The Natural Hierarchy of Communities

Ralph Rowbottom

There is no such thing as (simply) ‘the community’. In concept, six separate and distinct types of territorial community may be identified: the neighbourhood, the district, the region, the nation-state, the national confederation, and the World Community. The characteristic features of each are explored, and the differences between model types and current realities is discussed, as is the question of how the latter might in practice, and in time, be brought closer to the former. It is suggested that the closer the actual community at each level can be brought to the appropriate model, the likelier are its citizens to identify with it and to participate actively in its running.

research in community sociology, sociology community, sociology of community, community sociology, global sociology, world sociology, global communities, international community, local government, regional government

‘Community’ is a good thing; a thing that everybody is for, and nobody against. But how do you secure proper communities, create them, and foster them? The object of this note is to register one fundamental point: that you will get nowhere in building effective communities unless you recognise that there is no one model for such, but a whole series of models of different and distinctive types and sizes, which nestle inside one another in an extended hierarchy.

I am using ‘community’ as a general term to refer to any sort of human group, large or small, which is based on living together in the same geographical area. (Thus excluded from consideration here are the sorts of communities of people who, though joined in strong social bonds, do not actually live together – the ‘scientific community’, the world-wide ‘Jewish community’, and so on.) I shall suggest that there are at least six different types of territorial community, of quite different orders of size, and consequential characteristics, which may be identified as ‘neighbourhoods’, ‘districts’, ‘regions’, ‘nation-states’, ‘national confederations’, and lastly, the ‘World Community’ (although the exact labels used are not in the end, significant).

In proceeding now to describe each in turn, I stress that we are looking at essential, or model, types [1].  Existing Districts, Regions, Nation-states, and so on, vary more or less widely from these models, and the implications of this are explored at various points in what follows. It should also be noted that the detailing and examples refer primarily to developed societies, although I believe that the general principles of the argument apply to developing ones as well, and the more so the more developed they are or become.

The Neighbourhood Community

The model for the lowest level of shared-living community (above the individual household) might most appropriately be described as that of the neighbourhood community. It is in essence, the place where a variety of basic daily-needs can be satisfied within easy walking distance of the home. Thus, it must not be more than a mile or so across. Its population, of a few thousands, perhaps fifteen thousand at the most, will be small enough for most people, whenever they walk out from their homes, to be likely to encounter several others who they know well enough to exchange at least a few words with. But it will be large enough to be able to justify its own primary school, health centre, small shops, pub, meeting hall, day centre, and so on . There will be no need for anybody – the very young or the very old for example – to be stopped from getting to these facilities because they do not own their own cars. Parents will be able to walk with their infants to play-groups or clinics. Old people will be able to walk to shops and clubs.

Such a community is far too small to support its own tax-raising, service-providing, local authority. However, there is ample scope for a small elected body, a village or neighbourhood council, which can make suggestions to, and comment on the proposals of, higher levels of local government; as well as regulating a few local amenities such as footpaths or social events.

In rural areas, many existing villages may fit close to this model. Those that are too small to do so – too small for example, to justify their own village primary school – may need either gradually building up over the years, or gradually running down, according to the circumstances. In urban areas, if the city, town, or suburbia concerned does not already naturally break up into convivial neighbourhoods of the kind just described, then again, some conscious planning and redevelopment may be needed to bring this situation gradually into being.

The District Community

The next higher level of community above the neighbourhood may be called the district community. A model district community is essentially a place which offers for its inhabitants the possible satisfaction not just of certain basic living needs, but of practically all normal living needs, within easy daily travel of their homes. It has to be large enough then, to sustain a full range of services and facilities like secondary schools, colleges of further education, comprehensive hospital and welfare facilities, and all the usual kinds of shops, churches, entertainments, clubs, and societies. Many or most resident adults should be able to find employment of one kind or another within such a district. But it must still be small enough in size, even in rural areas, to allow the ready possibility of out-and-back journeys from peripheral homes to central areas by transport of one kind or another (if not by walking), within the period of a single day or evening. Balancing these factors, we are talking of populations of around 200,000; probably not less than 100,000, and probably not more than 500,000. At such levels, inhabitants cannot hope, of course, to know more than a tiny fraction of their fellows. (It is the neighbourhood that we should look towards, to provide the most convivial community.) However, there is obviously no bar to people developing personal friendships wherever they will; and it can be expected that many such friendships will naturally arise from the sharing of the wide variety of different interests and activities which the model district provides.

