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Layers of powers: societies and institutions in Europe

Bermejo, S.M. and Amelang, J. and Mazzucchi, R. and Pan-Montojo, J. and Sigurdsson, J.V. (2010) Layers of powers: societies and institutions in Europe. In: Communities. Pisa University Press, pp. 55-94.

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Abstract

Historians and social scientists have offered many and varied definitions of the term “community”. This chapter focuses on specific examples of face-to-face or local communities in order to test the possibilities and limits of the two major analytical approaches to communities: an anthropological approach which identifies ‘community’ as an organic entity, and a symbolic one which considers feelings of belonging and self-identification as constitutive aspects of a community. In this quest, close attention is paid to the question of the stabilization of community’s structures through legislation and institutions, a process that integrates such micro-societies into broader networks of power, and renders them visible to historians. In the first section we examine what we have called a “world of communities”, from periods when communities constituted the dominant element of social structure. Examining ancient Jewish and medieval Icelandic communities, and then early modern Irish and Scottish clans, we try to identify their basic characteristics and to reconstruct the way they related to the rest of the social structure. The second section analyzes the emergence of new loyalties and models of social membership from the 19th century onwards, emphasizing how the discourse on communities played a crucial role in the construction of these diverse patterns of identification and differentiation. Finally, we explore the permanence of the communitarian world supposedly replaced by nationalism and other major modern ideologies along with the new meanings and uses of communities in the 20th and 21st centuries. In sum, this broad overview provides a preliminary narrative of the changes in the structures of communities and their shifting position within wider patterns of social organizations while drawing attention to parallel transformations in theoretical reflection on communities.