Communities are widely varying groups of people that can have a multitude of contexts and purposes. Some communities are large, like an entire country. Others are very small, like a town’s bowling league. No matter the size, a community is formed by people who have something in common. Because people are multi-faceted, we are often interested in many things. We all can be applied to a handful of labels that our society uses to make sense of the world. Communities often become interconnected, in that our interests aren’t entirely separate from each other. We see that communities will share information, ideas, and practices, just as we do. History of groups can become muddied as the strings of origin are intertwined with other social groups. But what happens when people don’t share their community? Often, they become closed communities.
What is a closed community?
A closed community is actually defined under the ideas of ecology. Described as being “a plant community that does not allow for further colonization, all the available niches being occupied.” This same concept can be applied to humanity as well. Throughout history, there have been many accounts of closed communities. People who have more or less decided that their group is not in reach of others. In some cases, this is a side effect from having specific interests. Other times, it is a deliberate decision of exclusion. Differences in rationale also creates different communities. Groups that have specific interests or connections can be considered subcultures. Whereas groups that have specific boarders fall more under closed communities.
Closed Community vs. Subculture
As I mentioned above, one of the primary differences between a subculture and a closed community is the ability for them them to share ideas with the outside community. In a subculture, it’s a culture within a culture. Such as the gaming community. They exist and interact with those outside of their community, while still being part their own group. The word itself shows us that these groups are a culture that is sub, or below, the overall culture. In no way does this mean a subculture is less than the larger culture. It simply means that it is one section that helps make up the larger group of people. The diagram below shows us how a culture can have many subcultures within the overall community.
A closed community on the other hand does not interact with the larger culture. Or they try not to, anyway. Groups that are closed from the larger society are removing themselves from the other community altogether. While this isn’t entirely possible, they are able to cut off connections and communication. Closed communities can be further understood by who they don’t accept. This can be just as informative as who they do accept. We will see below that the rationale for exclusion varies widely. Each community having its own reasons for separation and aversion. Different reasons also result in different in different practices. Where some immunities might be strict in their exclusions, others might be lenient.
Types of closed communities
Part of learning about closed communities is learning about all the different ways a community can be closed. One community’s idea of closed cannot be applied to all the rest. We cannot assume that all closed communities are alike, even if they have similarities. Let’s look at a handful of closed communities and see why they’re considered “closed”. Through their history, belief, and daily practices, we can learn what it means to be a closed community and where we see them in our lives.
A very literal example of closed communities is a gated community. Directly speaking, these are groups of families living within a designated area that is gated, or fenced, on all sides. Varying in sizes, these gated groups can be apartment complexes or entire villages. Some have closed gates all the time while others don’t. There can be restricted access or open access. So what is it that makes them a closed community?
Remember, a closed community is often defined by the people that are not allowed in. Gated communities do not let in people who do not live there. In additions to the gates, there can be private security systems, controlled entrances, and special amenities. Finances also work as the gate in these communities, allowing in people certain people who can afford such luxuries. Based on money, gated communities don’t have the strictest social bonds. If someone is able to buy their way in, then can be part of the community. Of course some gated groups may have very strong connections. However, friendship is not a defining feature of these communities.
Because the walls are the only real markings of a gated community, they are not a fully closed community. Often members will use grocery stores, doctors, and entertainment that the outside community uses. These groups aren’t so much cultures as they are as organizations of individual families. Frequently, these communities are new developments as well. They are laid out as a new developmental plans that tear down previously existing neighborhoods. This acts as another form of cluster, as the new community pushes out the previous residents.
Fraternities and Sororities
Another form of closed communities are fraternities and sororities. Being closed in both acceptance and interaction, they fall more in line with a closed community. In America, these college groups are perhaps the most common closed communities. Overall, there are two main groups of sororities and fraternities – honorary societies and social societies. Greek fraternities and sororities are more so part of the social societies. Entrances in these groups are based on social standing and abilities. Honorary societies chose their members based on academic scores. Money can be a gate keeping factor in both, but it’s not the foremost requirement.
Here, we see a tighter community than we did in our previous example. While sororities and fraternities often have physical spaces, they also have deeper connections. Honorary society communities are based on their academic courses. Competing with each other in rank, their shared connection is tied to their grades. Social societies are connected through their social interactions. Parties, sports and public events tie these members together. In general, we see that social sororities have more rituals than their honorary counterparts. Based on social standing, their membership is based on repeated social activities. Whereas the academic groups have rituals already in place by the university.
