New and old community sensibilities in Popular Education

Alfonso Torres Carrillo
Universidad Pedagógica Nacional de Colombia





Abstract– We need to return to the community sensibilities of popular education. There are now a number of discourses and practices referring to the community and the communitarians. These are not only related to poor populations in small areas, but to different ways of being and living together. They talk about establishing stronger ties and different senses of belonging that not only refer to the similarities, but to the differences. Popular education can enrich these practices by incorporating and promoting the new sensibilities through its emancipatory perspective. 

One of the most popular words used by popular educators is community: “We will work with the community,” “We learn in the community” or “We start with the problems of the community,” are common expressions among those who promote and develop actions inspired by liberation pedagogies and who are committed to social transformation. However, when we ask the same people about their understanding of the word “community”, they usually identify it with a population located in a territory that shares traits, needs and common interests.

This notion is relevant when we refer to peasant and indigenous groups, where members are recognised as “communitarians” whose main reference is to share a territory, social conditions and common cultural traits. At the same time it is limited to account for other processes which are recognised as communitarian but not anchored to a space or to the sharing of common characteristics or problems. There are new ways of being and acting together that generate ties of solidarity and commitment around cultural practices, ethical choices and social movements involving people from different backgrounds and characteristics. Many of these groups and actions are defined as communitarian in opposition to the ways of life, relationships and consumption of a capitalist character.

“There are new ways of being and acting together that generate ties of solidarity and commitment around cultural practices, ethical choices and social movements involving people from dif ferent backgrounds and characteristics.”

Actually, it is commonly recognised that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, capitalism has not only reached all corners of the planet but also into all areas of community life. Rather than being just a mode of production or an economic system, it has converted itself into a paradigm with a hegemonic vocation. Thus, the business and commercial paradigm now imposes itself in the world of art, education, health and even everyday life, infusing them all with its profit motive and competencies, its instrumentalism and individualism, its contempt for community values.

Old and new community sensibilities in Latin America

The general commodification of social relations, taken to the extreme in the neoliberal model, seeks to dissolve “any form of camaraderie and the ability to freely produce other ways of living life that represent the mutual confirmation of individuality and the option of choosing common goals” (Barcelona 1999). As a “single way of thinking”, it also seeks to prevent the rise of individual subjective thinking and collective subjectivities suggesting other economic projects, social and political alternatives to the capitalist order.

At the same time this proletarianization of capitalist domination has also made visible, reactivated and enabled the emergence of lifestyles, values, ties, networks and social projects that diverge from individualistic, competitive and contractual logic. At least in Latin America, such alternative dynamics and social practices sometimes carry other community sensibilities. Through them a new sociability emerges, as do collective actions and ways of understanding democracy.

When we recognize these community sensibilities we encourage alternative proposals and projects to the material and subjective impoverishment that comes with capitalism. In this light it is challenging to build a perspective that shapes the community as a place to recognise and channel certain potentially emancipatory social dynamics and policies.


First of all, unlike the suppositions of sociology and developmental policies, ties and traditional community values do not disappear in the wake of capitalist modernisation. On the contrary they are sometimes even strengthened and revived when people star t to resist the development. This is the case of many indigenous people and peasant populations in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. In these places the community constitutes an ancient way of life based on the existence of a common territorial base, some forms of production and solidarity work, some practices of authority and a repertoire of community customs.

In recent decades there has also been a process of “re-Indianisation” in several countries. With this I mean a revival of ancestral identities tied to strategies for the recovery of territories, customs and forms of community governance. This has happened with some African-American populations in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and the Caribbean.

The presence of sentiments, ties and practices seen as belonging to the community also appear in the initial stages and joint mobilisation of popular urban settlements when their precarious conditions or extreme situations of injustice activate processes of solidarity and mutual aid. We also see stable bonds of solidarity based on neighbourhood and other support networks such as provincial origin or ethnic affinity emerge. In the initial phases of establishing a people’s movement, a mesh of relationships are formed. There are solidarities and loyalties emerging, which constitute themselves into a collective strength and present resistance against the dynamics of a massive increase of urban life, the market economy and adverse policies.

When disaster strikes

Similar processes have been found af ter natural or human disasters, like the earthquakes in Managua (1976), Mexico (1985), Armenia (1999), and landslides and floods caused by “La Niña” in hundreds of villages in Colombia (2011). Here the people were confronted with the absence of, tardiness of, or limited institutional action. They responded by solidarity and collective action, helping them to reinvent themselves as communities.

