Considering Community: What types of community are there? (Science edition, part one)

In one of my early Considering Community posts I outlined several broad types of community – from communities of interest to communities of circumstance – and I mused on whether the different types might use online tools distinctly.

In reflecting recently on the different communities represented in the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program that I run, I realised that it’s time to dive a little deeper on this topic – considering some of the different configurations of community specifically within science. 

In this first post on the topic, I discuss professional societies for scientists and what I call infrastructure or “halo” organisations. For each, I raise some questions to consider when pondering the role of the community manager to build connections among members.

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Considering Community: What types of community are there?

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

Defining community

I’ve talked before (e.g. see my Storify notes from the #scioCommunity session) about how a community can be defined in general terms as people who come together around a shared interest. Once community members start communicating with each other about that shared interest, then a sense of belonging grows, and that can form the basis for creating a deeper sense of purpose within the community – such as identifying specific goals or projects to work towards.

Depending on what the community is trying to communicate or accomplish, it can fall into a number of different categories. Let’s take a look at these options below, and then consider what implications these might have for the online tools used by the community, as well as the community management needs.

Categories of community

i) A community of interest

A community of interest consists of members who are interested in – and passionate about – the same topic. The topic could be a TV show, a celebrity figure or a subject area such as an historical event. Community members come together with the purpose of sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge about this topic. Given that members might be located anywhere in the world, online tools are vital for the ongoing interactions of the community.

ii) A community of practice 

The term community of practice was originally introduced as an concept in the field of education to refer to groups where members who share a profession or craft come together to share experiences and expertise, and thereby improve themselves professionally or personally. MOOCs could be a particularly interesting example of online communities of practice, except that in many cases the tools available for direct interaction among members of a course are very limited, if they exist at all.

iii) A community of inquiry

A community of inquiry also has an educational focus, the aim being to bring together people involved in considering a problem from an empirical or conceptual perspective. The idea is that, by bringing together different members of the community, a greater overall understanding of the subject at hand might be obtained. Science as a community falls into this category, as might hackdays and similar participatory events where the end output is not clearly known in advance.

The story of the group of blindfolded men each trying (incorrectly!) to identify an elephant is an example of when a community of inquiry would be useful. In such cases, each person would pool their experience to create a bigger picture. Image credit:

The story of the group of blindfolded men each trying (incorrectly!) to identify an elephant is an example of when a community of inquiry would be useful. In such cases, each person would pool their experience to create a bigger picture. Image credit:

iv) A community of action

As the name suggests, this type of community is focused on bringing about change in the world. The Open Access community would fall into this category. As the Open Knowledge Festival showed, if the unifying ideology is large enough, a community of action may in fact be comprised of multiple sub-communities. So the “Open” community includes communities interested in Open Data, Open Spending, Open Education and Open Science. Each of these may be able to learn from similar challenges faced by the others. Online tools can be important for these groups to coordinate their activities as well as to share news and resources about what they have achieved with others who may be interested, but who are not active members of the communities of action.

v) A community of place

A community of place consists of members who are co-located – this might include a neighbourhood watch scheme, a parent-teacher association at the local school, or a group of independent shop keepers from the same part of a town. It’s likely that most members will know, or get to know, each other in person due to the opportunities for meeting up offline that are afforded by them being in the same location.

vi) A community of circumstance

This type of community consists of people who come together to share experiences related to being in a particular life situation or other circumstance, rather than a shared interest. This might include health communities – from people fighting cancer, to those experiencing adverse drug reactions – as well as LBGT communities.

Considering community 

I wonder if each of the types of community described has specific, measurable characteristics that distinguish them. And if so, can these be used to infer their needs, in terms of online technologies and community management? For example, a community of circumstance may rely more than others on anonymity so that patients feel comfortable talking freely about their health conditions in an online environment that may include complete strangers. This type of online community may also see an increased use of private messaging once members identify others that they want to reach out to in order to discuss the specifics of their shared situations in more detail. A community of this nature seems unlikely to thrive on platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn where members would be identifiable and directly linked to some of their other communities – of work colleagues or family members from whom they may want to keep their personal circumstances private.

By contrast, a community of place is likely to consist of people who know each other, at least by sight, and probably through mutual connections – meaning that this could be a much denser network of members. Does this restrict the amount or type of information shared among members? Would an online element to this community consist more of news and information about the community’s meetups than of detailed conversations? For example, the Facebook pages that have been created for science tweetups in various cities typically serve to let members know of the date and location of the next meeting. There is little additional visible interaction within these pages. Is the role of the “community manager” in these cases primarily to organise the in-person gatherings of the community, with less emphasis on online tools?

As already noted, it’s possible for any community to fall into more than one of these categories e.g. a local cycling club would be both a community of place and of interest. And if members decided to take action against proposed changes to the road layout in their city, they might also become a transient community of action. Perhaps, if a community grows to encompass new types then its online needs will also change. To continue the cycling club example, initially a basic website with bulletin board and calendar might be sufficient. But once members want to coordinate a petition to protest the changes to their cycling routes, maybe they add or migrate to discussion boards, or arrange to meet up more regularly in person.

Finally, I’m also curious as to the sense of belonging felt by members of the different types of communities. Do communities of circumstance and communities of action result in more sharing of personal information because members are particularly emotionally invested in the outcomes of the community’s activities? And does this sharing of personal information then result in an increased sense of belonging?


Each of us is likely to be a member of multiple communities at one time. What are your experiences of the different communities to which you belong? I’d love to hear your examples and how you’ve used online tools in the comments.