Let’s Get Organized! Or Should We Form a Community?

March 19, 2014

Many people are ambivalent about organizations. We realize that a good deal of what gets done in this world is done in and through organizations, but we also chafe at the ways they hem us in — their policies and formalities. I used the Google NGram to look at variations over time in when we have spoken of organizations:

association, organizationAs you can see, I also threw in other terms for ways human beings coordinate their activities: association, institution, even corporation. You can see that “institution” was once the commonest of these terms, but/and it’s the one whose frequency of usage has changed the least. The other three terms all show a striking rise about the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. They rise in common, but then “corporation” settles into a spiky, up-and-down pattern. “Association” and “organization” rise dramatically until about 1920, then rise more slowly, and then begin to decline in the 1970s. (Historians tell us that many of the sturdy organizations we depend upon today were first formed at the beginning of the 20th century.)  Over the past hundred years, we seem to have embraced more formal ways of organizing ourselves, but perhaps grown a bit tired of this in recent decades.

We are less ambivalent, more comfortable with “communities,” aren’t we? It is striking to add “community” to that same Goggle NGram:

association, organization with communityIt shows the same pattern of rising at the turn of the century and continuing to rise after that. When “association” and “organization” begin to drift down around 1970, so does “community,”but then the use of the term takes another surge up, its use eclipsing all the other terms. It looks very much like “community” grows in parallel with “organization and “association” (not in opposition), though parts company from them more recently.

Also regarding “community,” is this a term we use to often, to embrace too many disparate things? Or is this a sign of something else?

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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