The district thus defined will develop a very strong presence and identity in the minds of its inhabitants. Any local newspaper will command ready interest. Such a district will present itself as the obvious main unit of local government. People will naturally want to join in the changing and shaping of its various facilities and services through such things as forming action-groups, writing letters to the press, voting, the buttonholing of elected representatives, and in some cases, actually standing for election themselves. It is highly desirable that the local authority concerned does indeed feel like the ‘government’ of the locality. To this end, it should control or co-ordinate as many as possible of all necessary public services: education, health, welfare, police, planning, public works, environmental control, and so on and so on. It must of course have powers to raise its own local taxes. And where it is too small by itself to provide necessary services of particular kinds, it should engineer their provision by joining in consortia with neighbouring districts. (What should not be done, is to force up the size of the district, thus distorting all its essential geographical. environmental, and political features as just described, simply in order to make it big enough to provide on its own, each and every service required.)

In some places, existing towns of generous size, together with their natural catchment areas (in all, some ten to twenty miles across, say) may already meet this model-specification quite closely. In other places, any district of appropriate size will be found to contain several small existing towns, with no one predominant. In this latter case, provided that the district is properly defined, governed, and developed, it is likely in time, that a main urban centre will eventually emerge. By contrast, many existing cities will be too big to be regarded as single districts, and will need to be appropriately sub-divided (as in the case of London and its various constituent Boroughs) if there is to be any chance of creating district communities of desirable size and character.

The Regional Community

In many countries their size will be such as to show a clear need for some sort of regional organisation between district communities of the kind just described, and the state as a whole; though this may not be the case in smaller countries. However, such regional organisation is by its nature, likely to be much weaker than that of the district below, or the nation-state above. We are now looking at geographical spreads which are, typically, far too large to allow easy daily travel across. And although each region will usually contain certain highly specialised facilities (in fields like hospital care, higher education. specialist policing, and so on) which are not to be found in the majority of its constituent district communities, such facilities will only be needed occasionally, if at all, by most citizens; and will in any case, usually be too distant to allow regular contact from most homes. (Indeed, people living on the edge of a region may often find it easier when they do require them, to get access to the particular kind of specialist facilities concerned from some neighbouring region, rather than from their own.) Consequently, contacts of this kind will do little in themselves to engender a sense of belonging to the particular regional community in which people happen to live.

In terms of felt-community, the strongest appeal may be to certain cultural traits characteristic of the particular region concerned – in England, for instance, the special kinship of Geordies (from the North-east), or Yorkshiremen (from further south). However, such identities are generally loose and rather weak (indeed, virtually non-existent when it comes, say, to the central or southern regions of England.) On the other hand, in parts of the world where regional cultures and identities are very strong, there will probably be pressures for the creation of one or more separate nation-states, based on these same regions.

Leaving aside this last case however, the main argument for some sort of regional community or polity, is the regular need for the co-ordination of planning throughout the territory concerned – planning of things like land use, roads, transport, industry, and park-land; as well as the planning of the sort of specialist services mentioned above. A regional community of a model kind, might run to a hundred or more miles across, with populations of many millions. Given the relative weakness of identity and function, it will be pointless to create a strong, directly elected, governing authority (again, leaving aside the special instance where the regional community concerned – as in the case of Wales say – shows many of the features of an emergent nation-state). Much more appropriate will be a body which brings together for co-ordinative purposes, representatives of the various constituent districts together with representatives of the national state which stands above them all.

