A term with a general and a variety of specific applications. In the most common usage it refers to any political or socio-economic theory or practice which encourages communal or state ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. Particular applications vary greatly since there are numerous examples of collectivist organizations.
Farmers organized into collectives were, until recently, a significant social group in the former USSR. These farms controlled the labour inputs of members, fixed rates of remuneration, and determined the content of agricultural production. Many were the result of a violent forced collectivization of peasant and family-owned farms during the Stalinist period. Agricultural collectives in China have had a more varied history. One of the most popular schemes was a ‘responsibility system’ introduced in the 1980s, whereby individual peasant households signed a contract by which the land still belonged technically to the collective, but was assigned to individual households for their own use. These contracts specified obligations on either side, for example with respect to the provision of tools and equipment, payment of taxes, and meeting of production quotas. A particularly interesting form of collective-the workers' self-management of the economy-emerged in Tito's Yugoslavia. However, sociological research confirmed that the theoretically democratic distribution of influence within the enterprise was not matched by the real power of Workers' Councils, which tended in practice to be largely symbolic.
The collectivist critique of liberal and other theories of individualism argues that market relationships are competitive, tend also therefore to be divisive, and undermine those communal bonds which are necessary between individuals if they are to cope with misfortunes to which all are in principle vulnerable. For example, social welfare theorists argue that unrestrained free exchange causes welfare problems, as evidenced by the housing market which fails to provide shelter to those in demonstrable need. One of the most celebrated collectivist defences of the welfare state was made by Richard Titmuss (see The Gift Relationship, 1970), who argued that welfare systems should be defended by reference to arguments about altruism. His argument was that people should receive welfare as a gift from strangers, an expression of social solidarity, rather than as an entitlement or right derived from a complex network of reciprocal relationships. Thus, in the case of blood donations, Titmuss maintained that if this ‘most sacred’ of commodities were to be commercialized then the moral bonds between individuals would become wholly contaminated by calculations of self-interest and market price. As he puts it, ‘In not asking for or expecting any payment of money those donors signified their belief in the willingness of men to act altruistically in the future, and to combine together to make a gift freely should they have need for it. By expressing confidence in the behaviour of future unknown strangers they were thus denying the Hobbesian thesis that men are devoid of any instinctive moral sense’. This communitarian view of welfare as an expression of the common values that bind otherwise disparate individuals together may be contrasted with the more individualistic conception of welfare derived from the theory of citizenship . The latter implies that claims to welfare resources are simply an extension of the legal and political rights that are characteristic of liberal democracies and, therefore, that collective welfare is quite consistent with the theory of liberal pluralism. Welfare states are simply adjuncts to markets; that is, rational deprivation-alleviating institutions and policies, resting on the individualistic principles of reciprocal obligations and exchange. Communitarianism, by contrast, embodies a vision of a social order that fosters intimate communal bonds.
During the early 1990s, the term ‘communitarianism’ was appropriated by a small group of mainly American social scientists, linked by a common hostility to the philosophies of liberalism and libertarianism . The sociologist Amitai Etzioni was one of the prominent founders of this movement (see his The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, 1996). Etzioni argues that the advanced industrial societies of the capitalist West suffer from ‘rampant moral confusion and social anarchy’ because individuals have been given too much freedom and not enough responsibilities. Etzioni and other communitarians are in favour of more obligations and fewer rights. They tend to shun economic explanations of social problems, preferring instead to blame everything from crime to excessive consumerism on the moral decline of the family, much of which can be traced to the increasing employment of women outside the home. Etzioni claims this has created a ‘parenting deficit’ which prevents ‘effective personality formation’ in infants, increasing reliance on child-care facilities that often amount to little more than ‘kennels for kids’, and in due course producing a generation of young people who lack the moral fibre to resist crime, drugs, and early sex.
Communitarians deny that they are advocating a return to the 1950s-style division of labour (formal employment for men, back into the home for women), and proffer instead a range of ‘pro-family practices and policies’, such as Etzioni's ideas for ‘peer marriage’ (a two-parent family, in which each partner has the same rights to extended ‘family leave’ after the birth of children, underwritten by a hardening of the laws against divorce). More broadly, communitarians favour a social order in which ‘the community’ identifies the common good, and persuades its members to act towards it. In this way arguments in favour of (say) safer driving will succeed because they have moral force.
Communitarians claim to have influenced the development of social policy in America (Etzioni has been a policy adviser to the Clinton administrations) and Britain (where communitarian ideas are said to have found favour with New Labour). Community policing, for example, is a policy consistent with communitarian ideals. Critics have suggested that communitarian arguments are both vague and naïve. Who will pay for extended parental leave-of-absence from employment? What if ‘the community’ endorses values such as homophobia or racialism ? What happens to dissenters, who refuse to conform to the ideals of the two-parent family and marriage for life, and are not persuaded by mere exhortation alone? Communitarian social policies are also said to be authoritarian in effect if not intention. See also broken windows thesis ; commune ; gift relationship.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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