The ambiguities of the term community make any wholly coherent sociological definition of communities, and hence the scope and limits for their empirical study, impossible to achieve. In practice, most self-proclaimed community studies have been concerned with examining patterns of social interaction in relatively geographically confined locations, such as villages and urban neighbourhoods. The impact of externally generated change has often been a key concern of these studies. Some sociologists use community studies as a means of exploring, at a manageable local level, wider social processes and structures—such as class or power structures. Others focus on the impact of the spatial proximity of people in a given locality on patterns of social interaction. A wide range of methods has been used, but participant observation, the use of key informants, and social anthropological techniques have been prominent. The best introduction to this diverse literature is still Colin Bell and Howard Newby's Community Studies (1972).
The links between community studies, on the one hand, and rural and urban sociology, on the other, have (unsurprisingly) been particularly close. For example, concepts of community were incorporated in Robert Redfield's folk-urban continuum, and in the urban ecology of the Chicago School; while, conversely, many of the classic community studies were inspired by such theoretical perspectives. However, much scepticism has been expressed concerning the alleged typicality of those community studies which claimed to provide case-studies of wider social processes. These problems led one critic to describe them (rather unfairly) as ‘the poor sociologist's substitute for the novel’.
Various attempts have been made to rethink the content and purpose of community studies by abandoning the normative overtones which the concept of community has so frequently carried. (Although the philosopher Raymond Plant has also argued that the concept is ‘essentially contested’ and therefore necessarily comprises both a descriptive and an evaluative dimension.) In an article entitled ‘The Myth of Community Studies’ (British Journal of Sociology, 20, 1969). Margaret Stacey proposed abandoning the concept altogether, and reformulating the terrain conventionally occupied by community studies as the examination of locally based and interrelated sets of social institutions, or local social systems. These social systems are not however conceived in isolation from more widely operative social structures and processes.
Stacey's paper appeared at a time when urban sociology in particular was turning sharply away from what appeared to be the abstracted micro-sociology of community studies to consider how macro-social processes shaped the sorts of locations which had been the targets of many such studies. Its impact was therefore limited. However there was a later revival of interest in ‘locality studies’ (as they were now termed) among urban sociologists. The reasons for this are complex but they stem in large part from geographical work which emphasizes the significance of locally varying social, economic, and political structures in the explanation of changing patterns of industrial location. There is also now some more general sociological concern with the spatial aspects of social organization, notably in Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration, which incorporates the concept of ‘locale’—defined as the ‘physical settings associated with the “typical interactions” composing…collectivities as social systems’. Among such locales are those which contain—in more or less complex forms—the types of local social system referred to by Stacey. See also community power.