back to the system as a form of input, feedback. In the most general terms, the community system is conceived in relation to the environment.

Application of this simple framework requires considerable elaboration. However, this general pattern is similar to some of the schemata popular in the social sciences (Easton, 1965).

To conceptualize the internal structure of community systems, community development turns to social systems theory. While social systems operate by the action of people, the basic unit is not taken to be a person. The basic unit is a role. While roles in this context are performed by persons, a person is considered much more than, and is definitely not defined by, a role (Biddle, 1979). The same person may perform multiple roles in the same social system, may perform roles in a number of social systems and may maintain life spaces not involving social systems. The differentiation of a person from the civic roles they may perform is very important in community development practice.

The pattern of social systems

A social role is a set of expected behaviors in a given situation. It functions to provide incumbents in other roles with reasonably reliable expectations of performance. Therefore, a role operates in relation to other roles (Sarbin and Allen, 1968). Roles relating together in a perceivable pattern constitute structures. In larger, more complex social systems, structures relating together to handle specialized parts of the operations form subsystems. In turn, subsystems relating together form systems.

In the simplest form, the constitution of a social system may be represented as:

Role 1 Structure 1    
Role 2   Subsystem 1  
Role 3 Structure 2    
Role 4     System 1
Role 5 Structure 3    
Role 6   Subsystem 2  
Role 7 Structure 4    
Role 8      

This is a fairly standard way of conceptualizing the pattern of social systems. It highlights the idea that, even when reduced to a high level of abstraction, community systems are conceived as compound, complex entities. Further, community systems are not static but dynamic. The elements of motion and change have to be attached to the mode.

Speaking of motion and change requires taking into account the dimension of time. One step in this direction is to attempt a classification of the types of work or tasks that ordinarily can be expected to be performed in a community system. There are any number of functional classifications, such as Gabriel Almond's interest aggregation and interest articulation, which can be useful (Almond, 1970).

A highly recommended and extremely helpful classification that has been adapted for community development theory is taken from the work of Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn (Katz and Kahn, 1966). It involves the notion that there are genotypic functions that should be carried out by any mature social organization, system. In the course of development, specialized subsystems can be expected to emerge around these functions.

Genotypic functions

Adjusted for the purposes of community development, the genotypic functions are as follows:

  • Production
    The tasks directly related to the basic work of the system. Fabrication of the goods and services produced by the community system.
  • Support and maintenance
    The tasks of bringing support inputs, e.g., raw materials, to the production functions and servicing the work processes.
  • Managerial/political
    The tasks of decision-making regarding the interaction of the production and support/maintenance functions and regulating the input/output transactions with the environment.
  • Planning and adaptation
    The tasks of considering actions that may affect future operations and making provisions for adjustments or changes in the system's configuration and activities called for by events in the environment.

It is expected that the type of structuring and patterns of interactions will or should vary with the function.

One explanation for the limitation in capacities of existing community systems is that structures and patterns are not sufficiently varied with the variation of functions. This relates to the historic tendency of communities to attempt to use a single principle of organization, e.g., hierarchy, for all functions. The effectiveness of the system is held back because the structure is not adapted to the demands of the functions.

This model of genotypic functions can be used as predictive theory regarding the stages of structural development. It suggests that the sequence of the emergence of specialized subsystems would follow this order:

  • The support and maintenance subsystem would differentiate from the production subsystem,
  • the managerial/political subsystem would follow, with
  • the planning/adaptive subsystem developing last.

It is logical that specialized systemic capacities to plan and adapt would come late in development. This matches the empirical world. Existing community systems are often deficient in planning/adaptive structures and processes. They tend to have no or only rudimentary specialized structures for planning and developing systemic adjustment to the changing environment.

Communities commonly attempt to handle the planning/adaptive function through the managerial (political) subsystem, but the imperatives of short-run considerations, and resistance to structural change in this subsystem, usually leave planning and adaptation neglected. Thus, community development theory works from the assumption that critical systemic deficiencies are most likely to deter effective performance in planning and adaptation. Parts of the system attempting to carry on these functions probably are the least mature elements in the operating system.

A definition of community

The systems framework can apply to many types of social systems. Community development intends to focus on a specific type, though it is obvious that communities interact with many other types of systems.

It is necessary to differentiate communities from other classifications of social systems. There are many ways to define community (Christenson and Robinson, 1980). Each of the standard definitions may be sufficient in most situations, but they vary in terms of the elements included.

For a general operational definition, the following is suggested.

A community is a particular type of social system distinguished by the following characteristics:

  • People involved in the system have a sense and recognition of the relationships and areas of common concerns with other members.
  • The system has longevity, continuity and is expected to persist.
  • Its operations depend considerably on voluntary cooperation, with a minimal use (or threat) of sanctions or coercion.
  • It is multi-functional. The system is expected to produce many things and to be attuned to many dimensions of interactions.
  • The system is complex, dynamic and sufficiently large that instrumental relationships predominate.
  • Usually, there is a geographic element associated with its definition and basic boundaries.

The distinguishing characteristics involve matters of degree. For example, the predominance of instrumental relationships does not imply the absence of affective relationships. It is practical to work from the assumption that people take part in community systems as a means rather than as an end. Communities are expected to produce goods, services or situations.

Careful attention must be paid to geographic characteristics. Everything and every person within the geographic area is not associated with the community system. In the geographic area used as a reference in defining a community, alien people, structures or even communities may be present. Communities of different scales may overlap in a geographic area. Further, all the people available to perform roles, and all the roles and structures operating as part of the system may not be located in the referenced geographic area.

Conventional nature of communities

There are many theories that treat communities as natural organisms that are properly subject to natural law (Plato, 1945). Community development theory chooses to treat communities as conventional systems. Community development theory accepts that it is natural for people to have regular arrangements for social interactions.