Apart from lifestyles or territorial community ties, we can add other ties around values of justice and sensibilities toward a shared future. One example is public social movements that bring together different people around the defence of the environment, the public, the reclaiming of gender or cultural rights. Such groups, from their common indignation, joint actions and the development of shared agendas, generate a sense of belonging and community ties that transcend the interests that motivate them. These purposeled communities arise from the deliberate intention to reorganise a coexistence according to ideally elaborated values, based on beliefs or new social frameworks.

Creating a culture

In the urban context, forms of sociability marked by strong and intense emotional bonds have been growing, either around massive spaces or cultural consumption, as in the case of the “youth culture” (punk, rock, hip hop), football bars and multiple groupings of adults around shared cultural practices. These are not stable solidarities nor oriented toward anticapitalist sensibilities, but they generate loyalty and interpersonal bonds that are not defined by mere selfinterest or economic benefit.

Along with the sense of community associated with particular social dynamics, others reclaim community by associating it with the need to reinstitute a sense of ethical policy from democratic ideals based on justice, so that there are no “facts” excluded from political communities. Others arrive at a notion of “common good” understood as a set of common issues which allow for the coexistence of diverse social actors.

This emergence of community in Latin America requires a conceptualisation that lets us understand and channel these lifestyles, ties and community processes through the emancipatory perspectives of popular education. Here are some ways we can do it.

From the community as a representation to the community as a concept

Let us begin with the origins of the use of community as a concept in nascent sociology in the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period, European societies suffered rapid and radical changes because of the French and industrial revolutions. One change was the way people related to each other. In traditional societies collective life was articulated around subjective ties and compromises based on values such as loyalty and mutual commitment. In modern cities and the business world, social relationships are
sustained by contracts between individuals, in agreements of interest based on a utilitarian rationality.

This metamorphosis was identified by the young German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In 1887 he introduced the term community in his book “Community and Society”. He refers to a type of social relationship based on strong subjective ties such as feelings, territorial proximity, beliefs and common traditions, for example bonds of kinship, neighbourhood and friendship. This type of bond is opposed to that of society, characterised as a type of social relationship with a high degree of individuality, impersonality, and proceeding from mere interest.

Perhaps the fundamental difference between community and society is the fact that in the community human beings “remain essentially united in spite of all dissociating factors” while in society they “are essentially separated in spite of all the unifying factors” (Nisbet 1996).

For Tönnies the communitarian and societarian do not implicitly belong to an epoch or social class. During his time “communities of spirit” also emerged around values and shared life plans, like socialism, which he was affiliated with.

Max Weber saw a social action “based on the subjective feeling of the participants to form a whole; community ties also generate a sense of belonging based on all sorts of affective, emotional and traditional foundations” (Weber 1922). He warns us that not all participation necessarily involves community; dwelling in one place or belonging to the same ethnic group does not necessarily entail the presence of ties or subjective feelings of collective belonging.

These explanations are valid, to the extent that they allow us to criticise the relationships capitalism continues to promote as well as to challenge the assumption that any localised population is already a community. Even more, it allows us to ask how much community there is in any given neighbourhood or rural village, referring to the quality of the ties. Also, the initiation of adjunct communitarian-like actions does not mean that they stem from communities already there, unless they also seek ways to promote feelings and community ties.

Community as gift

Another perspective of the community is that proposed by Roberto Esposito (2003), who, referring to its Latin etymology, shows that in the word communitas, the munus suf fix is defined as “gif t” and refers to an absence, to an obligation or shared debt and not to possessing something in common. So, community is not a set of individuals who share common properties, but a shared commitment between individual subjects which makes them responsible together and which has to be constantly renewed. Thus, the opposite to communitas is inmunitas, which refers to the one not wanting to bear the burden, the responsibility for and with others.

These ideas from Esposito may also be relevant for af firming and strengthening existing community practices and processes that emerge and sustain themselves around shared dreams and commitments not exhausted in the pur- suit of a claim or the existence of shared utopias.

The community can also refer to the opening, the creative potential of initiating. Because of this it cannot be appropriated by any power, but rather makes the positions and af finities circulate, obliging continuous review in order not to be institutionalised. This sense of community corresponds to certain moments of social ferment and solidarity which Turner (1998) named communitas, contrary to “structure”, the socially instituted.

These contributions about the initiating character of community are very relevant in order to account for situations, conjunctures or processes in which sensibilities are activated or reactivated. They help explain ties and practices characterised by solidarity – when in the heat of adversity emerging from a social process – the creative potential of collectives unfolds.

