Communities, like tribes, were traditionally considered to be the second stage of human grouping, right after families. They however now mean different things to different people, making the definition of community too broad and incapable of clear description. The notion of community, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined to be “the people of a country (or district) as a whole; the general body to which all alike belong. ” This definition is however largely inadequate, considering the many contexts in which the word is used today.
At one level communities stand for clusters of persons, larger than families, who are related by specific common features like the language they speak, the gods they worship, the ethnicity they belong to, the traditions they practice and the place they stay in. Again whilst communities represent human groupings that are more populous than families, many extended families like the tribes that people the islands of the Indian Ocean can easily qualify to be treated as communities.
Communities are further known to have the same social standards, plainly discernible structures and come from specific locations. Communities are powerful entities and have on many occasions achieved remarkable goals in self determination and the pursuit of autonomy, ergo the many struggles for independence in Asia and Africa in recent decades. The sustained struggle of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka in the face of the most horrendous deprivation captures the essential resilience of community feeling and the extent to which it binds community members.
Much of this internal strength comes from the sense of solidarity, identification and support that exists within these structures, the instilling of social values, and the development of attitudes and common strengths. The growth of terrorism is clearly linked to the influence of community attitudes and values; the London bombers, for example, owe their religious fanaticism to community feelings, which superseded the influence of factors like education and financial and social well being and led them to take plainly irrational decisions.
Whilst the notion of community has attracted attention and debate from the time of Aristotle, the social, economic, and political developments that have occurred on the global platform since the 1980s have put the relevance of community into sharper focus. Globalization, a phenomenon that took off in the 1980s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and entailed the breakdown of physical, economic, and trade barriers between peoples of different regions has truly made the world a much smaller place.
Apart from the much greater interconnectedness that has happened in areas of business, trade, economics, education, travel and other areas of human activity, globalization has also led to substantial migrations of peoples from their native lands, Bangladeshis into India, East Europeans into the UK, people from South and Southeast Asia into the US and UK, and an ever increasing stream of Mexicans into the US.
Spurred on by the desire for better living standards, people from economically backward and politically unstable countries are moving into neighboring or distant areas, putting up base, and settling down, changing local demographic structures, interacting with the original inhabitants, bringing their culture and tradition with them, influencing and being influenced by their adopted lands.
By no means is this phenomenon restricted to the affluent countries, (viz. global magnets like the USA and the UK), which have traditionally attracted the deprived with their economic affluence and individual freedoms. Bangladeshis, Tibetans and Nepalese, for instance, have crossed their porous borders with neighboring India and spread out all over the country, offering cheap labor at construction sites, restaurants, and to security companies, changing local equations, provoking sympathy as well as hostility and resentment.
The United States, which has for long been known to be a multicultural and welcoming haven for the poor and needy of the world is now home to millions of people from the Latin speaking countries of South America, Asia and the Pacific Rim, who have settled down in large numbers and significantly changed what was essentially a society dominated by whites, with peripheral roles played by African Americans. The inflow of these outsiders has led to the establishment of communities, where people with commonalities cluster together, sustaining and supporting each other, and interacting in various ways with the larger society around them.
This study examines the issue of survival of such communities in the era of globalization, using readings from two distinguished and well known books, “Becoming neighbors in a Mexican American Community” (2004) by Gilda L. Ochoa and “The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance and Change in Monterey Park, California” (1997) by John Horton. Commentary and Analysis Gilda Ochoa, a professor of sociology at the California State University at Los Angeles picks up an intriguing subject, the relationships and interaction between Mexican Americans, for detailed investigation and analysis.
Referring to a variety of sources like direct interviews, observations from participating in group discussion sessions, minutes of board meetings of local schools, and other relevant papers, Ochoa presents a vivid and disturbing picture of the relationships that are emerging between established Mexican Americans and the new immigrants from Mexico, who are pouring in, legally and illegally, from across the southern border of the United States in hundreds of thousands every year.
Whilst the two communities of Mexican origin do have common historical, cultural, ethnic and religious traditions, their relationships and interaction are characterized by a number of contradictions and insecurities that include sympathy, helpfulness, and cooperativeness, as well as resentment, fear, and mistrust.
Apart from emphasizing the role played by women in the construction of communities, Ochoa deals with issues pertaining to the use of Spanish at home and English in the outside world, the formation of identity and the dynamics of group working during the interactions of the two communities in commonly frequented public places in the small and predominantly working class city of La Puente, 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in Los Angeles County.