Yet, at the level of organization required for community systems, the forms and practices are devised. The configuration of the community system is thought of as a human invention. Therefore, most significant behavior in the community context is approached as learned behavior.

This leads to the proposition that communities are subject to change and that new patterns of behavior can be learned. The operational premise is that the system is not determined by nature. People, with some hope of some success, may act to change or to adjust the structure of a community when it is deemed to be operating ineffectively or is considered otherwise deficient.


Conceiving of communities as conventional systems is compatible with the idea of consciously induced systemic change. In some situations development is used as a synonym for growth. When used without reference to quality or consequences, development may be good or bad.

However, in the context of community development, development is a concept associated with improvement. It is a certain type of change in a positive direction. While the consequences of efforts to bring about development may not be positive, the objective is always positive. Development efforts that fail to produce positive results may constitute work intended to bring improvement, but would be unsuccessful in bringing development.

There are no objective measures of what constitutes improvement. Objective indications of change certainly are possible, but that which is better than a past condition must be a subjective judgment. That which constitutes development is a judgment that can only be made by people according to their own values, aspirations and expectations.

In the case of community systems, this must be a collective judgment. The system must provide itself with a process by which to make judgments as experience accumulates and is processed. Since people are different in many ways, the chances of finding unanimity about what constitutes improvement are slight. The community system must develop capacities to reach provisional judgments that permit actions and must accept that action is required before the emergence of consensus.

In a mature system, the fact that development policies and activities take place in the presence of dissent is used to advantage. The lack of consensus assures that a few roles or structures in the system will be pressuring for reconsideration. This provides a monitoring of events and stimulates the system to watch consequences as they begin to appear.

On the other hand, consensus has the property of assurance that leads the system to act as though monitoring processes and their consequences are unnecessary. Unintended results, sufficient to overtake the expected positive ones, are apt to go unnoticed until past the point where practical corrections are possible.

In community development, the term development is taken as a reference to a particular type of conscious effort to stimulate improvement. In this sense, all positive changes are not the result of development. There is a set of ideas used to differentiate development from other forms of positive change. These are:

  • A system subject to change exists.
  • Change will take place incrementally, within a process, over a rather extended time.
  • Once this process has begun, it is very unlikely that the system will be able to return to the original state.
  • The process is stimulated and given direction by conscious effort.
  • During the conscious effort to provide direction, a theory/model of development provides reference points and expectations.
  • At each stage, the system is in a configuration it has not experienced before.
  • It operates as a learning process.
  • Accomplishments in the process can be evaluated only in terms of the judgments of people in the system.
  • The results are judged to be more positive than negative and worth the costs.

Holistic approach

Many theories are used in community development. The earliest ones tended to adapt economic or agricultural development models (Mezirow, 1963). From that time, the range of theories called upon has increased, spanning from symbolic interactionism (Foote and Cottrell, 1955) to cybernetics (Parsegian, 1973). Each provides some understanding or guides action regarding a particular capacity of people or structures expected to have strategic value in improving capacities of community systems. None are thought to be sufficient to cover more than a limited part or aspect. None are considered operationally complete theories with which to effectively guide the entire development process.

Each of the theories that may be used is watched in the context of the whole. The first step is to build a concept of the whole, even if incomplete and inaccurate in some respects. This is based on the position that a reasonable notion of a whole is possible before its constituent parts are understood.

Just as it is possible to understand and even to operate an automobile without knowledge of the place and function of the carburetor, a community and its movements relative to the environment can be understood broadly before knowledge of the place and functions of a part, e.g. culture, in the system. The concept of the whole serves as a backdrop. As various theories are applied to parts, e.g., culture, the whole is kept in mind and a search is maintained for indications of relationships with other parts. For example, culture can be thought of as a part, but it does not operate discrete from the rest. The expectation is that cultural parts will relate to politics, economics and physical surroundings in an interacting mode. It affects and is affected by other elements conventionally abstracted as entirely separate spheres or events.

The holistic approach is nothing more than a conscious effort to place emphasis on the functional relationships among the parts and the whole. It does not require dealing with everything all the time. Dealing with any aspect related to community systems is done in a way that keeps in mind the whole and other parts. Even before particulars are known, the expectation is that each part or aspect will operate with reciprocal relationships. The holistic approach involves relational thought. Instead of thinking about each element by itself, each is envisioned in the context of a totality (Ogilvy, 1979).

Community development's advocacy of a holistic approach is largely a reaction to the failures of sector approaches. Often other strategies for development try to isolate the seminal sector. Usually, these have been thought to be economics or agriculture. Efforts then concentrate on and in this single sector. This theory works as if the selected sector is the primary source for community or societal improvement. If change is in a positive direction, as in an increase of per-capita income or of agricultural production, it is expected that the whole system will be better automatically.

This theory suggests that there is one piece of the system on which everything else depends. Strategically then, it is not necessary to directly consider things beyond the chosen segment. The idea is that a trickle down process is normal. It involves the notion that if the most important part is improved, it is the nature of things that benefits will seep down through the rest.

This theory, and operations in line with it, are frequently recommended as an efficient approach. The justification goes along the line that there are not enough resources, knowledge or energy to deal with everything, so it makes sense to concentrate whatever is available in the most important sector.

Community development theory responds with the proposition that in fact there is not a most important sector. Conceptually, and for analytic purposes, it is possible to think as if economics, politics, culture, psychology and physical environment are separate. However, functionally they are interactive and interdependent. The idea that each of these aspects is discreet is an invention of the human mind devised as a practical way to structure thinking. It is, and is known to be, a distortion of reality. It is a helpful distortion as long as it is accompanied with the realization that it is an artificial view. It is helpful to think about a single dimension, as long as it is remembered that people, communities and societies are multi-dimensional. In fact, each dimension, traditionally treated as separate concerns organized by disciplines, touches and is touched by the others.

