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Communitarianism emphasizes the need to balance individual rights and interests with that of the community as a whole, and argues that individual people (or citizens) are shaped by the cultures and values of their communities. It rejects the notion of the image of humans as atomistic individuals. Communitarians claim values and beliefs are formed in public space, in which debate takes place. Both linguistic and non-linguistic traditions are communicated to children and form the backdrop against which individuals formulate and understand beliefs. Individuals do not necessarily accept majority beliefs but if an individual rejects a majority belief, he or she will do so for reasons that make sense within the community rather than simply any reason at all. In this sense, the rejection of a single majority belief relies on other majority beliefs.

Social capital

In the book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that nearly every form of civic organization has undergone drops in membership exemplified by the fact that, while more people are bowling than in the 1950s, there are fewer bowling leagues. This results in a decline in "social capital", described by Putnam as "the collective value of all social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other". According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy.

Communitarians seek to bolster social capital and the institutions of civil society. The Responsive Communitarian Platform described it thus:

"Many social goals . . . require partnership between public and private groups. Though government should not seek to replace local communities, it may need to empower them by strategies of support, including revenue-sharing and technical assistance. There is a great need for study and experimentation with creative use of the structures of civil society, and public-private cooperation, especially where the delivery of health, educational and social services are concerned."

Positive rights

Central to the communitarian philosophy is the concept of positive rights, which are rights or guarantees to certain things. These may include state subsidized education, state subsidized housing, a safe and clean environment, universal health care, and even the right to a job with the concomitant obligation of the government or individuals to provide one. To this end, Communitarians generally support social security programs, public works programs, and laws limiting such things as pollution.

A common objection is that by providing such rights, Communitarians violate the negative rights of the citizens; rights to not have something done for you. For example, taxation to pay for such programs as described above dispossesses individuals of property. Proponents of positive rights, by attributing the protection of negative rights to the society rather than the government, respond that individuals would not have any rights in the absence of societies—a central tenet of communitarianism—and thus have a personal responsibility to give something back to it.

Alternatively, some agree that negative rights may be violated by a government action, but argue that it is justifiable if the positive rights protected outweigh the negative rights lost. In the same vein, supporters of positive rights further argue that negative rights are irrelevant in their absence. Moreover, some Communitarians "experience this less as a case of being used for others' ends and more as a way of contributing to the purposes of a community I regard as my own"

Some people have argued that communitarianism's focus on social cohesion raises similarities with nationalistic communism, or various forms of authoritarianism, although supporters contend that there are substantial differences between communitarianism and authoritarianism, and that communitarianism has very little in common with Communism, which they see as not really valuing individual liberty at all.

For the most part, Communitarians emphasize the use of non-governmental, such as private businesses, churches, non-profits, or labor unions, in furthering their goals.

The modern communitarian movement was first articulated by the Responsive Communitarian Platform, written in the United States by a group of ethicists, activists, and social scientists including Amitai Etzioni, Mary Ann Glendon, and William Galston.

The Communitarian Network, founded in 1993 by Amitai Etzioni, is the best-known group advocating communitarianism. One of the network's many initiatives to reach out to a broader public is the transnational project Diversity within Unity, which advocates a communitarian approach towards immigration and minority rights in today's diversifying societies.

A think tank called the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies is also directed by Etzioni. Other voices of communitarianism include Don Eberly, director of the Civil Society Project and Robert Putnam.

Principal criticisms of communitarianism are:

  1. That communitarianism leads necessarily to moral relativism.
  2. That this relativism leads necessarily to a re-endorsement of the status quo in international politics, and
  3. That such a position relies upon a discredited ontological argument that posits the foundational status of the community or state

Communitarianism and education

Arthur and Bailey(2000, pages 136-141) has suggested that the core ideas in the communitarian agenda can be reduced to ten themes:

1. The family should be the primary moral educator of children.

2. Character education includes the systematic teaching of virtues in schools.

3. The ethos of the community has an educative function in school life.

4. Schools should promote the rights and responsibilities inherent within citizenship.

5. Community service is an important part of a child's education in school.

6. A major purpose of the school curriculum is to teach social and political life-skills.

7. Schools should provide an active understanding of the common good.

8. Religious schools are able to operate a strong version of the communitarian perspective.

9. Many existing community-based education practices reflect the features of the communitarian perspective.

10. Schools should adopt a more democratic structure of operating.


Etzioni, Amitai (1993) The Spirit of Community. Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda, New York: Crown Publishers

Arthur, J. with Bailey, R. (2000) Schools and Community. The communitarian agenda in education, London: Falmer.

Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Etzioni, Amitai (1993) The Spiriit of Community, Rights, Responsibilites, and the Communitarian Agenda, New York: Crown Publishings, Inc

Etzioni, Amitai (1995), New Communitarian Thinking, Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities, Charlotteville: University Press of Virginia, 1995

Etzioni, Amitai (2001), Next, the road to the good society,New York: Basic Books

Gewirth, Alan (1996) The Community of Rights, Chicago: The University of Chicago

Glendon, Mary Ann (1991) Rights Talk, The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, New York: The Free Press

Guttman, A. and Thompson, D. (1996) Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Sandel, Michael (1982, 1998) Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd Edition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sandel, Michael (2009) Justice , What 's the Right Thing To Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 541 pages. 

Communitarianism entry by Daniel Bell in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"Communitarianism", Infed Encyclopedia (http://www.infed.org/biblio/communitarianism.htm)

Fareed Zakaria, The ABCs of Communitarianism. A devil's dictionary, Slate, July 26, 1996 (http://www.slate.com/id/2380)

Civil Practices Network The Communitarian Network, Responsive Communitarian Platform Text. (http://www.cpn.org/tools/dictionary/communitarian.html)

Alasdair MacIntyre – After Virtue

Taylor, Charles Sources of the Self

Walzer, Michael – Spheres of Justice