John Horton’s book focuses on the small (just 60,000 inhabitants) town of Monterey Park; which in recent years has generated substantial media and researcher interest. At one time Monterey Park was a suburb located some distance east from downtown Los Angeles. Immigration from China, Hong Kong and other Pacific Rim countries that began in the early 1970s and gained momentum thereafter led to the city becoming the first in the United States with a majority of Asian inhabitants.
Horton’s book is actually one of a duo on the subject, the other being authored by Timothy Fong. The evolution of Monterey Park into an Asian majority city in the United States is important for the social and economic ramifications that arise out of the coming together of people of different races, different ethnic backgrounds and different classes in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of cultures, languages, religions and income groups.
Horton refuses to see Monterey Park as another Chinatown and views it in terms of a bustling and diverse location that has witnessed the political changes that arose from the interaction of immigrants and earlier residents of Asian, Latino and Anglo American lineage; he uniquely showcases the political battles that started off on the basis of ethnicity and race, which were thereafter gradually abandoned in favor of accord and harmony.
The steady evolution of a multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic society in the United States has led to significant demographic shifts and political changes. With the Latina/o population in Los Angeles expected to outstrip the white population by 2 million by 2010, the city is already known as the Chicano capital of the US. Such events have led to the development of complex relationships between the original inhabitants and newcomers and to the emergence of feelings of conflict as well as solidarity between different population segments.
Whilst the entry of large numbers of migrants is bound to lead to the development of complex local relationships, the impact of globalization on the modern day economy and the consequent migration of industries and jobs to low wage areas in South America and from other parts of the world have also led to escalation in hostility, resentment and the tendency to lay the blame for difficulties arising out of such events on the influx of immigrants.
Ochoa uses a number of research techniques to investigate the evolution of the Mexican immigrant community in La Puente in the face of white resentment and hostility, the many obstacles and difficulties that characterized their lives in the city and the strange and complex relationships that developed between the incoming Mexican immigrants and the established Mexican Americans who had arrived earlier, put down their roots, brought up their children, and built their homes in the face of white resistance.
Her investigations lead to the development of a piquant tale, warm and heartbreaking, and documents events that often go completely unnoticed by members of the majority and older community, for whom the newcomers often represent nothing more than unwelcome intrusions who clutter residential areas, litter streets, strain existing infrastructure, and take away jobs.
Ochoa recounts, through a number of personal interviews, the travails of the Mexican community in the face of a dominant white population that felt strongly enough about immigration to enact laws seeking to deny undocumented Mexicans “access to public services, such as excluding children from the public school system, another that denied affirmative action in schools and workplaces, and a third that stemmed from the larger English-only movement and aimed to eliminate bilingual education” (Ochoa, 2004, 3).
Ochoa’s work is unique in the sense that most studies on the Mexican community until now have been quantitative in nature, have focused on demographic and work related issues and have not, like her study, taken cognizance of the impact of the environment and local interaction on the evolution of the Mexican community. Working purely within the confines of La Puente, Ochoa addresses issues that affect the evolution of the Mexican American community and the complex attitudes and behaviors that characterize the relations between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrant newcomers.
Her investigation also throws up the impact of the dominant culture on immigrant cultures and the probability of new cultures and new communities becoming assimilated in the culture of the majority community. With most assimilative and integrative methods practiced through local schools, Ochoa’s work focuses strongly on the working of schools and school boards, on the attitudes and impressions of local parents and how control of schooling provides the dominant community with strong weapons to suppress the expression of newer communities, take away from them the language of their forefathers and break their links with their ancestors.
Apart from the pernicious effect of schooling on the latent aspirations of incoming communities, Ochoa’s investigation of interaction between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants brings out the areas of conflict as well as solidarity and the extent to which the constant flow of immigrants can affect the assimilation process of older and established inhabitants from the same ethnic and geographical background. Immigrant communities from different cultures have to often face resistance to their traditions, language, and customs in their adopted homes from members of the home community.
A phenomenon that has repeatedly expressed itself in the past in various settings, it has led to the immigrant community assimilating itself with the culture of the local community, adopting their way of life, language, customs and traditions. The United States has itself played host to impoverished immigrants from Ireland and other countries of Europe like Poland and Germany, who have over decades learnt English, Anglo traditions and customs, conformed to local expectations and become Americans.