When the academic world notes a return to community, we can ask ourselves: What can we take from this large and still open intellectual and political field about the sensibilities of community “which are in play” in Latin America? First of all it lets us assume community to be a category of critical thinking which allows for the recognition of those processes, actions and experiences that demonstrate or promote ties, shared meanings and environments oriented toward solidarity, reciprocity, mutual commitment and the production of a sense of belonging, with the power to question or constitute itself as an alternative to capitalist rationality.

Challenges to popular education in the community

What are the meanings and implications of understanding community and its emancipatory potential this way for popular education, in par ticular the intersections and interactions with groups, processes and community ideals? Let us consider the community as a way of life, a tie, a value and as a future horizon opposed to capitalism. From this perspective popular education is an emancipatory pedagogical practice.

Rural communities in Cajamarca, Peru.

Today there are several uses and abuses of the category “community” in the current political and hegemonic social context and its alternatives. On the one hand we have countries where the social policies are subordinated to the neoliberal model. Here the programs and projects seek to slavishly integrate rural and urban poor to the capitalist economy and society. Under the name of “community development” or “community par ticipation” these populations are instrumentalised as “users”, “beneficiaries” or “clients” of state action. These “community” policies weaken political ties and community values, foster welfare and client relations as well as passivity, individualism and rivalry between normal people.

On the other hand there has been a generalisation of the qualifier “community” from social initiatives and progressive, altruistic, and alternative policy to refer to a variety of practical actions with the common people. The idea is that because they live in the same territory and share poverty and common needs they are communities. Some proposals of support and community work, like “community education”, see these groups as homogeneous, assuming they share a common will and conscience which is to be mobilised in the
interest and purpose of promoting change.

The critical community

In response to these concepts, let us look at a perspective that reclaims the challenging, initiating and emancipatory potential. This is a perspective that rekindles the political, ethical critical and emancipatory sense of community, such as solidarity and commitment between individuals.

“Communities is here not a given, a once-and-for-all structure, but in permanent evolution and learning.”

In this sense, “communitarianism” is a policy or educational action that promotes ties, subjectivities and community values. It is an ongoing process of creating and strengthening the social fabric and empowerment of the capacity of individuals and social groups joined together around dif ferent factors and circumstances (territorial, cultural, generational, beliefs and shared visions of the future). Communities is here not a given, a once-and-for-all structure, but in permanent evolution and learning.

This perspective implies that those who seek to promote projects or supporting activities, participation or community education, consciously incorporate devices that generate or feed ties, subjectivities and community values such as the production of narratives and symbols that affirm a sense of belonging. They also offer a joint reflection on what it means to be, and to be part of a community. They help identify the factors and actors that threaten ties and shared values, as well as offer education about the traditions, values and ideals of a community.

Finally, popular education can encourage the dif ferent expressions of community that incorporate reflective practices on the character and emancipatory potential, introducing opportunities for reflection on their dynamics, relationships and the subjectivities that constitute them. When these thought processes on factors, defining characteristics and potential ties and collective identities are generated, “critical communities” (Kemmis 1993) are being shaped.



Barcelona, P. (1992): Postmodernidad y comunidad. El regreso de la vinculación social. Valladolid: Trota (tercera edición 1999).

Esposito, R. (2003): Communitas. Origen y destino de la comunidad. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu.

Kemmis, S. (1993): La formación del profesorado y la extensión de comunidades críticas. Investigación en la escuela # 19. Madrid.

Maffesoli, M. (1990): El tiempo de las tribus. Barcelona: Ikaria.

Nisbet, R. (1996): La formación del pensamiento sociológico. Vol. 1. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu.

Tönnies, F. (1887)[1979]: Comunidad y asociación. Madrid: Península.

Torres, A. (2013): El retorno a la comunidad. Problemas, debates y desafíos de vivir juntos. Bogotá: CINDE – El Búho.

Turner, V. (1998): El proceso ritual. Estructura y antiestructura. Madrid: Taurus.

Weber, M. (1922)[1944]: Economía y sociedad. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.



About the Author

Alfonso Torres Carrillo is a Colombian popular educator with a Bachelor of Social Science, Master in History and Ph.D. in Latin American studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He carries out research on issues related to social movements, community organisations, popular education, participatory research and systematisation of experiences. Among his recent books are: Hacer historia desde abajo y desde el sur (2014); El retorno a la comunidad (2013) and Educación popular. Trayectoria y actualidad (2009).

Universidad Pedagógica Nacional de Colombia
Av Calle 72 # 11 Bogotá, D.C., Colombia 

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