In community studies, the concept of community has traditionally been used to refer to a physical place harboring a group of individuals who share feelings of belonging and solidarity. Members of the community share norms and values and meaningful relations; they trust and are familiar with one another; and, importantly, they share a place (Bradshaw 2008). This conceptualisation is known from German sociologist Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft; Gemeinschaft refers to the close-knit community – typically a rural village or small town – and Gesellschaft (society) to the “alienating” industrial city (Bradshaw 2008, 6; Tönnies 2002).

Of course, “Places are not necessarily communities” (Bradshaw 2008, 5), and (it should go without saying, but in community studies it does not) not all communities are place-based (Brennan & Brown 2008). As an example, Denmark’s ‘Renewable Energy Island’ Samsø can both be understood as a place-based community, as well as something that is more loosely knit together, materially and narratively.

Surrounded by water on all sides, the island is a resource-constrained environment par excellence. During fieldwork on the island I was told by islanders how “We probably stick together more because we’re an island… We’re surrounded by water, and that humbles you. Everyone knows we’re in the same boat” (interview, Oct 2013). Island life compels you to get engaged, because “everyone must fight for the survival of the community” (farmer, interview, May 2014). While entering into a close-knit community, you also “enter an uncertain world when you move to Samsø” (interview, Nov 2013). The sports center, the broadband connection, and, with the Renewable Energy Island project, the wind turbines – everyone knows who built them, who fought for them, what was at stake in their establishment, what it takes to maintain them.

So community is not just a social fact. Its presence, vitality and survival cannot be taken for granted. The community must be continuously enacted through narratives as well as through practical actions; narratives produced by and directed at the members of the community, as well as – in Samsø’s case – its global audiences. The lead figure in Samsø’s famous energy transformation, Søren Hermansen, has coined the term commonity (community + commons) (Hermansen & Nørretranders 2013), published in both Danish (fælledskab) and English, evoking Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ (1968) and Ostrom’s research on the governance of the commons (1990) to describe Samsø’s situation as one in which the community is drawn together and enacted through the shared responsibility to “manage the commons together” in the face of global climate change. With this publication, and with the island NGO’s publication of the ‘Pioneer Guide to Local Communities’, which advocates a place-based green activism (Samsø Energiakademi 2016;, Samsø performs the double move of affirming its community status inwards, as well as performing itself as a green community outwards. Through shared efforts and knowledge of origin stories, past controversies and challenges, Samsø manages to be at once a place-based and a ‘post-place’ community (Bradshaw 2008). The community emerges in all its fragility in this double sense through narratives and materially mediated by specific living conditions.


Author: Irina Papazu



Bradshaw, T. K. (2008). The post-place community: Contributions to the debate about the definition of community. Community Development39 (1), 5-16.

Brennan, M. A., & Brown, R. B. (2008). Community theory: Current perspectives and future directions. Community Development39 (1), 1-4.

Hardin, Garrett (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science Vol 162, Issue 3859: 1243-1248.

Hermansen, Søren & Tor Nørretranders (2011) Commonities = Commons + Communities. Samso Energy Academy.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Samsø Energiakademi (2016) Her – En Guide til Lokale Pionersamfund.

Tönnies, F. (2002). Community and society (C. P. Loomis, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover.

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