Book Club | The Quest for Community

September 24, 2021

In the fight against COVID-19, we have seen nations employ varying approaches that shed light on the role of the State, the individual, and communities in different societies. Some responses are agreeable, and others questionable. All, however, highlight the deeper complexities underpinning these relationships. 

American sociologist Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community provides a framework for understanding the intricacies and tensions between central government, the rise of individualism, and the decline of community. Throughout the book, we get glimpses of Nisbet’s observations of what was happening throughout communities in the Western world, particularly the looming threats of totalitarianism and socialism. Note that this book was written in the 1950s (and reissued 20 years later) against an early post-war America’s cultural and political backdrop.  

From the back cover

The Quest for Community, published in 1953, stands as one of the most persuasive accounts of the dilemmas confronting modern society.

Nearly a half century before Robert Putnam documented the atomization of society in Bowling Alone, Nisbet argued that the rise of the powerful modern state had eroded the sources of community—the family, the neighborhood, the church, the guild. Alienation and loneliness inevitably resulted. But as the traditional ties that bind fell away, the human impulse toward community led people to turn even more to the government itself, allowing statism—even totalitarianism—to flourish.

Published at a time when our communal life has only grown weaker and when many Americans display cultish enthusiasm for a charismatic president, this new edition of The Quest for Community shows that Nisbet’s insights are as relevant today as ever.

Part one of the book captures the author’s central argument. Social dislocation and personal insecurities correlate with the dislocation of the local community and small groups by the centralised State. The intimate social solidarity and moral certainty located in local communities is the antithesis of 19th-century ideas of individualism and progress.  Hence why “The quest for community will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature – needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity. Without these, no amount of mere material wealth will serve to arrest the developing sense of alienation in our society, and the mounting preoccupation with the imperatives of community” (p. 64) 

Nisbet continues his analysis in the remaining two parts, examining the ongoing quest for community in its various forms—moral, social, political, and the machinery of centralised political power. To which he describes this as “the essential tragedy of modern man’s quest for communityToo often, the quest has been through channels of power and revolution which have proved destructive of the prime sources of human community” (xxii). He argues that the expansion of centralised political power into civil society and the rise of individualism, in turn, have dissolved the function and role of communal institutions such as family, tribe, clan, village, and church. “The conflict between central political government and the authorities of guild, village community, class, and religious body has been, of all conflicts in history, the most fateful” (p.101). These naturally formed communal institutions allow for individualism to operate and exist within the collective. 

Finding the balance between progress, individualism, and collective moral cohesion is the ideal society that Nisbet contests for, arguing that imbalance across these factors may lead to totalitarianism. Additionally, he is concerned about the dangerous combination of growing Statism and the search for community. This happens when the apparatus of centralised political power begins to stretch its tentacles to every aspect of civil life. Subsequently, the role and function of voluntary associations’ that act as intermediaries between individual and State are undermined and redefined.

Nisbet’s laissez-faire philosophy recognised that the freedom concerning the individual and their needs and aspirations are inseparable from their community and social groups.

Nisbet takes readers through a historical overview of significant ideological shifts and social and cultural events that have shaped contemporary Western democracies. From the rise of individualism, centralisation and expansion of State power, and the decline of the local community. Whilst Nisbet may appear heavy-handed in his lamentations of growing Statism, the decline of community in the West and resistance to progress; not all is doom and gloom. Nisbet gives readers some hope of resolving this quest for community. By creating “a new laissez-faire, one concerned, not with the imaginary economic atoms in a supposed legal void, but with the groups and associations that we are in given experience, and the integrity and reasonable autonomy of which are the prime conditions of individual integrity and autonomy”. 

Nisbet’s laissez-faire philosophy recognised that the freedom concerning the individual and their needs and aspirations are inseparable from their community and social groups. It is the nexus of social relationships and natural collective settings that shape, give meaning and purpose to the individual. Almost seventy years since the book’s first edition, this conservative classic coined as Nisbet’s magnum opus continues to hold relevant insights and lessons for the modern West. 

Questions to consider

  • How do we balance individualism in light of community?
  • How does the State address the needs of individuals and communities without excessive intrusion from above?
  • What does community, family and kinship look like in your context?
  • How important are community groups and grassroots movements in addressing the social issues of our day?

Reviews/Summary

Still Questing for Community, Robert Nisbet

Ethical Labour, Russell Kirk

Community versus the State, Arnold Kling

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