Article 3

Sense of Community
A Theory Not a Value: A Response to Nowell and Boyd

This is a response to the Nowell and Boyd (2010) article printed in this journal titled: Viewing Community as Responsibility as Well as Resource: Deconstructing the Theoretical Roots of Psychological Sense of Community.  In that article they argued that the McMillan theory of Sense of Community is a simplistic, needs-based theory that excludes responsibility as a part of Sense of Community. They base their critique of McMillan’s theory on March and Olsen’s many articles. In this article McMillan responds. He argues that Nowell and Boyd (2010) have yet to understand his theory and that they use a false dichotomy to critique it. He suggests that Third Position Thinking (Newbrough, 1995; Newbrough & McMillan, 2005) would help undo false dichotomies and provide a better description of the juxtaposition of human values. McMillan contends that responsibility is an inherent part of his theory.


Sense of Community, A Theory Not a Value: A Response to Nowell and Boyd

By David W. McMillan[1]


In their article Viewing Community as Responsibility as Well as a Resource: Deconstructing the Theoretical Roots of Psychological Sense of Community, Nowell and Boyd (2010) seek “to contribute to the conceptual development of PSOC by clarifying the second order assumptions of PSOC as it is represented in prevailing conception and measurement.” They “introduce human needs theory as a macro framework for representing the definition and the study of PSOC to date. They suggest that there are limitations of a purely needs theory perspective of PSOC and propose…an alternative theoretical base for PSOC – a sense of community as responsibility.” They suggest using “this alternative theoretical lens…to understand the dynamic between PSOC, psychological well-being and community engagement” (p. 828).


Summary of Nowell and Boyd

Nowell and Boyd (2010) conjectured that the McMillan sense of community theory (McMillan, 1976; McMillan and Chavis, 1986; McMillan, 1996) is a needs based theory rather than a responsibility based theory. Nowell and Boyd (2010) argued that building a theory on base, primitive, human needs does not appropriately consider valued-based behavior. They suggested that the McMillan theory sees community as a “resource” to people “…for meeting key physiological and psychological needs such as the need for affiliation, power and affection” (p. 833) and other needs, not as an entity toward which people feel responsible to engage and support one another. They identified the McMillan theory as “PSOC resource or PSOC rsc” and the theory that they seemed to be preparing as “PSOC responsibility or PSOC resp.” Their objective seemed to be to expand the way PSOC is considered to include responsibility as a motivating force in PSOC.

Nowell and Boyd (2010) raise some important points about PSOC that are valuable to the future development of theory and practice.  The strength of their article is the examination of underlying frameworks and worldviews in current SOC theory, and their push toward expanding theory toward “new directions for exploring the dynamics of community life” (p. 837).   Particularly interesting is their assertion that a sense of responsibility to one’s community is an important and under theorized aspect to current PSOC theory.  Perhaps most intriguing is their reference to the possible mechanism of an indirect relationship between personal responsibility and well-being.

Their main contention, however, is that PSOC has been dominated, for the last 25 years, by a human needs view of behavior. To make this claim, they draw on March & Olsen’s (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) work which asserts two broad frameworks for understanding human motivation: the logic of consequence and the logic of appropriateness.  The logic of consequence draws on rational choice theory, assuming that human behavior is guided by rationalism and benefit maximization.  Nowell & Boyd assert that PSOC as developed by McMillan & Chavis is anchored in such a world view.  In contrast is the logic of appropriateness, which views human behavior as guided by person-in-environment – a view that appreciates the agency of individuals, modified by the particular situations and contexts they confront.

It is, I think, helpful to explore PSOC theory through the March & Olsen rubric, as well as other frameworks and theories that may help community psychology develop a more robust understanding of PSOC.  However, despite the useful points raised, Nowell & Boyd’s article substantially distorts the McMillan theory.  While I acknowledge that it is useful to consider the possibility that my PSOC theory may be driven by an unconscious or historical or cultural bias toward an needs-based world view, critical analysis of both my theory and of Nowell & Boyd’s argument demonstrates that their characterization of existing theory is a substantial distortion.  Perhaps Nowell & Boyd feel that before SOC theory can be advanced, that the McMillan theory needs to be first marginalized before new theories or advances to existing theory can be made.  Let me provide a review and some clarification of existing PSOC theory as developed by McMillan (1976; 1986) as well as my critique of the representations made by Nowell & Boyd.