Therefore, it is necessary that concentration on a single dimension must always be moderated. To be practical, intelligence about a single sector must be interpreted in the context of the whole, the totality or the system. The advisability of such a perspective is indicated by experience. Many examples exist.

There are cases when thought was given only to technology designed to increase production with the result that on its introduction, the cultural system was destroyed and anomie emerged (Eckstein, 1966). There are also cases that show it working in the other direction. Modern technologies have been introduced only to have the cultural system prevent them from reaching the anticipated level of increased production (Nair, 1979). The emphasis on the holistic point of view guards against improvements in one sector bringing unintended consequences in other sectors the negative impact of which outweighs the intended benefits.

Integrated design

The holistic approach provides a way of looking at situations that stresses relationships and interdependencies. It functions as an aid to the design of integrated development activities. If, as community development theory maintains, communities are systems in which everything is interconnected, activities intended to stimulate different parts and processes need to be interconnected.

In practice, activities start in different sectors at different times and each sector is likely to be in a different stage of structural development. They do not begin integrated with each other. The process involves incrementally connecting one thing with another. An integrated design is in a constant state of building. The holistic point of view, which is in constant application, provides clues as to what operations can be brought into a conscious relationship with each other.

The patterns involved in integrated development activities are varied with the scale and functions being performed. The degree of operational coordination among specific activities fluctuates. Further a substantial number of action areas perform with a high degree of independence. The intelligence, information, resources, technologies, designs, skills and energies generated by such independent operations may be integrated only after they reach the stage of outputs of the constituent structures. The trick is for the system to develop the capacity of becoming aware of their existence.

The best illustrations are those situations in which experimentation is necessary to increase knowledge and experience, when there are uncertainties about possibilities. Many uncoordinated trials going on at the same time makes sense. In such events, the productive pattern is to proliferate the places and premises where experiments take place. This increases the probability of breakthroughs.

As Phillip Handler suggested in reference to Medical research, skillful opportunism and a type of "semi-planning" are useful approaches in the system when creativity and exploration are required. It then is up to the system to eventually integrate the several relatively disjointed increments thus produced (Handler, 1965).

From the system perspective, search, discovery and invention are supported when the system encourages or at least tolerates considerable variety in the modes and locales of inquiry. Creative enclaves paying little attention to external directions tend to be the source for new ideas and methods. These enclaves may be self conscious research groups or emotional cores of incipient social movements. Integration does not happen by interfering in these enclaves and instructing them to behave in prescribed ways. Integration follows their activity as the system monitors and processes the messages emanating from them (Gerlach and Hine, 1973).

The stress on allowing diversity to flourish in some functions of the system is not to deny a place for highly regulated and uniform processes as well. However, community development theory has to counter the popular image of integrated activities as being always marked by centralized control, and as working from a preconceived model of the proper configuration.

This popular model can be applied effectively in the production function. When dependable production of goods and services that are considered satisfactory is the objective, and all the tasks necessary for their production are known, centralized design and control may be efficient. A stable design integrating a wide variety of activities in a controlled sequence can work very well.

The point is that this is not the only way to work toward practical integration. The mechanistic approach to integration is applicable in some situations. However even in production functions when there are uncertainties a more organic style of organization works better. When new or insecure situations are involved, "a hierarchical, top-directed, and strongly regulated organization is ... less feasible" (Abrahamsson, 1977 p. 133).

Therefore, an integrated approach turns on the capacities of the system to differentiate the kinds of integration that fit the variety of circumstances. An integrated approach is likely to involve both centralized and decentralized control patterns. Its effectiveness depends on the system's ability to articulate various modes of structuring. The capacities of the whole community system profit from the variety of ways the constituent parts can work.


The central mode of structuring for community development is the democratic mode. Theory postulates that capacities of community systems will expand with the introduction and increasing use of democratic structuring. Increasing dependence on democratic structuring, regardless of its extent at the initial stage, helps to stimulate development and to support improvement in the quality of planning, adaptation and decision-making within the system. Community development theory suggests that as the levels of complexity and uncertainty increase, democratic structuring becomes more suitable.

These seem surprising propositions. The common expectation is that democracy becomes less suitable with complexity and uncertainty. The normal view is that democracy fits best with small, stable and homogeneous communities. The popularity of the assumption that democratic structuring is impractical for large, dynamic communities is related to the constant exposure to elitist theories of democracy.

There is a substantial body of literature expounding what has been labeled "contemporary" democratic theory. It involves redefinitions of democracy either for the purpose of modernizing it, or to argue that it is inappropriate (Pateman, 1970). These redefinitions form the basis for a wide variety of theories of democratic elitism and anti-democratic elitism.

All these "contemporary" theories share the element that "classic" notions of democracy are unfit for the modern environment. Like the ancient historian Tacitus, many contemporary theorists proclaim that old style democracy, involving substantive citizen participation in governance, could fit only:

"a simple form of culture, a small state, a face-to-face society where everyone knew his neighbours, and where all men were more or less equal." (Cranston, 1968).

Those elitists who profess to maintain an allegiance to democracy in some form, do so with the proviso that it must be a form that discounts the functions of citizens in the process of governance (Bachrach, 1967).

A legacy of longing for small and simple communities from the early advocates still touches practitioners of community development (Morgan, 1942, 1957). Community development theory, however, is clear in the proposition that democratic structuring can be appropriate regardless of community size. It is probably more necessary in larger systems. It takes this position while retaining the idea that democracy must involve significant citizen participation.

Carl Cohen expressed the basic notion consistent with community development theory in the statement:

"In fact, all genuine democracy is participatory; that adjective serves only to remind one of the true character of democratic government." (Cohen, 1973).

Community development theory may one day be proven incorrect, but it is not naive or implausible. Theorists of democratic elitism see participatory democracy as an unrealistic ideal in modern communities because of their lack of understanding of classic democratic theory. They have no model of popular participation except as mass behavior, and no model of citizens except as the stereotyped masses. (Dye and Zeigler, 1972).

