keywords: community, electronic, virtual community, communities, information society, CMC, electronic mail, groupware, CSCW, computer supported cooperative work, proximate community, face to face, information society, knowledge management, electronic groups, ethnography

The Net as a Foraging Society: flexible communities

published in The Information Society, v. 14, no. 2, May 1998 , pages 97 - 106. doi> 10.1080/019722498128908

Lee Komito
Department of Library and Information Studies
University College Dublin
Belfield, Dublin 4

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This discussion has benefited greatly from comments made by Mark Shutes and the two anonymous reviewers for The Information Society to an earlier version of this article.

ABSTRACT: In discussions about electronic and virtual communities, community can variously refer to a moral community, a normative community, a community of practice, an intentional community, or proximate community. The concept of 'community' is, itself, deemed unproblematic, and often is used in either a reductivist or ethnocentric manner. An exploration of non-industrial foraging societies is used to illustrate the wide variation in types and definitions of communities that exists. Social groups in foraging societies exhibit characteristics similar to those observed in technologically-mediated social groups, and these similarities illustrate the deficiencies of typological or ideal-type definitions of 'community', as well as the artificial nature of a division between 'real' and 'electronic' communities. Groups which depend on computer mediated communication amongst members, can, and should, be examined using the same social science concepts and methods used to examine any other social groups.

KEYWORDS: virtual community; ethnography; electronic groups; computer-mediated communication

In research on electronic communication and social groups, discussions of electronic or virtual communities lead to unresolved debates. In large measure, these debates, and the general lack of agreement regarding virtual communities, reflect differing intellectual stances regarding the concept of community. Carey and Quirk (1989), as well as Kling (1994), have noted that discussions of the social impact of new information and communications technologies are rarely value free; ideological perspectives and assumptions permeate the discussion. This is nowhere so clear as in discussion of virtual communities. Such communities are sometimes portrayed as a positive alternative to the destruction of traditional community in modern industrial society. To support such a view of virtual communities, stories about the emotional support offered via electronic communication and the solidarity that emerges on the Internet are recounted. Just as often, virtual communities are instead seen as 'ersatz' communities. In this counter view, virtual communities cannot be 'real' communities, and it is a symptom of modern society that individuals find solace in such 'fake' communities. In both discussions, community is rarely defined other than in a sort of 'we all sort of know what one is' way. Communit tends to be used either in a simplistic or unproblematic way, such that discussions of electronic or virtual communities do not contribute to a general understanding of communities. This is not due to the limitations of the concept; but the way in which the concept is used. Community is a concept that has a long history of research and debate in the social sciences; the theoretical sophistication that has developed over the course of such research and debate is usually not applied to discussions of virtual community.

When discussing electronic communities, community acquires a number of different meanings. In some cases, community is equated with a moral commitment to a common purpose, often involving reciprocity and mutual assistance. In other cases, it refers to norms or values shared by individuals. These norms guide social interaction and may be linked to a sense of collective identity. In yet other cases, it refers to a loose collection of like-minded individuals. Lastly, community can refer to the multifaceted social relations that develop when people live in the same locality and interact, involuntarily, with each other over time. The dimensions are often used interchangeably. Thus, writers talk about moral communities, and yet use metaphors derived from the geographical dimension (such as public commons, town hall, as well as the term cyberspace, itself). These dimensions of 'community' are significantly different; combining one with the other causes confusion and misunderstanding.

The confusing use of 'community' sometimes derives from an idealised vision of rural communities in industrial societies and peasant communities in agrarian societies. In this romantic view, people live in one location, share a sense of common purpose and identity, and engage in relations of mutual reciprocity, trust, and assistance. Rules of conduct maintain collective norms, and there are procedures by which valued resources are allocated, to the benefit of all. Such an idealised view of community is contrasted with the anonymity and alienation that is perceived to exist in modern industrial societies. There is little awareness, in these discussions, that ethnographers have never found such ideal communities (Cohen, 1985), or any awareness that 'community' is a social construction, and, as such, is constructed quite differently in different societies. For instance, peasant communities cannot be characterised as sharing common interests or a common identity. In peasant communities, every fellow villager is a potential competitor for existing resources, not an ally in the defence of everyone's share. This is the basis of 'the image of the limited good', in which peasant village life is a zero-sum game (see Foster, 1965). In real rural or peasant communities, there is both conflict and co-operation, shared and competing interest, ideal rules of behaviour and daily exceptions to those rules. Common interest and identity are usually better understood as resources used by individuals in their conflicts with others in the community, than as commonly held values. Thus, the first question, when using the term 'community' is to decide what kind of community is being discussed, or what features of 'community' are being emphasised.