Still, sororities and fraternities are not entirely closed. Because they interact with the outside community in classes, food, and other elements of life, they are more semi-closed communities. Not just anyone can enter their spaces, but they are able to enter into public spaces. Interacting with non-members does not always harm a person’s position, but it is not always accepted either. While a person is able to leave a fraternity or sorority, it is more difficult to re-enter their community after. This solidifies the group’s closed-off standing in their willingness to exclude their own members.
A much more closed example is nude communities. Be it vacations or residential, these communities allow the residents to be completely naked. Such liberations can be seen on other areas as well, like beeches and resorts. Public places that allow nudity have sections where people can be partially or fully naked. A nudist colony, however, always allows for nudity. Day in and day out, people can choose to live without any covering (besides a face mask nowadays). Often, this practice of nudity will also be referred to as “naturism” or “naturalism” as it focuses on freeing the body.
Many people see this lifestyle as taboo, but that is clearly not the case for all. Those that enjoy this lifestyle can find it quite liberating. In physicality, we see that these communities are one of the most closed off. Either remote locations or high walls, the residents of a nudist colony are distanced from the outside communities. But is this of their own doing? Both of the previous examples we saw make an active decision to be separated from other people. Their divergences come from separation in social positions. Nudist colonies on the other hand are separated from their personal decisions.
Let’s look at that difference a little more closely. Naturism (or naturalism) is all about freeing yourself from the restraints of society. Compared to our two previous examples, nudist colonies are almost the complete opposite. Fraternities and gated communities are closed in a way that still agrees with the rest of society. There’s a sense of superiority in these communities because they are able to pick who they accept into their groups. Nudism goes against what a lot of people think and the social norms. These members are more concerned with the harmful ideas that are kept out of their communities.
Similarly to communities, entire cities can be closed as well. Cities can be closed for a variety of reasons and through a number of ways. Some are closed because of certain military interests within their walls. Others are closed because of a political presence outside the walls. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Berlin Wall. But cities can be closed, or secret, in a number of other ways as well. Each city in the list below has been closed in one way or another over time. To learn more about these closed cities, click on the city’s name!
- Aamby Valley City, India
- Bohemian Grove, California, United States
- City 40, Russia
- Dainfern, Midrand, South Africa
- Empire City, Iraq
- Kiev, Ukraine
- North Sentinel Island, Bengal, India
- Oak Ridge, Tennessee, United Stated
- Portland, Oregon, United States
- Poveglia Island, Italy
- Pullman, Chicago, United States
- Reso, Montreal, Canada
- Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland
- Zarechny, Russia
Another common example of a closed community is the Amish. On a much larger scale than a singular complex, the Amish are widespread across the United States. In en entirely different sense than that of nudist colonies, Amish do not have physical walls. Rather the closure within their community comes from the rituals and daily practices that each person takes. Branching from the ideas of Christianity, the Amish are groups of people, typically families, that live a specific way.
While there are many ideas about who and what Amish are, there are really only a few things that can be applied to the majority of Amish people. Firstly, they are devout Protestants. Children learn a German dialect as their first language, but also learn English later on. Amish do not have drivers’ licenses, instead they drive a horse and buggy. Individuals do not obtain higher educations. And they all much wear specific clothing, as seen in the image above.
The Amish can be considered a closed community because they have a specific way of life that the majority of people to not live by. Not because of being physically closed form outside society. In fact, many Amish interact with other community members every single day. But their actual community, those they sleep, eat, and live with are only those who have the same practices. One is not able to become Amish simply by being Christian or driving a carriage. It is a way of life that has to be practiced day in and day out.
Another large example of a closed community is the military. Differing based on country and branch, we still see that membership has certain requirements. Similar to the Amish, these members regularly interact with the outside community. But it is not an easy membership to obtain. While anyone can apply to be in the military, certain characteristics make it more or less obtainable. Training itself is a grueling process that decides who is and who is not able to join the group.
How does this make it a closed community though? Remember back to the definitions of a closed community, being a group of people who do not regularly interact with the outside community and are defined by those who they do not accept. Off duty or after discharge, military individuals are able to have regularly interactions with others in society. During training and operations however, they are confined to their bases or stations. The military is also defined by the people the do not accept into training – those who they deem “weak”, “unfit”, or “incapable”.