Community development builds from the proposition that every person is different. Each is distinguishable from all others, indicating that each has something unique in his/her person. It also takes the position that each person probably has some bit of information or insight not available through anyone else.

While it is impractical to collect, aggregate and process all the bits of intelligence embodied in the population, it is possible to extend the civil systems' net to trap and evaluate more of the diverse intelligence that does exist. It is a matter of shifting the patterns of structuring from those that preselect sources of intelligence to those that attempt to take advantage of diversity.

The theory starts with a proposition that everybody knows or sees something and that, as a system, not enough is known to anticipate the total consequences of actions in and around the system. As long as the operations and development of community systems are complex and dynamic, a considerable degree of ignorance about them is inevitable (Marburger, 1981). The degree of ignorance can be reduced by broadening the range of information, experience, ideas and assessments available to the system. It becomes a question of elaborating the civil system so as to extend the probability that it can come in contact with and use what anybody might know (Churchman, 1968).

Thus in community development theory, democracy is valued as a means, not as an end. It serves the instrumental purpose of broadening the inputs available to the system. In the first stage of the process, the existing intelligence carried by those who are active is allowed to penetrate the system. At the second stage, after activities of citizens attempting to influence events has been recognized as legitimate and has been encouraged by the proliferation of points of involvement with and in the system, the original state of intelligence is enhanced.

Individual participation in society

This idea goes back to a very significant but frequently overlooked element in classic democratic theory. This proposition is that participation stimulates the learning and development of individuals (Lively, 1977). At times when this consequence of participation, i.e., increased learning and individual growth is considered at all, it is considered in terms of a benefit to the individual. However, experience does not indicate that benefits of learning and development through civic participation fall so clearly to the individual.

To a specific person, the considerable costs in time, energy and frustration may outweigh direct or tangible benefits. At least the direct returns of learning and development through participation in public life seem problematic, given the definition of "rational behavior" common in rational choice for those following the dictates of selfish utility maximization (Laver, 1981).

From the point of view of community development theory, the benefits from broad and open participation accrue to the system. Individuals may profit or suffer from the learning and development gained through their own civic participation. However, the system has a net increase in its potential as persons become active and as incidents of participation diversify.

In the abstract, it may seem that any increase of knowledge, sophistication and resourcefulness regarding public affairs that results from participation would be evidence of personal improvement. Yet, in any particular case, the reasons for participation and the adjustments of expectations, behaviors and views of the world that follow from the experiences of civic involvement may bring changes for the individual that he/she deems to be negative. In other words, an individual in his/her own eyes may be worse off, or farther from the realization of personal preferences after active participation than before.

Even when this is so at the individual level, the system still profits. The aggregate result of civic participation expands the information, skills and comprehensions of individuals within the system. The reservoir of ingredients on which the system draws is enriched. Their participation extends the potential of community systems. It increases the possibility that needed or useful intelligence, skills and information will be available to improve the systems' competence and capabilities.

Of course, community development theory postulates that increased capabilities and effectiveness of community systems brings substantial benefits to the people who are members. There would be no purpose in working for the elaboration of community systems to improve abilities and performance unless there was the expectation that this would bring benefits in excess of cost to the people served.

In fact, theory accepts this proposition as the basis for concentrating on actions at the community level. Stress on the fact that community development theory is directed toward improvement of community systems, and not toward individual improvement is necessary. It helps to avoid any misleading expectations on the part of individuals about the consequences of civic participation that are suggested by community development theory.

The theory does not imply that positive results from participation in community affairs fall directly to the individual participants. It does not suggest that individuals who increase their civic involvement and/or their participatory skills will necessarily improve the circumstances of their personal life.

The prescriptive proposition of community development, that people should become active in citizen roles whenever such opportunities and their own inclinations converge, is based on the idea that extensive involvement is a mode of systemic capacity building. It is not based on the assumption that each participant will secure or be moved closer to their personal aspirations.

Democratic characteristics

In the context of community development the concept of democracy relates to patterns of community structuring that allows the system to:

  • Take advantage of the data, ideas and energies available from any member, and;
  • Place information, perspectives and preferences from many sources in interaction to force learning, synthesis and creativity.

Depending on the history of the community, the system's configuration and a wide variety of circumstances particular to the system, the patterns of democratic structuring will vary.

As the application of democratic principles and behaviors expands within the system, the arrangements for governance will undergo a more or less continuous process of structural adjustment and change. Democracy is envisioned as a state subject to structural variations and not as a particular type of fixed state. The participation of citizens has influence on systems' design and institutional arrangements, as well as on policy decisions. The community system that exhibits a significant level of responsiveness to activities of citizens is likely to have dynamic structuring. The particular configuration existing at any time in a system with substantial dependence on democracy is provisional. Almost every feature of structuring is susceptible to change. There are no absolutes concerning the structural characteristics of democracy, except that the system is open to consequential involvement of its members.

A democratic system can be expected to be liable to an ongoing series of adjustments and to experience transformation over time through a process akin to evolvement. The elastic and protean characteristic of democratic systems prevents ossification of the system and allows progressive adaptations to shifts in demands and/or other internal and environmental conditions.

Resort to revolution is less attractive and less likely in systems with sufficient reliance on democracy to activate capacities for structural variability. Structural rigidity of institutions and community systems in the face of substantial change, not social change as such, is the precursor of revolution (Johnson, 1966). Democracy's structural flexibility in response to shifting demand inputs provides adjustments that can be the means to avoid traumatic up-rooting of community structures.

The relatively common notion that expansive participation is associated with instability is an error (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975). Paradoxically, the pressures for change likely to generate from broad participation are the best insurance a community has against obstreperous actions and unpredictable results of revolution. Institution of a development process increasingly dependent on democratic modes provides an alternative to revolution when change and changing demands of people fill the atmosphere of public life.