Moral Communities

One powerful image of community is that of individuals who care about each other and help each other, sharing a sense of common responsibility, united by a sense of common purpose and commitment. For instance, Rheingold (1993) focuses on reciprocity and the gift economy as crucial elements of virtual communities.1 It is the character of the social relationships that is crucial: community is a moral bond, and virtual communities are composed of 'webs of personal relationships in cyberspace' (Rheingold 1994: 5). This constitutes a moral community: individuals share a common ethical system that constrains interactions amongst members, emphasising mutual benefit above self interest or personal goals. This is community as communal solidarity. Such a group involves like-minded individuals, with a common purpose or moral commitment to each other, who trust one another, regardless of the merits of the common goal. Such communities are seen as the positive alternative to the conflict, isolation and alienation of modern industrial society. There are many people who are embedded in a web of face to face interactions which may not be emotionally satisfying but which provide other economic and social benefits. Such people do not want to physically extricate themselves from that life; they want to supplement that life with the emotional satisfaction and commitment of a moral community. Rather than obtain that benefit by participating in a face to face voluntary group, they instead use electronic communication, and thus create an alternative community for themselves.

This view of community tends to focus on computer mediated communication (CMC), by comparison with face to face communication, as the mechanism for achieving a moral community. Those who argue against electronically mediated moral communities emphasise that CMC lacks the non-verbal cues that help maintain face to face communication, leading to a range of problems and difficulties. There is less 'redundancy' in communication, and messages are out of context, so misunderstandings are easier and relations of trust are more difficult to create. This approach (Kiesler, Siegel and McGuire, 1984), tends to focus on flaming and other interaction dysfunctions that result from the deficiencies of CMC. These deficiencies suggest that any 'community' which emerges from CMC must be a pale and restricted version of 'real' community, just as CMC is a limited version of face to face communication. It is presumed that the individual lacks emotional commitment to the group, and it is a relatively trivial aspect of one's life, unlike the case with 'real' communities, unless one can 'prove' otherwise. Stories of electronic lies and deceptions demonstrate gulf between virtual and real communities. The counter evidence, for the possibility of moral communities based on CMC, becomes conflicting stories of emotional commitment and collective solidarity. Stories of the relations of trust built via electronic communication demonstrate, in this view, that virtual communities can involve the same emotional commitment as 'real' communities. Both arguments turn on whether CMC can or cannot foster or maintain systems of reciprocity and trust.

There are problems with construing this link between electronic communication and community. Electronic communication is one mode of communication and does not, of itself, determine whether or not moral communities are possible. After all, telephone conversations are technologically mediated communication and lack visual cues, yet they are considered to be 'real' conversations and support 'real' commitment between and among individuals. It is simplistic to assume that face to face communication is unproblematically 'real', while CMC, lacking the features of face to face communication, must therefore be 'artificial'. After all, the contrary presumption that face to face communication creates 'real' relations is clearly dubious. There are many situations in which the content of face to face communication is very restricted (e.g., bus conductors, supermarket operators), and few would suggest that such face to face communication leads to a sense of common identification.

This issue can also be rephrased as whether electronic exchanges between individuals, in the absence of any complementary face-to-face contact, can support moral community. Again, the argument depends on the 'realness' of face-to-face communication, and the limitations of mediated communication. Can emotional commitments develop, given the limited social presence afforded by computer mediated communication? Yet, such a virtual community bears some affinities with the 'imagined community' (Anderson, 1991), which has become such a necessary prelude to any postmodernist discussion. In both cases, solidarity is a projection, on the part of individuals, rather than a practice founded on actual behaviour. If the common experience of newspapers, television, and cinema seems sufficient to explain, for many, the solidarity of national identity, then why should the solidarity of community be less feasible? In fact, face-to-face communication is not 'natural'; it is 'artificial' in that it is learned and requires a shared cultural system to be meaningful. This presumption that face-to-face communication is not culturally mediated and so supports real communities, whereas electronic communication is artificial and can only support imitation communities is, itself, a product of cultural bias. There is no necessary reason to suppose that electronic communication, as a mode of communication, is less capable of supporting relations of reciprocity, common commitment and trust than any other mode of communication; this depends on external factors rather than intrinsic differences between face-to-face and electronic communication.