The Nation-State

The nation-state represents in its own right of course, a most important level of community. The model nation-state is one rooted in a strong sense of common race, culture, and history. It will, wherever possible, have its frontiers defined by the natural boundaries of mountain range, desert-land, or sea. A common culture means a common outlook on life in general, a common language, and (more specifically) a common belief in desirable customs, procedures, laws, and priorities. The model nation-state is sovereign. That is to say, although it will always, like it or not, be subject to outside power and circumstance, and should always aim to remain open to outside opinion and persuasion, that it should nevertheless recognise no higher authority when it comes to the making of laws. And its laws should prevail everywhere throughout its lands.

Of course, any actual nation-state will manifest some or other degree of cultural diversity. In the long historical view, there is no such thing as a ‘racially-pure’ country. Indeed, a regular influx of new peoples with different skills and outlooks is, in itself, wholly desirable. Cultural differences are potentially creative, but they are also points of tension. If the diversity is too great, and particularly if the contending groups are comparable in size and power, then the nation concerned is in constant danger of civil strife and eventual split – examples are many: the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Canada, Belgium, and so on.

Existing nation-states of our World vary enormously in size, from minnows like Monaco, Grenada, and Tonga (with populations of only some tens of thousands each) to super-giants like China (with a population of over one billion); India (just under a billion); and USA, Indonesia, Brazil, and Russia (with populations of around or approaching a quarter of a billion each). Whilst those in the former group are far too small to provide for themselves a full range of modern services, it must be suspected that those in the latter one are in great danger of eventual internal fracture (leaving aside the USA in view of the unique circumstances of its creation), A population in the tens of millions appears comfortable enough in most cases. Indeed, countries like Finland, Denmark, and Norway seem to manage very nicely with populations of no more than about five million. There is scope, no doubt, for strong states of a considerable range of sizes, depending on their different racial make-ups, histories, and physical situations. The main point however, is that the nation-state – the modern equivalent of the tribe – continues to be an extremely powerful type of community; that is, one with which its citizens most powerfully identify.

National Confederations

Nation-states band together, and always have done, for various reasons of protection and support. Recent decades provide examples such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD). And there are many more. The big question is if, and how, nations may combine together not just for specific objects, as in the cases just quoted, but so as to create extended communities which comprehend many or all aspects of living. Put in other words, what is the model form for a community based on national confederation?

Many of the empires of former times were, in some sense, such confederations, although ones dominated, of course, by the founding, or conquering, state concerned. And at their best, they were often very protective and even developmental. But the time for this particular social form in the long history of mankind is now coming rapidly to an end. The question is, what might take its place. The prime example of some new kind of comprehensive multi-state community is of course, the European Union.

In this last case, arguments for the strongest possible form of union often go astray because of the confusion of sovereignty (which is about the right to do certain things) with power (which is about the ability to do things). It is certainly true that no nation in the modern world, and certainly no current European nation, is big enough or strong enough to withstand world-wide pressures, forces, and competition. (There is actually no such thing in principle as absolute and unbounded power; nor has there ever been.) But might is not right – although it is true that authority needs to be backed by power of some significance if it is to be at all meaningful. Sovereignty refers to ultimate authority; specifically, to the ultimate authority to agree proposed laws or not. And as such, sovereignty is indeed indivisible: it cannot be shared between federal and state level (any more than it can be shared between nation-state and regional level): one or other must be allowed the final say. The ultimate test is a seemingly mechanical or legalistic one: is the final authority for any joint decision to rest on the vote of the majority, or on unanimous acceptance, or more precisely, the absence of veto. In any truly sovereign body, however democratic, the constituent parts must accept the decisions of the majority. Conversely, if the guiding principle is that unanimous acceptance (which does not of course mean unanimous enthusiasm) is always required, then the body concerned is not a unified or sovereign one, but some sort of federation or coalition – a perfectly acceptable and useful social form.