Citizen roles

Democracy has the characteristic of flexible structuring, and the ready potential to use multiple patterns of organization. Therefore, it cannot be distinguished by specific rules of the game, like majority rule, that traditionally have been suggested as mandatory features of democracy (Prothro and Grigg, 1960).

There is an understandable problem of definition. Prominent differences exist as to what the basic principles of democracy are, and how these would be reflected in the design of a democratic system. The idea of democracy, while widely held up as a worthy ideal, generally comes across as an ambiguous concept (Benn and Peters, 1965).

With democracy a central idea of community development, its theory has to clarify what distinguishes the democratic principles of social system construction. While it is expressed in a number of different ways and formulations, community development theory proposes that the situation of citizen roles in the public system is the basic feature that differentiates democracy. The recognition and legitimacy of autonomy or self-direction in citizen roles is the element that is unique to democratic systems (Voth, Jackson and Cook, 1979).

As generally used "citizen" is not a very refined term. Often it is taken as a person acting in almost any type of civic role. In the context of community development theory and the associated theory of participatory democracy, "citizen roles" have a restricted meaning. They refer to voluntary sets of civic behavior in which the incumbents in the role determine the behavior. That differentiates "citizen roles" from subject and other kinds of prescribed civic roles.

Classifying citizen roles

One helpful way to classify the types of roles through which people participate in community systems is as follows:

  • Mandatory prescribed (subject) roles
    Sets of behavior demanded of people in certain circumstances to abide by the decisions of the community, the laws, rules of the game and traditions regardless of the preference of the incumbent.
  • Accepted prescribed roles
    Sets of behaviors, taken on by people voluntarily or in exchange for some specific compensation, designed to perform tasks deemed helpful to the system by the system. Incumbents have some choice of whether to accept the role or not, but once in it are expected to conform to the prescriptions provided by the system.
  • Autonomous (citizen) roles
    Set of behaviors determined and directed by incumbents based on their judgment as to how to influence public affairs given their own circumstances and perceptions of the situations and patterns of the community systems.

A democratic community involves a system that recognizes the legitimacy of such autonomous roles, supports such independent civic activity by the norms of the community, and in which the authorities tolerate self-directed civic activities of community members intended to influence the course of events and/or structuring of the systems.

Individual community members play all three types of roles. Every member will be called upon to perform subject roles, e.g., taxpayer. Most community members will find themselves in other types of prescribed civic roles either as a voluntary service or for direct compensation. An example of a voluntary prescribed role would be a solicitor in a local fund raising campaign. Bureaucratic jobs, with their detailed written position descriptives, are obvious examples of prescribed civic roles taken on in return for remuneration. In a community system with at least a modicum of democratic tendency, members have openings for civic involvement of their own design and carried out under their own recognizance.

In this context, it is clear that "citizen" does not refer to a particular segment of community members, or to an ascribed status in community. "Citizen" denotes a particular type of civic role distinguished by its independence of supervision and directive by authorities. It is a behaviorally defined role the performance of which is voluntary and transitory. Community members who are incumbents in official or professional roles in the community system may step out of such roles to act on their own in a citizen role. A member of parliament, an agency director or a scientist may from time to time perform as a citizen, unencumbered by the requirements of their other prescribed civic roles.

Practical considerations of role identification

In practice there are difficulties with this. Since occupational and official roles often involve a high level of identification between person and role, it is hard to separate them from it. The incumbents may identify themselves as persons substantially in terms of their particular prescribed role. When they are actually acting as citizens, independent of the prescriptions of their formal role, they may attempt to clothe their citizen behavior with the authority associated with their institutional position.

Other members of the community may have considerable difficulty in separating citizen behavior from highly visible formal role performance. The usual patterns of socialization do not very well equip community members to separate roles from incumbents or to recognize behaviorally identified roles not determined by social position (Biddle, 1979). This is complicated further by the fact that the knowledge, abilities and styles accumulated in prescribed role experiences may be brought into play in the design and execution of citizen roles. (One of the more explicit presentations advocating that members of a profession use their knowledge and perspectives acquired in its practice in citizen roles conducted independently from the authorities is Jack Primack and Frank Von Hipple's work on scientists in the political arena. They suggest that scientists must avoid being restricted to the roles prescribed for them by government, and extend their behavior to that of "citizens" (Primack and Von Hipple, 1976).)

Difficulties in perceiving citizenship in these terms relates to having very vague notions of citizen functions and position in community system. It is not related to the lack of autonomous civic behavior. Nor is it unusual for people to attempt to take influential action independent of the preferences and directions of authorities. In community systems disposed toward democratic structuring, self-created participation is considered normal, legitimate and, at least to a degree, something to be encouraged. The limits of acceptable independent civic activity in the democratic setting are wide.

Autonomous civic behavior also appears in non-democratic systems. There it is defined as abnormal, disloyal, irresponsible or recalcitrant behavior. In such systems the model for citizens is the same as the model for subjects. In democratic systems, both mandatory subject roles and voluntary citizen roles are intrinsic elements in the constitution of the community system.

In considering autonomous or self-directed behavior, it is necessary to note that such civic activity does not imply isolated action. On their own volition, regulated by their own judgment, people may design civic roles to interconnect with other citizen roles. Structures in the community system very well may be formed entirely of self determined roles.

Most likely such structures would be transitory and/or intermittent, but for a time they may perform significant functions in the system. In addition, people may design roles to interconnect with existing prescribed roles or formally constituted civic structures. For a time, these may operate as part of established structures, as adjuncts to them, or as linkage mechanisms with other structures. At the same time the incumbents in these citizen roles can continue to control their definition and performance.