In addition to the problem of distinguishing between natural and artificial modes of communication, there are also problems using reciprocity or solidarity as the criterion for community. Such a criterion is often used by those who see community as a remedy to the problems of modern society. Over twenty-five years ago, Bell and Newby noted how often, in social philosophy and social science, community "was thought to be a good thing, its passing was to be deplored, feared and regretted" (1971: 21). In the anonymity, alienation and impersonalism of industrial society, a return to community was the longed for remedy. The advent of computer mediated communication appeared, for some people, to be a new solution for this problem. Individuals may be isolated, physically, but they could, through electronic communication, share a common experience and perspective.

Such solidarity is, of course, not unknown in social interaction, whether electronic or face-to-face. Paine (1976) drew attention to incorporation as one of two modes of exchange and mediation in societies (the other being transactional, based on negotiation between individuals). Incorporative exchanges are based on co-identity and sharing, in which values are sought jointly for all social actors, while transactional exchanges are between parties who have differing interests and share neither a common commitment to joint aims or a common identity. In the context of an electronic community, all exchanges would be incorporative. Some computer mediated social interaction can be characterised as incorporative. In the early days of many electronic communications networks (such as Usenet, Bitnet, World Wide Web), individuals co-operated voluntarily for the achievement of common goals. Individuals expended long hours for very little personal return, sharing a commitment to common goals and ideology. The same can also be said of many local community electronic networks and bulletin boards. Such groups are similar to voluntary groups that exist within industrial societies: sports clubs, religious associations, neighbourhood assistance schemes. In addition, there are support groups for a variety of illnesses and disabilities that provide important emotional support and assistance; some of these support groups meet only in face to face situations, others only via computer mediated communication, and some combine the two.

It is rare, in any group, that all relations are incorporative and without relations of conflict, hierarchy and inequality. However strong the commitment to shared values based family, kinship, or ethnicity, there is negotiation based on conflicting individual interests and concerns. Collective solidarity is often a goal that is rarely achieved, and rituals are often used to create, even if only temporarily, that shared commitment that so quickly disappears (cf. Turner, 1957, 1969). Thus, local community bulletin boards can become dominated by short-term, instrumental exchanges, and Usenet discussion groups are often disrupted by individuals who display no commitment to, or concern for, common goals. To define community in such a way as to include only incorporate exchange is to ignore the complexity of social relationships.

Normative Communities

A different perspective on community is a cognitive or normative one. In this view, community is evidenced by the existence of agreed rules of appropriate behaviour. If a group of people share a common value or meaning system, they constitute a community. Definitions of pornography, for example, derive standards of 'good taste' from the norms of a local 'community'; the existence of norms regarding taste demonstrates the existence of a community, and the extent of agreement maps the limit of the community. When such norms extend to a sense of collective identity, there may be symbols that mark that identity and practices that distinguish members from non-members. For instance, style of dress, or linguistic practices such as special vocabulary items or a particular accent can all serve as boundary markers. Various traditions or stories, especially concerning the founding of the group, develop to help foster a sense of collective uniqueness.

Like a moral community, a normative community need not be restricted to groups with a geographical or physical focus. Doctors, for instance, share a common meaning or symbol system, with specifiable aims or goals, and they tend to acquire a sense of obligation to each other during their training. In addition, their common experiences creates a set of common understandings; all doctors would have had similar experiences with patients, just as all would have dealt with death and disease. Concepts such as 'communities of interest' and 'community of practice' have been used to describe people who, as a result of common interests or experiences, share a framework of understandings. In the case of communities of practice, this framework develops from shared interaction with others carrying out similar tasks or undergoing similar experiences (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Brown and Duguid, 1991). A shared discourse emerges and people with such understandings can make 'small talk' with each other, based on their common experience and values. Such communities have no distinct boundaries and members of such communities of shared interest or experience may not even interact with each other.2 In so far as participants in such communities do interact, electronic communication may be one means by which they interact and, indeed, the use of electronic mail may itself constitute a community of practice. Special interest electronic discussion groups, whether they focus on leisure activities or occupational specialist tasks, are obvious examples of electronic communication linking individuals who share common experiences.