Summary of McMillan Theory

Nowell and Boyd mention four elements of the McMillan theory, but they ignore the explicit articulation of the elements and sub-elements of the theory. Each element has at least five or six sub-elements. They are outlined as follows:


  1. Membership (1986)/Spirit (1996)
    1. Boundaries
      1. Barriers marking who belongs and who does not
      2. Symbols denoting membership
    2. Emotional Safety
      1. Able to speak honestly
      2. Safe to be vulnerable
    3. Sense of belonging
      1. Expectation of belonging
      2. A feeling of acceptance
      3. Awareness of being welcome
    4. Personal investment/dues paying to belong[2]


  1. Influence (1986)/Trust (1996)
    1. Personal investment
      1. Sacrificing to be a member gives one a sense that membership is earned
      2. Personal investment makes a community more attracted to the investing member
    2. Community norms influence members to conform
      1. Norms
      2. Conforming behavior
    3. Members need to conform for consensual validation just as a community needs for its members to conform to maintain cohesiveness.
    4. Members attracted to groups that allow members influence over or in the group.
    5. Influence between community and members and members and community operate concurrently
  2. Integration of Fulfillment of Needs
    1. Communities meet members needs
    2. Strong reinforcements to belong include status, success, competencies of other members
    3. Shared values – or consensual trading
    4. Integrating needs and resources or complementary trading
    5. Transformative trading[3] – teaching skills
    6. Generative trading2 – handing off responsibilities and roles from one generation to the next
  3. Shared Emotional Connection (1986)/Art (1996)
    1. Members must share time
    2. There must be certain quality to time shared
      1. Events must have value – drama (1996)
      2. Events must have closure
      3. Events must honor members
  4. Time becomes symbolized in rituals, common symbols, and traditions. Shared stories emerge.
  5. A spiritual bond emerges from shared history.


McMillan (1986) went on to describe complex relationships among the elements with reinforcing interactions and formulas for how ingredients in the sense of community recipe come together.

Nowell and Boyd (2010) critiqued the theory by criticizing the items in the SCI as inadequate to capture PSOC as a whole. Peterson, Speer and McMillan (2008) agreed that the measure is not an adequate representation of the theory. That is one of the reasons why they developed the BSCS. Notice that title of the instrument that McMillan helped Peterson and Speer develop, Brief Sense of Community Scale, with the emphasis on “Brief.” A brief measure of the theory hardly represents the theory.

Nowell and Boyd (2010) used items from the SCI and BSCS to represent an element. Yet, the items came from an abstract description of the elements and sub-elements. In an academic article items do not fairly represent the anchoring theoretical dimension being referenced.


Sense of Community Theory Misunderstood

When Nowell and Boyd (2010) suggest that the McMillan theory is needs based not responsibility based, they ignore the flip side of the whole first element. While the first element describes boundaries, emotional safety and sense of belonging as essential to sense of community, implied is the responsibility that members have to protect the community’s boundaries, to be honest, open and transparent, and to be welcoming and accepting of members. These are social responsibilities that members have to their community. All of them are implicit in the first element of sense of community.

While Nowell and Boyd (2010) described the second element of my theory, influence, as a sense of mattering, they conceptualize this element as a “need for power…motivation rooted in a desire to shape circumstances and influence others (p.833).” This is just half of that element. The most important part of the second element has to do with a person’s sense of loyalty, responsibility and commitment to the community. If a community is to exist, people must sacrifice for it. They must be willing to be taxed, to conform to laws and norms, to run for office and help rescue flood victims.

Assuming that mattering is the essence of the second element (which it is not) the yang of mattering is that the community receives member’s ideas and feelings and allows them to matter. Allowing other’s feelings and ideas to matter is socially responsible behavior.

When McMillan and Chavis (1986) contended that members must conform to the influence of their community by that they meant that members had the responsibility to pay dues, to come to meetings, to join work projects, to use their talents in the service of the community. While McMillan and Chavis (1986) often wrote of what was in the interest of the person or the community and specifically used “needs” in the title of the third element and while this might be interpreted as being tied to needs and not responsibility, the sub-elements of their theory strongly imply that members have a duty to be responsible toward their community. This commitment to be responsible members is an essential part of the choice to become members, the choice to conform to community norms and the choice to invest in the community, the choice to trade fairly with other members and the choice to allow themselves to be spiritually and emotionally touched by the community.

