Defining community and the diminishing small town

March 26, 2016

Sociology professor Eve Blobaum researches the changing concept of "community"

What exactly makes up a community? Eve Blobaum, associate professor of sociology at Johnson County Community College couldn’t help but ask the question that has perplexed sociologists for years.

"It's a bear of a question," Blobaum said. "How do you study community if you don't define it?"

For her upcoming dissertation, Blobaum focused on the shrinking rural small town. At what point does a town get so small that it is no longer a cohesive community? If the school is in one town and the churches in another, and there’s no economic opportunity to speak of, can the community still exist?

Blobaum said she thinks it can, but only if "community" is allowed a new definition.

"Community is not about geographic confines, but instead an acknowledgement of a shared history and tradition enacted through festival," she said. 

What we share, not where we live

Blobaum saw first-hand how this new theory of community arose in her case study, a Nebraska town of less than 150 souls.

When the town's aging leaders decided to stop organizing the traditional milo festival, no other residents stepped in to fill the void. The town went without its signature fall festival for one year. Then, feeling the loss of tradition, adults no longer living in the town decided to organize the festival remotely. As children growing up in the town, they enjoyed the milo festival as one of definers of their community, and they didn't want to give up the tradition.

Why? Because lives lived in urban settings are "transitory and segmental," Blobaum explained. "As a result, social connections are shallow." We don't know our neighbors in the cities and suburbs the way they do in a small town, she said.

"Anonymity is impossible in a small town," Blobaum said. "We all have heard, 'Everybody knows everybody else's business in a small town.' That’s not true in urban areas."

Blobaum's research on the changing community is also reflected in worldwide social media use. 'Communities are more and more based on shared ideologies. You look at communities on the Internet, and you see that people can form a community with someone they have never met," she said in an interview in 2008, when the power of that medium was still in its infancy. (For that story, which also explains early phases of her research, visit JCCC's ScholarSpace.)

Looking ahead

How will we be defining "community" 10 years from now? That's a very intriguing question, especially for a sociologist who is teaching at "community" college.

And what will "community" mean to a rural small town after its young people leave for college but don't come back? Blobaum said she looks forward to researching and teaching these concepts in the years ahead.

For more information about classes in sociology at JCCC, contact Blobaum, who is also co-chair of the sociology department, at 913-469-8500 ext. 4965, or co-chair Brian Zirkle, associate professor of sociology, at 913-469-8500 ext. 2795.