Such groups may develop some of the characteristics of a moral community, as shared experience develops into mutual assistance and commitment. There may even be shared understandings, evidenced by a particular discourse which new members have to learn. It is important, however, to distinguish between cognitive and affective systems. Tasks and activities can be the foundation for shared meaning systems, but shared cognitive systems do not require, or necessarily lead to, shared moral systems. Normative communities are constituted by ideal rules; individuals can share common norms and yet still disagree on most other issues. This is a lesson learned in studies of personality and culture, where it became clear that people could share a common culture, defined as a shared cognitive system, without sharing similar motivations (Wallace, 1970). Individuals can have different interests and concerns, demonstrate little emotional commitment to each other, share few goals, and yet still share a set of understandings that permits them to interact with each other and thus share a common culture. As long as people share basic rules of conduct, they can interact: they understand the meaning of other people's behaviour and can respond appropriately in turn.

However, it is not clear that 'community' is the most appropriate term for these shared norms, values or understandings. One feature of these normative communities is that shared meanings can exist, without any presumption of interaction among participants. Doctors do not have to know other doctors, as individuals, to be part of this normative community; they only need shared common goals or experiences. Even when they are aware of each, as individuals, the relations may be quite restricted in content. That is, a doctor may know another person, as a doctor, but know little else about the person. In addition, norms are contested, negotiated, and re-negotiated in the process of interaction; they constitute only part of the repertoire of any social group. Normative rules may be aspirations which are not achieved or even ignored, and they exist in distinct, even if unconscious, contrast to actual behaviours. Culture is the term usually used for such a common system of meaning.3 It would be more useful to reserve 'community' for individuals who are enmeshed, as individuals, in a system of social relations, instead of combining community with culture and reducing the utility of both concepts.

Proximate Communities

Attributes such as shared norms or reciprocity are aspects of the social interactions of physical communities: people in a particular location who interact with others as individuals and are enmeshed in multiplex and many-stranded social relations which create dense and overlapping networks. This proximate community remains the starting point for many discussions of virtual community. For instance, Harasim (1993: 17), mentions 'social community' when discussing 'social networlds', reflecting that such fora are often organised around 'metaphors that reflect human settlement and activities: townhalls, classrooms, villages, clubs, and shopping malls'. Other writers talk of cyberspace or public spaces in networks; these may be socially constructed spaces, but the descriptions and analytic extrapolations still derive from physical spaces. This is a model of community in which people interact with each other not in terms of roles or stereotypes, but as individuals. In such communities, there is conflict and conflict resolution, issues of who knows what, how people feel about each other, and all the other ways in which people, stuck in the same location, get on with their lives.

Community has been the subject of long and often tortuous analysis in social sciences, since Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkeim in the last century (Tönnies, 1963; Durkheim, 1964). It has been abandoned, rediscovered, reinvented over many decades (Frankenberg, 1969; Young and Willmott, 1957; Gans, 1962 are a random selection from a long list over many years). Different definitions, identifying varieties and differences in what constitutes community and how it is to be described, have been used in various circumstances developed over time (Bell and Newby, 1971). Some definitions of community, like the social network perspective (e.g., Wellman, Carrington and Hall, 1988), are particularly relevant to electronic social groups. Community, it must be said, is a term which many social scientists prefer to avoid, because of the difficulty of definition, and its valued-laden use in public discourse. It means many things to many people, and it would be hard to find a definition of community that would be widely accepted.

Some features of proximate communities that seem particularly salient to the discussion of virtual community are multiplex and individuated relations, dense and overlapping networks, and involuntary association. Multiplex or many-stranded social relations exist when individuals are linked to each other in a number of different ways. Rather interacting simply as bus driver and passenger or employer and employee, two people may simultaneously be neighbour, work colleague, friend, as well as fellow member of a religious association. Each individual is known to others in a multifaceted way (c.f. Gluckman, 1971; Frankenberg, 1969), and such multiplex relations link individuals with many others, creating a dense network in which everyone knows everyone else (Mitchell, 1969; Barnes, 1969). A proximate community is composed of such networks,4 with varying kinds of links between individuals. Some links provide economic assistance or emotional support, other links are work related, others may be related to leisure activities. In the nature of such a community, the content of the links will not be uniform across the group.

