Keller: Community is difficult but essential to attain

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Likening herself to a naturalist exploring a previously unmapped terrain, sociologist Suzanne Keller has spent 25 years researching how residents of a planned development labored to translate their aspirations for community into the give and take of life in a real community.


Suzanne Keller joined the sociology faculty in 1968 and was the first woman to receive tenure at the University.


Keller is the author of the book, "Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality," published last year by Princeton University Press. Using as her case study Twin Rivers, New Jersey's first "planned unit development," she depicts the difficult path its residents traveled to learn to live together.

Built in 1970, Twin Rivers is home to 10,000 residents and is located in nearby East Windsor. Keller monitored how residents in this complex of townhouses, apartments and common spaces for recreation forged the political and social institutions to meet the diverse needs of a middle-class population. By means of "participant observation" at town meetings and common recreational sites, hundreds of interviews and ongoing surveys of collective records, Keller's research reveals how the residents learned to share, relate to neighbors, cope with social conflict and develop ideas for the common good.

Inspired by the legacy of social and political theorists from Plato to de Tocqueville and on to the present day, Keller sought to discover principles of a life in common for contemporary citizens eager to obtain their share of the American Dream. She grappled with timeless questions, such as: How can community be generated in a society that stresses self-advancement? How can it be maintained over time? And what makes community of continued salience in the era of cyberspace? Above all, Keller was interested to learn how an aggregate of strangers creates an identity of place, with shared goals, viable institutions and a spirit of community.

Keller joined the sociology faculty in 1968 and was the first woman to receive tenure at the University. Her teaching and writing focus on leadership and elites, family systems and community. She next plans to study retirement communities.

book cover

Keller talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about her book and the need to continually resurrect questions about community and its role in daily life.

Why write a book about community?

Because community is so difficult to attain and yet so essential. I believe that people need community, both for roots and as a place where they feel a sense of identity and belonging. Too many people today are lonely and disconnected as the scale of contemporary life dwarfs them. It is not a lack of a partner or a family. It is an existential loneliness.

What were the people who moved to Twin Rivers looking for?

Most of the residents came from urban settings and looked forward to a first house, good schools, new friends, safety and the chance to build something with others.

You studied Twin Rivers for 25 years. What did you discover over this time?

One major finding shows how difficult it is to build a safe, sound, productive community. There is a hugely difficult period of adjustment as the enthusiastic newcomers struggle to make a planned site a collective home.

I also discovered that the gap between attitudes and behavior is far larger than researchers typically assume. People may be idealists in theory, but they generally do not follow this up in their conduct. For example, people avowed respect for property and took the utmost care of their houses, but public space was vandalized repeatedly for a long period of time until pride of place had jelled.

What were the main sources of tension among residents?

Parking, pets and litter head the list. What was surprising was the fierceness of reactions these generated, with sentiments such as "you took my parking space," "your dog went on my lawn," "I never litter but they always do." The "me," "my" and "mine," or as the Shakers would say, "the great big I," were very much in evidence, even though residents had opted for an environment where sharing was an explicit goal.

Another attitude that surprised me was how early status distinctions came to the fore. The townhouse owners, who were in the majority, were very critical of the apartment dwellers. Also, newcomers to Twin Rivers faced the distrust of the earliest residents who felt that, as pioneers, they deserved top rank.

How was conflict addressed?

The residents came to understand that they had to resolve problems as a group. They struggled with this, but triumphed in many ways. They built institutions and a local polity, including a homeowner's association. They realized that they had to debate issues and take a stand on them. Many people took on leadership roles. I was astounded by the thoughtfulness and willingness of people to work for endless hours, and not for self-gain.

What makes some people emerge as community leaders while most do not?

A lot of people do not do it because they think someone else is taking care of things. To a person, the 100 or so leaders I interviewed said that they learned the values of sharing and caring early on in their families. The work to build community does not happen on its own.

What part does the general culture play in shaping a sense of community?

Regarding the culture here in the U.S., I think that many people do not do more because more is not asked of us. We might experience a sense of community for the short term during holidays or during a crisis, but these tend not to coalesce into something bigger. Usually, the emphasis is on doing your own thing and solving your own problems.

How do you respond if someone asks, "What's it to me?"

I say that if we don't take care of the common ground, we don't have private ground. I like the word "transcendence" -- that each of us needs to transcend our own lives because all of our lives depend on other people all the time. At Twin Rivers, people learned that they are important contributors to the community and that they needed to have a sense of connectedness to a larger framework.


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