Assimilation of foreigners is not restricted to the United States and expresses itself in all societies that play host to immigrants. The United Kingdom for example is redrawing immigration procedures that now require all immigrants to take tests on their knowledge of England, English, and English society. Much of this assimilation is carried out at the level of local schools, where school policies are predominantly weighed in favor of maintaining the local language and local culture to the exclusion of alien languages and cultural influences.
Ochoa makes the point that with schools being reproductions of the larger surrounding society, their structure, policies, procedures, and regulations, in La Puente, work towards strengthening the established values, attitudes, ideologies and inherent discriminatory attitudes of the American way of life; their socialization process emphasizes the integration of children of immigrants and other colored people by teaching and inculcating values, norms, attitudes and expectations of the dominant class.
The emphasis on English to the exclusion of all other languages, including Spanish, is one of the most important tools for the gradual elimination of Mexican identity and the assimilation of children of different communities into the Anglo way of life that characterizes American society. La Puente’s investigations also lead to the inescapable conclusion of immigrant communities having to do with poorer school quality and the routing of their children to inferior career paths, conditions that tend to perpetuate existing hierarchical and power structures.
Such discomfort, which is supposedly normal in the early years of immigrant arrival in terms of the assimilationist paradigm, (Ochoa, 2004, 21) is expected to gradually lead to a betterment of conditions; the Mexicans are expected to follow in the footsteps of the Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities who came before them and gradually shed their community attributes and adopted the American way of life, i. e. entered into the activities and general life of the dominant community.
The assimilationist paradigm further postulates that with immigrant communities expected to become less distinguishable from the dominant community with the passage of generations, such assimilation leads to greater acceptance and lesser hostility and a gradual easing of difficult living conditions. Apart from the tactics of assimilation practiced in schools, Ochoa also documents the complex and dichotomous relationships that exist between Mexican Americans and immigrant Mexicans, with the reactions of Mexican Americans moving from feelings of distaste, shame and rejection to cooperation, assistance and solidarity.
With the responses of Mexican Americans being shaped by (a) their feelings about California once being part of Mexico and now occupied by Americans, (b) their experiences in La Puente, their adopted homeland, their struggles and the hostility they faced in their efforts to settle down in La Puente (c) their affinity towards their people from Mexico, and (d) their feelings of embarrassment arising out of the backwardness of the new entrants, their reactions are contradictory and, going by the interviews with Mexican immigrants, veer from goodwill and cooperation to rejection and hostility.
Much of the negative attitudes can presumably be put down to insecurity that could stem from feeling that their acceptance in American society could be adversely affected by the buildup of negative perceptions in the face of continuing influx. Ochoa also documents the struggles the Mexican community has faced and is facing in preserving their language and culture from established institutional and social culture and their need for preservation of their cultural and social identity.
Horton’s book focuses on the emergence of diversity in politics in Monterey Park from one and a half decades (mid 1980s to late 1990s) of interaction between immigrants and native residents. Employing techniques like ethnography, the use of exit polls and interviews, Horton is able to represent the process of change, which encompasses the giving way of established networks of loyalty, the increasing importance of women, minorities and newcomers, and the makeover of identities.
Horton examines the municipal elections of 1988, 1990 and 1992 to show that voters made their election choices in the first 2 elections mostly on the basis of ethnicity. By 1992 feelings of ethnic solidarity appeared to have diluted significantly and voting patterns did not appear to move along ethnic lines.
Horton furthermore also investigates areas other than those concerning politics like civic organizations and social events to assess the results of interaction between the city’s multi-ethnic residents, and seeks to show that whilst ethnicity was an important political force, it was in a state of fluidity and was mined and modified for political advantage.
Elaborating on the divisive and essentially racist approach of the Slow-Growth and the Official-English movements, (Horton, 1997, 121) Horton also points out the importance of class stating that integration at Monterey Park was furthered because both native inhabitants and immigrants belonged to the middle class. The middle class resources of the newcomers and the middle class status of the established inhabitants helped in reducing differences between the two groups. This point is extremely valid; it reinforces the force of class as a divisive factor in society and its power to overcome differences in culture, traditions and ethnicity.
Based upon a wide range of data that comprised of reviews of newspapers, exit polls, interviews and eyewitness accounts, Horton compares the issues of ethnicity, immigration and race in Monterey Park with larger regional, national, and global contexts. Opposing the view that that cultural diversity will lead to disunity among American people, Horton makes the point that diversity does not inescapably lead to lasting competition and conflict (Horton, 1997, 182) and that moreover the politics of diversity based on alliances between different ethnic groups can bring about unity and harmony.