There are other characteristics often association with proximate communities as well. Proximate communities also have boundaries: one is a member or not. Participants in proximate communities share norms of behaviour, though this need not imply either collective identification or common motivations. There are rules, and procedures to deal with disputes. Individuals are often tied to the locality by economic considerations. Access to land, labour or other scarce resources may be linked with residence in the locality. It may be that land is inherited, selling one's house is costly, or that a job elsewhere would be difficult to find; for whatever reason, the withdrawal of participation is a non-trivial decision. Finally, there are public spaces in proximate communities, where people meet unexpectedly, where they can see others and can be seen by others, and where access is relatively unrestricted. These public spaces contrast with personal spaces like homes, where private exchanges take place which are not observed or even known by outsiders, where access is carefully controlled and where interaction follows clear rules.

It is clear that many of the groups whose members' communication is electronically mediated do not exhibit these characteristics of proximate communities. In many electronic groups, for instance, individuals have only single-stranded relations. Participants in Usenet groups share a common interest in a particular issue or activity, but often have no other relation with each other. Similarly, while some electronic discussion groups have clear membership rules and new members must be vetted, there are many others in which people join and depart without fuss or notice. Such groups are so diffuse that no one is aware, at any given moment, who belongs to the group. There are few economic or social resources that require participation in such groups, and the cost of leaving such groups is minimal. There may be little investment, by individuals, in maintaining the group or achieving the collective goals or tasks. This is evidenced by the flame wars and other divisive behaviours that develop when individuals are unconcerned whether the group fissions or disappears, and are indifferent as to whether the tasks or goals of group are achieved. Other groups are composed of individuals with strong moral commitments to a common ideology or who may provide significant emotional support for each other, but it is difficult to develop sanctions to be imposed on those breaking the rules, given the easy option of leaving rather than conforming.

Some electronically constituted groups come close to proximate communities. These are MUDs and MOOs, multi-user systems where individuals participate, as far as computer programs and display screens permit, in a physical location inhabited by electronic persona. In these groups, there are public and private 'spaces', entry requirements, rules of behaviour, and often a commitment to maintaining the electronically created social space (see Stone, 1995; Reid, 1995). These groups draw attention to perhaps the strongest contrast between proximate communities and electronic groups: the involuntary participation in proximate communities versus the voluntary participation in electronic communities. In proximate communities, individuals engage in social relations with people whom they might prefer to avoid. Individuals have rights, but also duties, which they have acquired while growing up and have now internalised. They must sometimes deal with people they dislike as the price of being part of the community. One of the most evocative descriptions of this comes from John Gray, quoted in Sardar (1996, p. 29):

The fantasy of virtual community is that we can enjoy the benefits of community without its burdens, without the daily effort to keep delicate human connections intact. Real communities can bear these burdens because they are embedded in particular places and evoke enduring loyalties. In cyberspace, however, there is nowhere that a sense of place can grow, and no way in which the solidarities that sustain human beings through difficult times can be forged.

This sense of involuntary commitment and participation is often lacking in electronic groups; when there are disagreements or even if things just get boring, people just leave the group. This lack of commitment and endurance makes the idea of an electronic community problematic for many people (Barlow, 1995, for instance, expresses sentiments similar to Gray's). In a recent article about 'Community in the Information Age', Jones (1995: 11) notes that

in the physical world, community members must live together. When community membership is ... a simple matter of subscribing or unsubscribing to a bulletin board or electronic newsgroup, is the nature of interaction different simply because on may disengage with little or no consequence?

As Jones notes, commitment to a group seems, for many, the litmus test for 'community'. Discussion lists with closed membership may provide examples of groups with boundaries, but if individual disengagement is of little consequence and can be done at little cost, can such a group constitute a community? For many, the answer is that such groups cannot be communities.

There seems to be two alternatives in this discussion of virtual community. One option is to reserve 'community' for those groups which exhibit the characteristics previously attributed to proximate communities, including involuntary participation. In that case, few technologically mediated social groupings would meet the criteria of community. The other option is to define a single attribute of community as critical, such as a shared moral, shared cognitive system, shared experiences, or patterns of reciprocal exchange. In such a case, many more electronic groups could meet one of the preceding criteria. This option, however, ignores the variation and diversity in both structure and content that has been discovered in proximate communities. Neither alternative is satisfactory.