McMillan (1996) explicitly used words that define responsibility as part of PSOC. “…a sense of belonging is not achieved without sacrifice and challenge. Communities must know if a member will make available the time, energy and financial commitment necessary to be a supportive effective member… Children are often told that with rights and privileges comes responsibility. The rights of community membership come with the expectation that the community can call on its members to make sacrifices” (p. 318).

Also in McMillan (1996) the theory spoke to a member’s responsibility to be fair, honest and just toward other members. “… The belief in principle above person can be as effective as authority…The principle of justice as a cohesive force was also observed…Trust can be contagious…” (p. 320.)

Interestingly March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995,1996, 1998) contend that needs-based theories or what they called logic of consequences’ theories are simplistic and are not as sophisticated as what they call logic of appropriateness theories and Nowell and Boyd (2010) call theories that emphasize responsibility. (More on March and Olsen later.)

Nowell and Boyd’s (2010) seemed to also imply that the McMillan theory is a rather simple theory that touches the surface of a complex notion. McMillan takes pride in the fact that he developed an accessible, easily understood, commonsensical theory. Perhaps the theory suffers because he did not use more complex language when he wrote it. Perhaps he should have taken his cue from Freud rather than Adler in his choice of words.

Sense of Community is a complex notion. When trying to describe it, one is attempting to define a spirit. That’s the point of the first half of the term “sense of.” Defining a spirit is like catching lightening in a bottle. It is like grabbing oxygen out of the air. It is doable but you will never do it perfectly.

When McMillan developed the four elements and their sub-elements, he never thought that a measure could really identify them discretely and yet, more or less, that was done by Chavis et al, (1986). At least seventy items are required (four items for each sub-element) to adequately measure this construct. Measuring the facets of PSOC in a twelve item scale or an eight item scale is inadequate at best. Making assumptions about what the theory contains from such short truncated measures as the SCI or the BSCS is a distortion of the theory. These measures are meant to be a general measure of PSOC as a whole. They have pieces of each element but they do not represent the whole of any of the four elements.

In their article Nowell and Boyd stated: “The BSCS may be a promising development of the measurement frontier if their findings can be corroborated and extended to a variety of alternative community settings” (p.831).  In the previous issue of the Journal of Community Psychology Wombacher, Tagg, Bürgi and MacBryde (2010) translated the Peterson, Speer and McMillan BSCS scale (2008), based on the McMillan theory into German and used it to measure PSOC in the German Navy. They further confirmed the theory and the measure as Nowell and Boyd (2010) suggested was needed. And this is not the first such study (Chavis et al, 1986; Peterson, Speer and McMillan, 2008). Some studies that have failed to validate the theory used the twelve item SCI which is truncated and flawed (Peterson, Speer and McMillan, 2008). Since Chavis et al, (1986) no study with a thorough set of items has tested the theory. Yet, even the short BSCS has been able to differentiate the four factors (Wombacher et al, 2010; Peterson, Speer and McMillan, 2008). More studies are currently using the BSCS. Soon there will be more results testing the theory’s validity.

As the McMillan theory of SOC is reconsidered in light of the social responsibility criticism of Nowell and Boyd (2010) it becomes clear that the theory has a strong responsibility emphasis. If one’s aim was to evaluate a community’s relative sense of social resposnbility, one might build a social responsibility index with items generated from the theory, e.g., 1. Is your community welcoming? 2. Will your community allow all voices to be heard? 3. Will your community keep your confidences? 4. Does your community listen to you? 5. Does your community have a set of rules or norms that apply equally to members? Etc.


Theory not Value

As to Nowell and Boyd’s (2010) contention that the theory represents the human need to affiliate, yes it does. PSOC for McMillan (McMillan, 1997) is a term that has its source in the word “love.” It is what Don Klein termed “social glue.” It has elements of group cohesion, attachment and bonding. It connects to our genitals, our stomachs and our souls. It is related to values like responsibility, but it is not a value.

In a book about relationships McMillan (1997) applied the system’s theory notion of synomorphy to his sense of community theory. Synomorphy is a concept about laws that govern systems. Synomorphy means that if a law operates in a system at one level, then it is likely to operate on other levels as well. McMillan applied the four elements and their sub-elements of sense of community to intimate relationships in his book for couples, Create Your Own Love Story.

