Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

What is community? We hear the word thrown about in a multitude of contexts and meanings, but what is it really? The Oxford Dictionary defines community as a “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”  But how are we defining and identifying those commonalities? 

When quarantine lockdown began in Colorado in March 2020, I posed a question about community on social media. I asked how people were defining community during coronavirus. It is a rare phenomena for the global “community” to simultaneously share a common experience. I wondered if community was being thought of in a new way during these unprecedented times.  

Somewhat surprisingly, many of the responses provided by personal and professional acquaintances did not speak of a larger, global community. Rather than using expansive terms, many spoke of communities on a hyper-local scale. Their current community was being defined by their family, their coworkers, the local restaurant owners and hospitality workers.

The trend towards hyper-localization is arguably in contrast to the overwhelming calls for people to increase empathy and compassion for others. Your town may not be hit hard by COVID-19, but New York City is, Italy is, Brazil is. It is not uncommon to feel like the pandemic is “over there” when it is not directly affecting you or your loved ones. Why is our definition of community contracting instead of expanding? There is no easy answer. Scholars have dedicated decades to developing theories and explanations of community. Somewhat poetically, the cohesion between these different conceptions is the notion of commonality.

As researchers, this requires us to think intentionally about what communities are, and are not, being included in any research engagement. Calls for employing a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion proliferate, but unfortunately, these concepts frequently end up reinforcing homogeneity. We look for commonalities in behavior, thoughts, actions when identifying a research target population or sample. Perhaps it is time to rethink these practices. Perhaps it is time to engage in research that investigates how people with different demographics or psychographics approach the same topic. It is time for research to play a more active role in community building, and in turn, foster an environment of empathy and compassion.

While the new normal of living with COVID-19 is slowly settling in, I encourage us all to question our assumptions, embrace agility, and exude empathy in developing and executing research now and in the future. Let us rethink and reevaluate what a “community” is and address its dynamic nature.