The two alternatives represent a false dichotomy. Discussions of virtual communities have been conditioned by an ethnocentric and restrictive view of community based on limited comparative examples from industrial and agrarian societies. Proximate communities are seen as necessarily based on long-term and involuntary commitment to a locality. Yet, communities in hunting and gathering or foraging societies are neither long-term nor involuntary, and an examination of such communities suggests that parallels exist between proximate communities and electronic communities. The purpose of such a comparison is not to argue that one should necessarily be taken as a model for the other, but to illustrate the cultural specificity of previous discussions of community. It is that cultural specificity that has contributed to the confusing discussions of 'virtual community'.

Fluid Communities: Foraging Societies

In most proximate communities, individuals are rooted to a specific location by social, economic, cultural forces. Individuals are 'tethered' by house, property, employment, land, or even just emotional investment, and this pattern has existed since the Agricultural Revolution, when land became a productive resource, which was to be controlled, allocated, and inherited. Thus, there is an involuntary aspect to people's participation in proximate communities: leaving the community may be, at the very least, costly and wasteful and, at the very most, impossible. People do not have the option of withdrawing their support and participation from the group, and this involuntary participation contrasts strongly with ease of movement in and out of technologically mediated social groups.

What, however, of societies where there is less attachment to specific geographical locations or fixed resources? Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, approximately 10,000 years ago, the economic basis of human society was quite different and the structure of communities differed as a result. Before the domestication of plant and animals, and their subsequent use for human food consumption, individuals depended on foraging for food. Foraging is a means of obtaining food that does not involve the exploitation of domesticated plants or animals; wild plants and animals are the source of food, and individuals usually have to travel distances, daily, to find sufficient food. In addition, there is rarely enough food in any one area to permit people stay in one location for very long; individuals move from one location to another, often on a seasonal basis, to obtain food. Because these societies are usually nomadic, there is very little investment in fixed resources and people own only what they can carry. Individuals can move easily, without losing access to any of the resources needed to survive.5

In a foraging adaptation, a fixed resource such as land is of limited value. Land is not a direct source of food or income because it is not cultivated for crops, nor used to feed domesticated animals. Neither the animals or plants that provide food can themselves can be directly owned, sold or inherited, since they are not domesticated and are not under direct human control. There may be a sense of territorial affiliation, but little more. Within this type of ecological adaptation, there are a wide variety of societies, with differing social characteristics. The size of the foraging group will vary, depending on the season, as different size work groups are necessary for different seasons. Foraging societies rarely have a large and dependable enough food supply to enable them to reside in on location throughout the year; they must move from place to place (often on a seasonal basis) to find sufficient food to live. Since they are nomadic, it is difficult to carry material resources with them, so there is no material investment, by individuals, in the group. Since there are no material resources either to be abandoned by departure or to be, somehow, brought with the individual, it is easier for individuals to leave the group. Movement from place to place, or from one group to another, presents few inconveniences.

Some foraging societies have been characterised as immediate-return economies, since people "usually obtain an immediate yield for their labor, use this yield with minimal delay and place minimal emphasis on property rights" (Barnard and Woodburn, 1988: 11). This is in contrast with delayed-return economies (which includes non-foraging economies as well), where "activities are oriented to the past and the future as well as to the present, in which people hold rights over valued assets of some sort...." (Woodburn, 1988: 32). Such delayed returns depend "for their effective operation on a set of ordered, differentiated, jurally-defined relationships through which crucial good and services are transmitted. They imply binding commitments and dependencies between people" (Woodburn, 1982: 433). In contrast, immediate-return economies do not need elaborated social relations (which would constrain individuals' scope for movement); individuals "remain in command of their own labour-power ... [and] ... enjoy a fundamental autonomy of intention and action" (Ingold, 1988: 283).

While proximate communities are often thought to be clearly defined entities, foraging communities are temporary aggregations of individuals. There is often little sense of collective identity (for a discussion of variations within foraging societies, see Smith, 1988). Membership in a community is voluntary and temporary, and individuals move and groups are redefined, depending on ecological and personal factors. The foundation, or building block, of band societies is the kinship network. Foraging societies have an egocentric kinship system, similar to industrial societies, in which kinship is traced from the person outwards. These kinship links become resources; kin are scattered geographically, and individuals can move from one location to another, as ecological and personal factors dictate. Kinship links are the means for both gaining entry to a group and also structuring social relations within the group (see Woodburn, 1968).