There he stated: “Sense of community, attachment, bonding, personal attraction, and group cohesiveness are all different elements of the glue connecting human beings. As I examined my work it became clear that the strongest bonds between couples had been built, whether unconsciously or not, on foundations including the same four elements in the Sense of Community Theory. In my practice I began to see that partners could nurture and maintain a strong relationship if they learned how to keep these necessary elements of Spirit, Trust, Trade and Art alive in their marital bond. I began to think of marriage as an intimate community.” (p. 243).

Nowell and Boyd (2010) seem to be intent on developing a normative theory of PSOC, a theory that would nurture and support community participation and engagement. The McMillan Theory is an empirical theory. It does not attempt to influence or prescribe reality. It merely attempts to describe reality. McMillan was attempting to discover some of the laws of human behavior as people move toward, inside and away from communities. Empirical researchers and theorists can’t make these laws. They can only discover them.

Like Nowell and Boyd (2010), McMillan (1996) too had visions of pushing his values into the theory. “When I first developed my theory of sense of community, I insisted that the theory had to support the creation of a diverse community. Because of that I incorrectly rejected similarity as being an important bonding force. In my ideal community, the Democrats loved and supported the Republicans and ‘the lion lay down with the lamb.’ I now appreciate that I was wrong and that I cannot require a theory of human behavior to fit inside my value system (p.320.)”

McMillan’s sub-elements contain many factors that represent social responsibility. Sadly, they didn’t emerge as the most dominant parts of the elements. The fact that norms and responsibility carry less of the variance than needs do does not make the theory deficient, nor does it mean that social expectations and social responsibilities are not part of the theory.

This does not mean that responsibilities cannot play a role in theory building. If we add other theoretical dimensions to sense of community, then social norms and responsibilities might emerge as motivating principles. For example, what if we added community types[4] to sense of community? It is possible that one type of community might have more behavior motivated by responsibility than other types.


Or what if we added a community developmental theory to sense of community, the values might be more active motivators in a more mature community. Although McMillan (1996) did not state specifically that he was pursuing his interest in diverse communities, he did add the dimension of complementary trading (i.e., exchange of different parts to make whole). Such trades exploit differences in a healthy way. This contrasts with consensual trading which reinforces similarity and maintain the status quo. Consensual trading is the first level of trading in a community. Immature communities have only consensual trades. As community’s mature they discover differences among members. Successful communities find ways to integrate differences for the benefit of its members and the community. As communities age, they begin to teach skills to members (transformative trades) and as they age further, communities prepare the next generation to take on leadership roles (generative trades). In maturing communities values like responsibility play a more important part in motivating people to join together in a community.

In some types of communities responsibility may be a more powerful force than in other types. McMillan has developed a typology for communities[5] and he and J. R. Newbrough have developed a rudimentary theory about how communities’ age[6] based on Erickson’s (1968) theory of development. Nowell and Boyd (2010) might find a place for their interest in integrating responsibility into PSOC if they explored other dimensions of community theory.

Developing or using theories that add to the complexity of sense of community might be a good way to discover how values like responsibility, integrity, transparency, compassion, forgiveness, respect, etc play in a community’s heart and soul.

Perhaps McMillan’s opinion of human nature may be more Calvinistic than Nowell and Boyd’s (2010). McMillan agrees with Nowell and Boyd (2010) that people are motivated by responsibility. He also believes that human beings are a cooperative species motivated to serve our communities. However, how can one tease responsibility out from guilt or from fear of accountability, both of which have to do with human needs?

Perhaps there is a personal developmental component to the relationship between responsibility and PSOC.  As we grow out of our adolescent narcissism, we move into the adult roles of parent, provider, problem-solver, authority, master, etc. Nowell and Boyd (2010) seem to be confusing roles with motivation. In those adult roles most of us feel a sense of responsibility and act out of that sense. But does this not involve needs?

When a father is standing in the park and his two-year-old son is holding on to his leg as a base from which to explore, whose needs are being met? Certainly the father enjoys the fact that his son wants and needs him. Can we ever separate needs from our behavior, responsible or not? Aren’t all human behaviors multi-determined?

As we develop from children to adults, we are perhaps motivated more by a sense of responsibility. But are we not still people who need connection and affirmation? Have we transcended our selfish child selves or have we just found another plane on which to express our needs? Is McMillan being responsible to the community of community psychologists as he drafts this response or is he serving himself? The answer is “yes” and “yes.”