Thus, in the particular case being considered here, if a nation gives away its right of ultimate veto on any significant matter, then it gives away its sovereignty. But sovereignty has been identified earlier as one of the defining characteristics of a community which can properly be called a nation-state. My own view is that the European Union, even at the size it stands at the time of writing (2010), is far, far, too big and diverse to act as a single nation-state of the model kind described above. This is by no means to argue against the vigorous pursuit of mutual co-operation by the various countries concerned, wherever it seems possible or called for. But we are talking of a federation, or coalition, working on unanimous acceptance, not a sovereign body working on majority voting.

In general, there is certainly space for a particular type of community formed by the federation of certain groups of nations; and perhaps, the positive desirability of the further spread of such across our troubled world. But assuming that the constituent national communities are themselves not too far from model size and configuration, then they must be recognised as the strong ones; and the federal communities to which they belong as, inevitably, somewhat weaker.

The World Community

The main thing to say about the World Community is simply to register its real existence as the highest level of community on this planet. The very idea of such an entity is barely a few centuries old. It was not until the end of World War One that a first practical manifestation appeared in the form of the League of Nations (supplanted after World War Two by the United Nations, of course),

The fact that we humans, rich and poor, black, white and coloured, are inextricably linked in one community is increasingly impossible to ignore, as is the fact that we are inextricably connected within one all-embracing ecology,. The view that the various agencies of whole-world co-operation should grow ever more effective seems impossible to argue against. But, as in considering national federations, it must be recognised that World Government cannot be sovereign government: that the huge variety of existing nations simply cannot be scrapped or down-graded to make way for one all-embracing World Nation-State. The World Community does exist, and does need its own appropriate mechanisms of governance. But the basic form of this governance, as for any lesser national-federations, can only be that of a coalition of nations, each with the right to veto or abstain from, actions which appear to be against its own important interests.


The main theme of this paper is a simple one. We would all prefer, no doubt, to live in strong, well-developed communities, rather than not. But this can never be achieved or even approached until a primary reality is recognised: there is no one such thing as ‘the community’, but an extended hierarchy of communities of quite different kinds, nestling one within the other. I have suggested that there are six natural levels of community within this territorial hierarchy, each with its own special characteristics and appropriate scale of size.

This is of course, to talk in terms of models. Actual communities in various parts of the world, and at various levels, may diverge more or less greatly from such models. But there is always the possibility of change, even if only gradually, and on a very long time-scale. Well-designed communities at each of the various levels suggested bring two huge benefits. Firstly, they give people a strong sense of belonging and kinship (which need not deny their simultaneous need for independence and individuality). Second, and following from this, they enhance people’s desire to participate in communal activity: in daily practice, in general debate, and in overall government. Communities which are poorly conceived or shaped have the opposite effects: people barely recognise them, feel unsupported by them, and develop little urge to support them in turn. Trying to squeeze extra levels into the natural hierarchy, or (less commonly) omitting some of the necessary ones, undermines community. So does allowing communities to become too big or too small for their particular level; or expecting them to function beyond or below their intrinsic capabilities.

I have argued that the naturally-strongest levels of community are three: the neighbourhood        (which should be the most immediate and convivial community of daily life); the district (which should be seen as the forum for nearly all normal living needs and interests); and the nation-state (which should remain the main source of law and basic social identity for all its members). Some form of regional communities will usually be needed in all but the smallest countries, but their governments should never be allowed to grow so powerful as to weaken those of the district communities below, or challenge that of the national community above. And beyond the nation-state is the ever-growing need for national federations of various kinds, and for some kind of world-wide governance. But again, neither of these should be seen as undermining the primary role of the nation-state. If the variety and richness of the cultural diversity of the world’s peoples is to survive, so must the multiplicity of fully-empowered nation-states: the communities which act as our cultural wombs, each giving us our basic beliefs and very language; each providing us with the particular physical terrain and climate that we learn to live in, and come to appreciate as peculiarly our own.



1) For a general discussion of the idea of, practical, or enactable, social models, see my book ‘Social Analysis‘, Ch 8 (see Appendix)

All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Ralph Rowbottom.

research in community sociology, sociology community, sociology of community, community sociology, global sociology, world sociology, global communities, international community, local government, regional government

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