Foraging communities are typically egalitarian in ideology, rather than stratified or hierarchical. This is strongly the case in immediate-return foraging economies, which do not involve individuals in long-term binding commitments and dependencies (Woodburn, 1982). Individuals obtain prestige on the basis of their abilities; they do not acquire prestige on the basis of kinship identity or other ascribed attributes, and no one person can presume superior authority or status over another. Typically, in foraging societies, there are no formal offices or roles, whether elected or inherited, to which rights and duties are attached (see Roberts, 1979). There is no state, and no exercise of authority as a legitimate right attributed to a specific social role. In so far as there are leaders, whose opinions are respected, they lead through example or persuasion, with an emphasis on their rhetorical abilities and their achievements and skills.

Egalitarian societies still, of course, have disputes and conflict. In the absence of a state, there is no central authority with a monopoly over coercive force and so no possibility of imposing solutions on unwilling participants. What are the mechanisms of conflict resolution in the absence of formal structures? Conflict is either avoided, resolved through levelling mechanisms such as song duels or public joking that may verge on humiliation (Balikci, 1970; Lee, 1988), relatively rarely, through recourse to physical force. Most importantly, conflict can also be resolved by one or both of the parties simply departing. In state societies, people are often attached to neighbourhood, job, land or business, and such an investment makes them unlikely to leave without attempts to solve the problem. In foraging communities, the community may coalesce temporarily, split and reconfigure itself again frequently, and participants have little investment in maintaining their community membership. In foraging societies, people can 'vote with their feet' if things get out of hand. This is both a useful last resort, and also a motivation to avoid letting conflict get out of control.

Perhaps the proximate groups that exist in immediate-return foraging societies should not be considered communities. After all, the foraging group is not a group which has a primary claim on that individual's loyalty. It has an unstable membership, rules cannot be enforced, and individuals move from one locality to another. It may be argued that such communities don't deserve the label 'community', for much the same reasons as some argue that individuals who interact electronically cannot constitute a community. Yet, if one wishes to use proximate communities as the model for 'community', then the definition of community must include such groups. The alternative is to use 'community' as a uni-dimensional term, evidenced by a single criterion such as shared norms, moral relations, or long-term commitment, or some other 'essential' measure.

The Net as a Foraging Society

To anyone with experience of electronic groups, the familiarity of the preceding description of foraging societies is striking. For instance, in electronic groups, social status is rarely based on external attributes, such as occupation or gender in the 'real' world; it is dependent on abilities or achievements demonstrated in the group itself. The ideology of most electronic groups is strongly egalitarian, with a distinct lack of respect for authority. In many electronic discussion lists, there is no moderator to enforce rules or decisions. If there is conflict or ill-mannered behaviour in a group, individuals must rely on self-imposed adherence to norms of behaviour. Recourse to central authority is unpalatable, and many participants would not accept transforming a group into one in which a central authority or moderator can impose sanctions (requiring approval for postings or removing individuals from the list). As in foraging societies, various strategies (joking or appeals to collective values) are used to achieve consensus. If this fails, individuals resolve the conflict by leaving, just as they do in foraging societies.

In many uses of the term 'community', collective identity is often a criteria used as evidence of community, and thus the basis for arguing that electronic groups cannot constitute communities. Many electronic groups have no stable membership over time, and no clear boundaries separating members from non-members. Individuals can, and may even need to, flit from one discussion group to another, as interest dictates. They may be able to join at will, and, if they 'lurk' on the list, no one may even know they are members. As popularity and personal dynamics fluctuate, electronic discussion groups grow and shrink, sometimes split and sometimes combine, much as foraging groups do. One characteristic of electronic groups is the multiple memberships which individuals maintain, rarely having single memberships or loyalties. Not only do individuals consider themselves members of multiple electronic communities at the same time, they also participate in a variety of face to face groups as well. Each group, whether electronic, face to face, or both, involves individuals in a slightly different network of exchanges, obligations, and interactions. There are no solidarities that command the loyalty of individuals.