Consequences of choice

Citizen roles in democratic structuring are matters of choice. The incumbents are neither able to choose what the system will decide or do, nor even how it will respond to their citizen activities. However, they can choose how to use themselves in efforts to influence events and the workings of the system. Choices to participate or not to participate, legitimate choices in a democratic system, and choices regarding patterns of participation are extremely significant to the system. Theory does not assume that all people will make good decisions for themselves or their communities; only that these choices in the aggregate will have a great deal to do with the capacities and directions of public affairs (Cook, 1975).

The range involved in choices of citizen roles is considerable. They include the following which incumbents determine for themselves:

  • Whether to perform;
  • When to perform;
  • Where to perform;
  • How to perform, and;
  • What direction the citizen role is to take.

Since each individual is different from every other individual, the probabilities are high that each will make different choices. While it often happens that a number of people in a community share a similar position relative to the system or to salient issues in it, this does not mean they will behave in the same way. The variables leading to different choices are wide ranging. There are variations in self-perceptions, definition of the situation, motives of workings and ways of the system, prior experience, skills and information and judgments. These represent just a few of the dimensions involved. The list could go on and on.

The consequence of choice about participation coupled with the variation of individual circumstances and estimations is differential participation. This proposition markedly changes expectations of how citizen participation looks when taking place. The tendency has been to think of citizen activity as mass behavior. In fact, when choices about participation patterns are available to community members, people taking up citizen roles do not act alike. Citizens do not become active all at the same time, same place, in the same way, or about the same things.

The results of choices in the design and activation of citizen roles, which community development theory suggests is the critical feature of democracy, are that such involvement takes many forms in different places around various issues. The involvement of different community members will vary in style, duration and intensity. Therefore, most of the time, democracy yields selective, differential and intermittent patterns of participation among the citizenry. It will not be the scene of uniform, unremitting and universal involvement (Cook, 1979).

Judging from empirical evidence, constant and concentrated civic activity is most likely in totalitarian systems which are the antithesis of democracy (Grodzius, 1963). In these system participation is forced or directed. This is likely to produce much higher and more regular levels of overt popular involvement than under democratic conditions where people are free to either participate or not in citizen roles.

Building on diversity

Building from the proposition that community members are diverse individuals produces this dramatically different prediction about citizen activity under democracy. When community development prescribes incrementally opening the system to involve citizen roles, it does not imply that this will result in everybody becoming active as citizens all the time. Unfortunately, it is common for people to assume that advocacy of citizen participation centers on an ideal of having everybody in on the act of deciding each public policy or on the choice of modes to handle each decision (Cleveland, 1974).

Perhaps this notion goes back to some of the more traditional ways of describing democracy. For example, a typical description might be "... full participation of all members of a society in regulating their communal life," (Bottomore, 1979). It is terms like "all" and "full participation" that trigger a vision of everybody involved in every significant aspect of communal governance. This, along with the habit of thinking of the body of citizens as a homogeneous class of community members, creates the image of an ideal democratic community as a place in which the mass is completely and constantly involved.

Democracy as defined in community development theory does not present total participation as the ideal. Rather, selective participation, which results from the freedom of people to decide for themselves when and how to take part as citizens, is valued. Instead of creating a model of one ideal type of citizen role as the guide for every community member, the desirable situation is to have many models of acceptable citizen roles. This allows the system to call upon a wide range of behaviors, experiences, information sources and energies. It permits people to use their own uniqueness in civic affairs. Making their contributions in ways they judge appropriate for themselves makes more contributions available to the system than the traditional tendency to attempt to school all members to conform to a single civic role model.

Diversity, distribution and variations in citizen involvement should be expected from a body of human beings. Rather than trying to collect everybody into the same structure to behave in the same manner, democracy attempts to take advantage of the diversity of the population. It allows people to work, to think and to act in different places in the system, dealing at different times with different things. It accepts the possibility of productive use of the heterogeneity of civic behavior, rather than gearing toward inculcating homogeneity in the exercise of citizenship. Structuring to allow the diversity of people to be taken into account and responded to in and by the community system stimulates the building of capacities in community systems.

The tolerance of independent and diverse citizen activities has the result of moving the system closer to the characteristics of an open system. All inputs cannot be predetermined or restricted to those requested by the authorities. Since a democratic system is not totalitarian, that is it limits the coverage of the community system to allow people to have living space beyond the community's control, energies and ideas can enter from outside the community system.

Citizen roles often play this function. Importing matter and energy from outside allows the system to counter normal tendencies toward disorganization or entropy. In addition, spontaneous activity within the system is expected and legitimate. This is another source of experience and intelligence. Democracy, the open system model for communities, is not only amenable to dynamic adjustments but may evolve toward a more complex order (Buckley, 1968).

Stability and change

Community development does focus on change and on the increase in the ability of community systems to create desirable change, to adapt to unavoidable change and to ward off undesirable change. It works from the proposition that community systems historically have not been well equipped to direct, to respond to, or to moderate change and its consequences. As the rates and range of change accelerate and expand, community capacity to deal with change has become even more critical.

Yet stability also is important in serving the public needs of community members. Communities are considered instrumental systems. People associate with them in order to secure returns through the production of certain goods, services, environments and the preservation of valued conditions. Dependable performance and production is required.

For a community system to work in terms of return to its members, it must incorporate the capacity to continue operations that are satisfactory and to change those that are not effective. It also needs the ability to add or subtract operations with shifts in the environment, demands and aspirations of the population.

Community development theory recognizes that maintaining roles, structures and processes which are performing well is vital. However, the established modes of organization in communities usually are strong on maintaining that which is being done. Structural weaknesses revolve around the lack of ways to end anachronistic conduct, to modify or correct operations having difficulties, and to introduce innovations when appropriate. In turning attention to elaborating the system, in order to improve handling the control and direction of change, the value of preserving that which is working well cannot be lost.