His effort is important for the analysis that interethnic politics lead to the redefinition of ethnic identities. A community is far more than a collection of individual humans with some common bonds or purposes, such groups being more appropriately described as associations. Communities develop mores and are characterized by a sense of self identity that comes about from a common and shared past as well as a collective vision of the future, an identification with the concept of “us” and “them”, and finally of collective thought and attitudes, (features of community characteristics that are brought out very clearly both by Ochoa and Horton).
Again communities need individuals to be integrated by principles, be active, and participate strongly in the pursuit of its interests. Communities, experts say, are united by an identifying principle, which represents the value, the ideal, and the good that the community revolves around for its sustained survival, and shapes the processes for assessing such principle.
With the establishment of the values and principles and the organization of the community requiring its members to participate in such processes, interaction between community members is dependent upon communication, an essential feature of community life that is destroyed through negation of the use of ethnic languages by assimilative processes. Communities require communicating to grow and consolidate. With humans living in communities by virtue of the things they share and possess, ideal communities are restricted in size and distinguished by strong communication between its members.
Globalization, migration, and assimilation of traits of other cultures obviously work against the strengthening of communication bonds between community members and affect its furtherance. The subject of globalization and its repercussions have come to the vanguard of socio-political debate and discussion, there being a growing concern that globalization, through its various manifestations, is wiping out communities and cultures and creating an ugly similarity all over the world.
Events like the protests against the WTO in Seattle during 1999, the objection to the entry of McDonald’s in various parts of the world and other insurrections, suggest that the concept of a unified world is not just difficult but also unwanted by many peoples. It however needs to be realized that the personal and cultural impact that globalization is having all over the world is as important as its economic impact. The creation of a global society actually needs diversity in its constituents, the diversity in a society adding to its novelty and, hopefully, to its ability to be flexible.
The integrating principle of a global society should not just reject sameness but should try to represent the views of all those involved in its creation and maintenance There is an increasing feeling that globalization can lead to the destruction of a myriad ethnic cultures in favor of one common culture, which most people feel will be predominantly Euro-American, considering the soft and hard powers of the western nations and their domination of global media.
In both La Puente and Monterey Park, the cultures of ethnic communities have been subjected to a fierce assault by the dominant culture, much of which is played out in schools and by the imposition of the English language. The all pervasive effect of American advertising and television programs is also seen as a strong culturally invasive force, not just with immigrant communities in the US but all over the world; the concern about loss of cultural identity and local uniqueness is substantial and is caused by the perception of the imposition of cultural hegemony through all possible means.
With globalization impacting the world at all levels, society, community, and individual, it is not difficult to foresee that the assimilation of individual cultures and unique community traits into the folds of the dominant community can have a negative impact upon community life. It however remains a fact that the homogenization of the world, as also of different communities in the United States, is happening at a fast clip, a phenomenon that is adversely affecting the independence, growth and sustenance of a myriad communities. A number of reasons are behind this decline in community life.
With globalization involving travel and migration of labor forces in large volumes from areas of deprivation and excess labor availability to those deficient in workforce and willing to pay for the same, it is become progressively difficult for communities to retain their distinguishing characteristics in the new areas that some of their members decide to make their homes in. Whilst increases in communication technology and cheaper air travel are making communication cheap and easy between people in different areas, the absence of direct face to face communication that existed in the past is bound to affect the integrity of community life.
Limited communication will not allow for the development of relationships to levels that are needed for the continuance of communities. Apart from the deterioration in 121 relationships, community spirits are also hurt by cultures of consumption, market cultures and the cultures of dominant communities, all of which lead community members, especially those who are young to conform to what they feel to be the most popular, acceptable and esteemed culture. Market cultures affect community life adversely, leading to the dominance of commodification and the decline of neighborhoods, communities and common links of history and tradition.
The adoption of the cultural mores and ways of life of the dominant community by immigrant communities is, in many cases, as highlighted by Ochoa, due to need for increasing the self esteem and self worth of members of immigrant communities. Such feelings in the minds of new immigrants are moreover reinforced by seeing people of the same community, who had come earlier, having already adopted the culture of sameness, and consequently lead to greater assimilation with dominant communities and submersion of individual community traits.