Foraging societies, however, are also groups without strong collective solidarity. An egocentric kinship system gives individuals membership rights in a range of groups, and each individual has a different set of loyalties. Individuals move from one locality to another, joining and leaving communities at little cost. Their loyalties are not to the group in which they currently live, but to their extended kinship network, which includes people in other groups in other locales. It is only at the level of a wider society, within which exist local groups in constant flux, that shared identity exists. There is no 'community' in the sense of common loyalty at the level of proximate group, but there is 'culture' in the sense of common values and rules as the level of wider society. Interestingly, this also applies to electronic groups. Each electronic discussion list may be unique but they are 'rules of thumb' that apply to all electronic discussion groups (e.g., don't use capital letters). Experienced members can move from one electronic discussion list to another with relative ease, just as they can move to different MOOs and MUDs. Just as participants in a foraging band consider themselves to be members of a larger society rather than of the particular group of which they are a temporary member, so too do members of electronic groups consider themselves members of a wider Net society rather than members of the particular electronic group(s) in which they are currently participating. The previous distinction drawn between culture and community is productive in this context; if individual electronic discussion groups, bulletin boards, and MUDs are communities, then perhaps the larger 'society' of discussion groups, which individuals freely join and leave, constitutes a 'net culture'.

Of course the foraging model does not apply to all groups whose members communicate electronically. Some electronic groups have a central authority: one must apply for membership and members can be expelled for infractions of rules. In some electronic discussion groups, contributions must be approved by a moderator before being distributed to other participants. Some groups have a stable membership over time; individuals may make significant intellectual investments in the group, and are unwilling to abandon such investments lightly by simply leaving. A sense of shared goals and commitment may develop, as well as a strong distinction between members versus non-members. The distinction may be expressed in the style of interaction and the sense of shared history which develops over time. In some groups (especially MOOs and MUDs), individuals have a strong sense of personal interaction with others, and sense of 'place' develops. The issue is not really whether all immediate-return foraging groups and all electronic groups are the same, but then benefits gained by broadening the discussion of 'community' to include greater diversity. The benefits are sufficient if social processes are better understood as a result. For instance, if foraging communities and some electronic discussion lists are similar in their inability to impose sanctions for rule-breaking and they are also similar in members' lack of social or economic investment in the group, then this provides useful insight into the dynamics of both groups. Foraging communities cannot control or restrict access to the scarce resource of food; it is this which makes it easier for individuals to move from one group to another. If people find it easy to move from one electronic group to another, perhaps it is for the same reason -- many electronic groups do not control or restrict access to the scarce resource of information. To push the analogy further, do individuals now forage for information, moving from one electronic band to another? Whether true or not, at least such explorations seem more productive than debating whether such groups are 'communities' or not.

The lesson from foraging societies is that proximate communities exhibit as much variation as virtual communities. Rather than engaging in typologies, the most useful means of looking at Net communities may be to treat 'community' as background, and focus instead on how individuals and groups cope with continuously changing sets of resources and constraints and how individuals make regular adjustments in their rules for social interaction. Using the lessons learned from social science research, 'community' should be placed within a dynamic, individual decision-making framework. A community is not fixed in form or function, but is a mixed bag of possible options whose meanings and concreteness are always being negotiated by individuals, in the context of changing external constraints. This is true whether group members interact electronically, via face-to-face communication, or both.


1. For the classic discussion of reciprocity and the gift economy, see Sahlins (1972) as well as Mauss (1967).

2. While communities of practice depend on interaction to create and maintain shared understandings, not all members of such communities would interact with everyone else in that 'community'. If doctors constitute a community of practice, they have only interacted with a small portion of the members of that 'community' during their formative education and subsequent medical experience.

3. The numerous debates about the 'sharedness' of culture, as well as the content of culture will not be summarised here, other than to say that 'culture' is as problematic a concept as 'community'. I use the term here only to provide a superficial contrast to 'community'. A starting point for discussions of culture relevant to issues raised here can be found in Archer (1988), Fox (1991) or Hannerz (1992).

4. Networks, however, are not necessarily restricted to bounded groups. Ego-centred networks, for instance, permit social scientists to discuss continuously extending dyadic relations that do not necessarily rebound on themselves to create a closed system. For more detail on social networks, see Wellman and Berkowitz (1988) and Scott (1991).

5. For more detailed discussions of foraging or hunter/gatherer societies, see Woodburn (1982), Ingold, Riches and Woodburn (1988), or Burch and Ellanna (1994).

6. It should be noted that electronic groups are more likely to vary in that regard. In some groups, people are free to join and associate with little, in any, financial investment. However, in others, (especially subscription-only groups), there is a greater loss if the individual leaves and one would thus expect more effort being expended in solving conflicts rather than simply avoiding them by leaving.


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