The working community system has a dual structure. One side is designed for stability, for regular performance, and for predictability. The core of this side of the system is made up of the subject and other prescribed roles. The other side of the system is designed for evaluation and change. The core of this side of the system is made up of autonomous citizen roles. When these two sides interact, tension is usually experienced between them.

When a community system is experiencing difficulties coping with internal or external pressures for change, community development intervention concentrates on elaborating and strengthening the side geared for change. The side designed to support adaptation and change is generally weak, underdeveloped and afforded low status in the system. The introduction of democratic principles, modes of organization and regime norms is intended to add roles and behaviors to the system. Citizen roles do not displace but augment official roles. Citizen roles are not more important than official roles. Both are necessary. They differ in the functions performed in the system. Citizen roles provide the inclination to evaluate performance and to make changes. Prescribed roles provide the inclination to keep things as they are. Deficiencies in systems tend to be in the lack of legitimate influence of citizen roles. Increasing the use of and dependence on democracy is the single known way to balance the system in order to handle the stability/change dilemma.

Conservative/radical balance

Community development theory accepts the proposition of classical conservatism that the cumulative opinions and rules of communal life are to be respected. Summary substitution of rationalized schemes of community system structuring for traditional patterns is dangerous. It involves assertions of knowledge and of certainties that are unwarranted, and are likely to put the community on a course to which short term experiences provide the only guide to action (Burke, 1967). Yet the worship of tradition and the sanctification of existing modes of organization and decision making as unchangeable legacies of a pristine era, are equally dangerous. They reduce community systems to powerless victims of their own history, unable to consciously respond to changing conditions.

In the dynamic environment in which most community systems operate, both technological and social invention will happen. Social inventions, that is new ways and procedures of relating, are apt to alter people's situations more radically than technological ones (Leinwand, 1976). It is these social inventions that tradition-bound systems have trouble recognizing as anything other than illegitimate aberrations. The new ways may become well established in actual practice while the community system refuses to grant status to any objective input about them or their results. This is a means to preserve the image of adherence to tradition even as the reality has changed.

Community development theory suggests a balanced respect for the potency of both tradition and social invention. The systems should invite critical thinking about traditional patterns and innovation. Community systems should work on the dual premises that blindly following tradition can limit capacities, and that uncritical implementation of innovation can bring unintended negative, sometimes despoiling, consequences. Abilities to be developed involve the creation of the competence to differentiate parts of traditions that ought to be maintained from those to be modified or displaced by innovations.

In assessing the state of community systems, community development theory proposes that it is far more likely for the system to overweight the conservative side. Existing community organization favors maintenance of the status quo, and is geared to regularity, dependability and predictability in system performance. Generally there are a very few, highly constrained legitimate patterns in the system to handle planning, adaptation and decision making related to new situations, aspirations or agendas affecting the population. Roles and structures dominated by prescribed behavior based on prior experience tend toward exclusive control of the resources and attention of community systems. This overprotects the existing patterns and policies from legitimate challenge based on new evaluation of the situation and performance of the system.

The community development tactic is to incrementally elaborate the system with roles and structures designed to increase autonomy. Since the predominant characteristics of community systems work in the direction of restricting involvement and pre-determining style, timing, locale and purpose of involvement, the community development process promotes radical departures from common community practices. At the same time, it does not displace the prescribed roles and structures with citizen roles. It aims at enlarging the system's potential by increasing its open characteristics and its range of interaction among elements protecting existing patterns and pressuring for change.

Preservation and change are both necessary, yet there is a good chance that the first is not possible without the second in the contemporary circumstance. When, where and how to save and shift is not self-evident. These things have to be re-learned in specific times and places. Interactions among those charged with maintaining existing operations and those advocating changes are a means for a community system to learn. This will work, however, only if the system provides a reasonable level of equal standing for those who would do things differently. Laws and customs provide a solid standing for the prescribed roles. Community development theory advocates that in addition, community systems should allow an equality of standing for citizen roles.

Absolute equality is neither possible nor logically a worthy ideal. Yet, there must be consideration of the practicality of some type of equality for citizen roles regardless of the social standing of the incumbents. It may be that the modern world cannot avoid being subject to the cultures of inequality (Lewis, 1979). Still, some substantial equality for citizens in community affairs is possible and practical.

In the ancient Athenian community there was a principle "they called isegoria, an equal right to be heard in the sovereign assembly of the state before public decisions were taken," (Dunn, 1979). Today there are not many such sovereign assemblies around. Decision making is seldom centralized in this manner. Rather it is dispersed among many structures and processes. Yet, community systems can recognize that a right of citizenship is to be heard before public decisions are made. If this can be accepted as a working principle or an aspiration, the points of access and modes of being heard can be worked out in the context of each community system.


Community development does not provide detailed prescriptions appropriate to every community system. It does not distribute a particular improvement program. Rather, community development theory expresses a unique perspective on development. It supplies, to those who would consciously intervene in community systems, a conceptual framework. It presents a logical basis for and general guides to the use of open system or democratic structuring, and the application of a holistic approach in efforts to stimulate the building of capacities, and to improve the performance of and in community systems.

General community development theory establishes an orientation toward community systems and human behaviors to be considered relevant in and for this level and type of social organization. It does not purport to give answers to the basic questions of what, why, or how for every community system. It does provide a conceptual platform or grounding for the building of community, setting and time specific theory by which to guide and assess intervention in each particular system.

Time for the incremental establishment of an on-going, expanding process of learning through interaction, experimentation, monitoring and experience is required. It cannot be used when the circumstances and culture demand rapid action determined by summary procedures.

It is a theory of development that assumes the existence of a community system which, at the time of initial contact, has some semblance of order and is capable of performing at least a minimal level of production to serve its members. Great deficiencies and dissatisfactions may exist — substantial deficiencies and dissatisfactions, in fact, are necessary conditions if conscious development activities are to be considered — but the situation of the system and its members cannot be catastrophic if community development theory is to be used.

