Home Societal / Political Community The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

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We can turn to a sociological perspective to gain a sense regarding the important role played by community in building and maintaining rich interpersonal relationships. This perspective is founded on an assessment of American culture that was conducted almost two centuries ago by Alexander de Tocqueville (2000/1835). During the formative years of American democracy (1830s), De Tocqueville journeyed to America from France—hopefully under better sailing conditions than our Colonists and Emigrants. He wrote about the “Habits of the Health” that exemplified the best of American communities.

Communities of Heart

The term, “habits of the heart”, was used more recently by Robert Bellah and his colleagues (1985) in their own examination of American communities. I will be relying on both De Tocqueville and Bellah in seeking to better appreciate the role played by community in creating conditions for the formation and enhancement of interpersonal relationships. Several key factors are offered by De Tocqueville to suggest how communities can nurture relationships through establishing “habits of the heart”. According to De Tocqueville, these relationship-enhancing habits are based on seven factors:

  1. Equality of opportunity, knowledge and status exist in the community.
  2. Settings exist in the community for vivid and sustained dialogue.
  3. Shared interests and reasons of mutual support are to be found in the community.
  4. Civic associations (non-government community-oriented institutions) are prevalent in the community.
  5. Emphasis is placed on useful action within the community.
  6. Emphasis is placed on experience-based action within the community.
  7. Abiding belief is to be found in the community regarding human progress and a sense of greater purpose in life.

The first four of these conditions might be identified as “habits of the collective heart”, while the last three could be clustered together as “habits of the personal heart.”

We can begin our application of De Tocqueville’s factors by asking if they are to be found in American communities (or other communities around the world). Given the deep polarization that seems to exist now in American society, can there still be habits of the collective and personal heart—such as those De Tocqueville identified and celebrated more than 180 years ago? With American citizens living and working in isolation from one another, how do they effectively relate to one another in a way that allows them to address the diverse and critical challenges of their 21st Century communities—ranging from the pollution of local estuaries to decline in the local economy, and from the absence of affordable housing and affordable theater to the health care demands of a graying population? Can interpersonal relationships somehow survive in our contemporary communities (let alone our contemporary state and national government)?

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