Questions About Nowell and Boyd’s Data

Nowell and Boyd (2010) used three quotes of people at a meeting as their data base to demonstrate that community members do act responsibly for the collective good, rather than for personal benefit or need. They used these quotes as clear examples of how a needs-based theory is inadequate to describe human connection to community.


These quotes were as follows:

“One of the things I really like about this group is that if it’s something the region really needs but I don’t need it in my county, I’m ok with that…I can support it…that’s the way I hear them talking.


“This is not an issue for me in my county but I understand it is in the region, so I’m ok for us making it a top priority…. There’s a good of the whole mentality that drives what they do…they are able to take egos and individual county needs out of that a lot.


“Financially we didn’t benefit but we put in a lot of administrative structure… [we] got little out, but I always saw it as our responsibility to invest back into the [region]” (p.835).


Now having read these quotes, do you see any political log-rolling happening here? Can these statements be seen as completely not self-serving? If speakers support was self-serving would they admit it? Do three questionable quotes data make?


Sense of Community, A Tool Not a Value

Many people want to propose sense of community as a value. Some see it as a good thing. It is not either a good or bad thing. It exists or it doesn’t. It has depth. It can be either higher or lower but it is not good or bad.

Brodsky (1996) demonstrated this in her study of sense of community in a housing project. The results of the study make good sense but they were not what many advocates of sense of community as a “good thing” might have hoped. She found that people who did not have a strong sense of community with the housing project neighborhood were the most resilient. The people who did have a strong sense of community were least resilient. In the context of that community, wanting to get the hell out of there was a healthy sentiment. Being attached to a lawless, dangerous, drug-infested neighborhood was not healthy.

The theory and its measures are not values. They are not “good” or “bad” or “responsible” or “needy.” They are tools that can be used to understand human communities.



Goldmann’s Critique

Nowell and Boyd (2010) base their critique of McMillan’s theory on the writings of March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, and 1998). Goldmann (2005) did an excellent job of describing the problems with March and Olsen’s (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) theoretical constructs. Nowell and Boyd (2010) change the language of March and Olsen some presumably because March and Olsen’s (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) language is a bit hard to read. In spite of different word choices Nowell and Boyd (2010) lean heavily on the writings of March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, and 1998). So the problems that Goldmann (2005) found with March and Olsen also apply to Nowell and Boyd (2010).

Goldmann (2005) suggests that March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) created a false dichotomy between what we will call here the logic of responsibility versus the logic of individual needs. When they apply their dichotomy to theories they make several errors.

First, they contrast the logic of needs as a simplistic, narrow-minded, unimaginative way of thinking especially in contrast with what they consider to be the open-minded sophisticated logic of responsibility. Why does one end of a dichotomy have to be discredited?

Second, they assume that individuals can and do share a common life identity so that they naturally have a primary concern for others and the welfare of the collective.

Third, they ignore the fact that logic of needs can and often does included concern for another and for the public good. Aren’t clean air, water and sanitary food in every individual’s interest? In the stock market there is a phrase, “A high tide floats all boats.” This is another way of saying that what is good for the economy as a whole is good for the individual investor.

Fourth, they don’t seem to recognize that within one person, one scholar, and one researcher that multiple motives can drive behavior all at the same time. They imply that it can be known whether our behavior is more governed by the logic of needs or the logic of responsibility. But can it?

Fifth, they don’t acknowledge that there may be a developmental process involved here. It is possible that as one matures, one moves from a self-centered logic toward a more socially appropriate logic.

Sixth, March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) ignore the point in time when one is ascribing motives to behavior. If it is prior to acting, one might be motivated by one logic, say the logic of needs and after the behavior one might claim to justify the behavior using another logic, say the logic of responsibility.

Goldmann (2005) concludes by writing that the main problem with March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) (and hence Nowell and Boyd (2010)) is that they ignore the inherent problems in the logic of responsibility while misrepresenting the logic of needs as the simple pursuit of individual ends. In so doing they create a false dichotomy in which one side is caricatured and the other is lionized. Goldmann suggested this is the pursuit of politics in academic disguise.


What Does Evolution and Neuroanatomy Have to Say

While I applaud the Nowell and Boyd’s (2010) goal of encouraging social responsibility in human behavior, it is important that our theory be grounded in reality of the human condition. We are mammals. I think Darwin would suggest that needs are a more powerful human motivator than are the shoulds and oughts of social responsibility. It is difficult for people who think of us as animals to see our behavior as primarily socially responsible.