Homogenization of individuals into persons with similar behavioral and cultural norms arises from (a) environmental forces that do not appreciate and do not tolerate any deviation from accepted norms and (b) the erroneous notion that social or national unity requires all individuals to follow the same culture; much like the concept of organizational culture in the private sector. A nation or a society is however significantly different from a private sector corporation and such notions lead to the creation of utmost confusion over concepts of homogeneity and unity.
Strong unity, most policymakers and intellectuals assert, comes from the affirmation of diversity in the context of similar objectives. Homogeneity in fact leads to dogma, intolerance, prejudice, and divisiveness and works against the concept of unity and effective progress towards common goals. Diversity has time and again been shown to be associated with the successful working and goal attainment of most groups of people.
Communities and larger societies thrive on diversity and the underlying objective for the achievement and establishment of a beneficial structure, concepts and ideas that cannot progress in the absence of tolerance for other ideas and perspectives. The necessity of changing with the times is critical for all communities and larger societies. Globalization is also steadily eliminating the sense of responsibility necessary for the growth, purpose and consolidation of community life, with most community affairs being decided by state or national governmental bodies, and even by large corporate organizations.
All this as well as the process of assimilation is leading to the steady deterioration of community life and the construction of associations that are characterized by sameness to the exclusion of oneness in the reinforcing presence of diversity. Lack of diversity, tolerance, and communication, leads to the stifling of communities. In actual fact, the concept of a truly global society allows communities to grow and flourish; it takes strength and sustenance from their various inputs and features, even as it strives for the achievement of common and not selective good.
Such a society will work optimally only after the striking of a proper balance between the needs of globalization and the dominant and minority communities in areas of political, social and economic activity. Whilst globalization does not appear to be a reversible phenomenon, actions need to be taken to ensure that it is not allowed to destroy the notion of community. Both the studies, by Ochoa and Horton, reveal that whilst immigrant communities come under enormous pressure in early years, such strains disappear with the progress of assimilation.
Although most community members show mixed approaches to the process of assimilation, resenting the taking away of the characteristic features of their life and at the same time wishing to be held in esteem by members of the dominant host community, the preservation of communities depends greatly upon the tolerance and openness of establishment members and the extent to which they are ready to respect the uniqueness of newcomers in their midst.
Assimilation can actually instead of leading to unity result in a false sense of sameness, and such societies, which press for the establishment of sameness rather than diversity, can lead to the suppression of growth and sustenance of communities. Conclusion The continuance of communities in a fast globalizing world, as is evidenced from the foregoing discussion, depends to a large extent upon the tolerance and open-mindedness of dominant communities.
Whilst most communities are formed over the ages and are by nature extremely resilient, excessive fragmentation, migration and exposure to more politically and economically powerful cultures that are furthermore negatively disposed towards alien communities can put such communities under immense strain and lead to irreversible changes.
Horton makes the point that modern day society, whilst containing elements of dogma and intolerance, are by nature receptive to the concept of multi ethnic structures; they are open to being shaped by and responding to external influences, and to the creation of freer and more vibrant social structures. The concept of a globalized world allows communities to retain their distinguishing and reinforcing features, even while it strives for the betterment of the common good.
The successful progression of such social structures work towards the advantage and benefit of the many communities that sustain its diversity and multifaceted nature and it becomes the responsibility of all individuals to ensure that diversity is not sacrificed at the altar of sameness. Communities are critical to the successful progression of human society; they facilitate the establishment and sustenance of bonds between humans at elemental levels, lead to joint and cooperative action for the betterment of society and to the continuation of different identities and cultures that have grown over centuries.
Such features of diverse and multiethnic societies need to be valued and not extinguished by narrow and insecure parochialism and the desire to create a globally similar society. Unthinking efforts to assimilate separate cultures and extinguish their unique characteristics in favor of the establishment of uniformity can lead to nothing but the detriment of globalization efforts and society needs to be ever vigilant against such regressive tendencies.
Recognizing the impact of globalization on communities and making of concerted efforts to preserve them is an imperative for the establishment of a truly globalized society and should be a priority of leading world societies. Globalization need not lead to the decline of community. Shifting of short sighted perspectives will help in the preservation, sustenance and growth of unique communities and to the diversity and strength of a truly globalized society.
Ochoa, G.L, (2004), Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community: Power, Conflict, and Solidarity, University of Texas Press
Horton, J, (1997), The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California, Temple University Press