Even after discharge, there is still a sense of tight community. As both a cruel and rewarding experience for many, the military forms connections that cannot be undone. A continuation of this closed community happens beyond service as well. Only those who have served knows that it means to be part of the military. Because of this, there is a community that others cannot join if they have not had similar experiences. Often we see these communities as physical spaces, such as VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) bars.
Chinese Farming Communities
A community can also be considered closed when a certain group doesn’t want to be associated with other ideas. This is a little different than say, a gated community, who wants to have physical separation from the outside. One example of this is with Chinese Peasants. While an ancient social structure, it still has impacts today. People who are keeping ideas apart can do so for many reasons. During a much earlier time period, Chinese peasants closed their entire towns based on disagreement with their rulers. Each town’s had the ability to shut their own doors. And each dynasty’s success was based on how many village doors they were able to open.
In comparison to the other closed communities we’ve seen, Chinese peasants were not always closed communities. In fact, they would often go through cycles of being closed, open, and closed again. When closed, community meetings would be held at center family houses. Villagers acted as representatives within the community. Knowledge, traditions, and food practices were shared at these meetings. Cultural exchange within each community allowed the town to keep a consistent identity.
As they would be attached to the dynasties and rulers, peasant communities helped maintain themselves by controlling their boarders. Despite being relatively small groups, these communities were pretty complex. Similar to a cell’s structure, they had various sections and layers. The above image gives a visual representation of such sectioning. In the center of the town, there were many markets. Middle area works as a trading post. And the outer areas consist of multiple villagers and farms. Each village is able to maintain itself within it’s boarders when it acts as a closed community.
Hindu Caste Systems
Extending our lens even further, we can also see closed communities as entire societies. A “caste” itself is a group of people that share common features. “Class” is often used synonymously with the term. Hindu caste systems are based on the ideas of karma and dharma. Karma is believed as fate gathered from a previous life, and dharma is order or duty. The combination of these two creates one’s social status that they are born into in the next life.
Different castes come from the body parts of Brahma, the god of creation. The image above shows us that the closer one is to Brahma’s head, the higher they are in society. Such rankings continue down through Brahma’s body until we reach the Dalits. Not even given space on the body, Dalits are seen as “untouchables”. Caste based discrimination was made illegal in 1948, but daily actions show this system as a closed society. Believing one person can only move casts based on their previous karma, there is no transition between communities.
Especially as we look at the career descriptions of the castes. Jobs reinforce the castes as people are not able to gain experience in other areas because of these predetermined courses. As India has moved to make life more equal for all castes, there are still many differences between groups. We can see that the upper castes still have more privilege and opportunity than the lower castes. Each caste acts as it’s own closed community. Not actively choosing who is or is not within a caste. Castes have caused communities to be separated based on previously determined social rankings.
Further drawn back, we can see closed communities on an even larger scale. As mentioned previously, closed communities aren’t just those with physical fences. Separation based on ideas and beliefs can also be a closed community. Hindu Caste systems functioned similarly with ideas of who people were. Racial segregation also happens through beliefs of who people are and creates an entire system of closed communities. Closure works in two ways through racism.
We see that white groups built communities to keep any and everyone else out. These worked similarly to the gated communities that we say in the beginning. Deciding who they allow in and why, racist ideas were continued. Built on false ideas of superiority, white communities closed themselves to all others they deemed unfit. We see modern examples of this today through redlining and police brutality.
In contrast, communities can also be closed through force. People of color were unwillingly put in closed communities. These communities were not gated to protect those minority groups, but the exact opposite. Non-white people were closed in and even shut down. As white people created racist systems across the globe, they also forced people of color into smaller and smaller closed communities.
Significance in Anthropology
All across the world and history, we see many different kinds of closed communities and studying the different types may have value in anthropology. Some have extremely harmful effects, while others can be useful. Not always fenced in, it can be difficult to understand what a closed community is and what isn’t. Especially when a group can change between being open and closed so frequently. Or when the members still interact with the outside community. But that’s why it’s important to understand what closed communities are and our interaction with them. Respecting history, culture, and traditions is very important in all human interaction. Knowing more about why a group is closed from outside society helps us with such interactions.
To learn more about anthropology and more fascinating topics, check out our other blogs at Yoair.
Blanchard, Troy C. “Conservative Protestant Congregations and Racial Residential Segregation: Evaluating the Closed Community Thesis in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Counties.” 2007. American Sociological Review 72.