In addition to time, and to some level of functionality in the existing system, a community development approach requires a degree of identification with the system and with other members of the community. This must be sufficient to support considerable voluntary activity that is self-constrained enough to tolerate involvement of others who do not agree. Something at least approximating a sense of community is then a condition for use of community development theory.

When the state of affairs is such that these prior conditions exist, community development theory involves certain assumptions about people and community system. These include the following:

  • People are diverse. Community systems can organize to take advantage of that diversity.
  • Community systems are not totalitarian. People have life spaces outside of the community structure.
  • Breadth of experience, intelligence, information and energies represented in a population far exceed that which the community system takes into account.
  • People learn from participation in community systems and community systems learn from the participation of people.
  • People are capable of exercising a considerable degree of autonomy, while exercising self-restraint required for social order.
  • People have the capacity for a significant level of empathy with others that permits tolerance and voluntary relationships within the community systems.
  • While people prefer justice and fairness in community systems, they often perceive it differently.
  • Imperfections will mark every community system. A degree of inequity will exist in every community system.
  • Resorting to absolutes is likely to stand in the way of finding practical accommodations within the community system.
  • Working from the principle that everyone affected by a decision has a right to participate helps the community system locate areas of difficulty and expands the range of potential intelligence available to the system with which to address the situation.

People are likely to display different patterns of participation that are subject to change over time and to changes in situations. Community systems can accommodate many different and variable patterns of participation. Therefore, it should be expected that the active structures of community systems will vary with changes in participants, time and circumstances.

There are many possible configurations even in the same community. System capabilities lie with the ability to use and to experiment with different configurations. The ability to vary structures, and relationships among structures, according to the requirements of the function to be carried out is critical in effective community performance.

A developing community system is in a continuous process of elaborating itself and of incorporating a wider range of participation patterns. It expands attention given to conscious structural adjustment and to the pulses of participation.

This mode of control depends on thought and action related so as to inform each other. Participants are encouraged to think and to act in sequence. The community system governance works on a thought/information/action cycle similar to a cybernetic control model, i.e., thought/information, action, feedback, adjustment; thought/information, action, feedback, adjustment; ...

However, control is not an automatic process but a function of human judgment responding in the thought/action cycle. Further, as the community system takes on more open system characteristics, it also is affected by spontaneous activities of people and energies imported from outside the system.

As the situations faced by community systems become more complex, dynamic and subject to change, there is need for more and greater variety of intelligence to govern the system. Members of the community have been, and are, an underused source of intelligence and information. Open democratic processes give the system access to this reservoir.

In addition the action in and of citizen roles stimulates learning. It creates tension between and among citizen, official and other prescribed roles in a systematic way that encourages creativity in the processes of tension reduction. Participants learn and the system learns. Learning is the requirement for, and the product of, the community development process. (Botkins, et al, 1979.)


Basic community development theory

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  • Abrahamsson, B. Bureaucracy or Participation: The Logic of Organization. Volume 51. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Library of Social Research, Sage Publication, 1977.
  • Bachrach, P. The Theory of Democratic Elitism. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
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  • Biddle, B.J. Role Theory. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Botkins, James W., Elmandjra, Mahdi and Malitza, Mircea. No Limits to Learning. New York: Pergamon Press, 1979.
  • Bottomore, Tom. Political Sociology. Colophon edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
  • Buckley, Walter, editor, Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968.
  • Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Number 460. New York: Everyman's Library, Dutton, 1967.
  • Christenson, James A., and Robinson, Jerry W., Jr., editors. Community Development in America. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980.
  • Churchman, C. West. The Systems Approach. Delta Edition. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968.
  • Cleveland, Harlan. "How Do You Get Everybody in on the Act and Still Get Some Action?" Educational Record 55, pp. 177-182, 1974.
  • Cohen, C. Democracy. New York: The Free Press, 1973.
  • Cook, James B. "Democracy and Rural Development" Training Materials. MU Department of Community Development, June 1979.
  • Cook, James B. "Advocacy of Grassroots Citizenship." Journal of Community Development Society, (Fall 1975): 22-29.
  • Cox, Fred M.; Erlich, John L.; Rothman, Jack; and Tropman, John E. Tactics and Techniques of Community Practice. Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock, 1977.
  • Crozier, Michel J.; Huntington, Samuel P.; and Watanuki, Joji. The Crisis of Democracy. New York: New York University Press, 1975.
  • Dodge, Willard K. "Ten Commandments of Community Development or one Middle Aged Graduate's Advice to New Graduates." Journal of the Community Development Society. (Spring 1980): pp. 49-57.
  • Dunham, Arthur. "Community Development in North America." Community Development Journal. 7:1. (1972): pp. 10-40.
  • Dunn, John. Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
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  • Easton, D. A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.
  • Eckstein, Harry. Division and Cohesion in Democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
  • Edwards, Clark. "The Political Economy of Rural Development: Theoretical Perspectives," American Journal of Agriculture Economics. 58, 5:914-921. (1976): pp. 914-921.
  • Foote, N., and Cottrell, L. Identity and Interpersonal Competence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
  • Gerlach, L.P., and Hine, V. Liveway Leap: The Dynamic of Change in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.
  • Grodzins, Morton. "Centralization and Decentralization." In A National of States. Robert A. Goldwin, editor, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963.
  • Handler, P. "National Planning of Medical Research." Science. June 1965, pp. 1688-92.
  • Johnson, Chalmer. Revolutionary Change. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966.
  • Katz, D., and Kahn, R.L. The Social Psychology of Organization. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1966.
  • Laver, Michael. The Politics of Private Desires. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
  • Leinwand, Gerald, editor, The Future. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
  • Lewis, Michael. The Culture of Inequality. Meridian edition. New York: New American Library, 1979.
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MP568 Community Development Theory | University of Missouri Extension