Research on emotions has much to say about this question which is: What dominates human behavior, needs (wants and other primary emotions) or responsibility (should and considered judgment about what is appropriate).

The line of research formed by Darwin, Tomkins, Izard, Ekman and Davidson (McMillan 2007) documented that the brain feels and expresses emotion before it perceives emotion. Our neo-cortex is able to know, to put a name to our emotions because nerves in the face that express the emotion and then send the message to the knowing/thinking part of the brain, as the face expresses the feeling. So, according to this line of research, we feel before we think. Therefore, needs which are part of our emotions will enter our brains before we consider responsibilities, which are considered by the neo-cortex.

The brain is organized so that in an emergency the neo-cortex (the thinking part of the brain) is cut off and the mammalian part of the brain dominates and controls our responses to an emergency. The mammalian brain is where our emotions circuits are primarily located. In an emergency we act without thinking of whether or not we should or what is appropriate and responsible behavior. Again feeling is first, thinking is second.

Ekman does not even list shame/guilt as one of his seven primary emotions (Ekman, 2003). Researchers who do contend that shame is a primary emotion, suggest that it develops along with empathy as we got older, say around eight years old. So if empathy and shame take so long to develop, how can one contend that responsibility trumps desire in explaining human behavior?

If we want to promote social responsibility among humans, we must appeal to self-interest first. It is clearly in our individual self-interest to protect the planet. It is in our individual self interest to support clean water, air and sanitary conditions in kitchens and hospitals.

Even if Ekman etc. are wrong in their view of emotions the brain and behavior, the answer to the question is best found empirically, not theoretically. One cannot simply assert Sense of Community is governed by social responsibility and not individual need and make it so.


The Third Position Perspective

Another major criticism comes from the third position. This is a criticism of Goldmann (2005), March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) and Nowell and Boyd (2010). That criticism is that you can never adequately evaluate or understand human behavior inside a dichotomy.

When considering human behavior as it relates to the community most conversations center around the same two polar dichotomized values individual autonomy versus the collective. Newbrough (1995) was the first to suggest a third position. He termed individual autonomy as “liberty.” He termed the collective interest as “fraternity.” He added “equality” as the third position and suggested that all discussions about community should include these values. Later Newbrough and McMillan (2007) amplified the idea into a larger theory that might be used to solve community and relationship disputes.

All dichotomies lend themselves to lionizing one side at the expense of the other. There are many values that we can use to evaluate or explain or understand human behavior. We are never limited to merely two. When you add a third position, the discourse changes from a debate to a discussion.

The dimension of time also weighs in on the way our mind harmonizes values. Goldmann (2005) alludes to this. In one decision we might serve one value. In the next decision we might serve another. In another decision we might serve still another. And so on because the list of values is longer than we have space to acknowledge. Newbrough and McMillan (2007) suggest that poor decisions are made with dichotomous thinking. And better decisions are made with an attempt to serve three values.

March and Olsen make the mistake of creating a false dichotomy and then using it to push their political agenda (Goldmann, 2005). Social science might have other values to serve. Certainly social responsibility (fraternity) is one. Another might be empirical and descriptive accuracy. A third might be the respect of multiple points of view.

As pen connects with paper here, the dominant value is empirical and descriptive accuracy. The author also applauds March and Olsen (1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) and Nowell and Boyd (2010) for championing the value of social responsibility. Perhaps March, Olsen, Nowell and Boyd and myself are poorly serving the value of respect for multiple points of view.

This is how we always behave. We serve one value better than another, but our behaviors should be some version of harmonizing at least two other values.

Though the question of whether norms, rules, sense of propriety (March & Olsen, 1976, 1989, 1995, 1996, 1998) or what Nowell and Boyd refer to as responsibility governs behavior or whether it is needs, desires or wants is an empirical question, but it seems a bit frightening to suggest that community norms trump individual needs. Yes, of course, most community psychologists advocate for a less individualistic culture and society and for a more society that encourages more communitarian values. But do we want each person to be robotically programmed by cultural expectations? Isn’t that what Madison Avenue is doing as they market the apparel that shapes women’s bodies or as plastic surgeons market their services?

In a world where the poor are getting poorer and the rich, richer, do we want to emphasize responsibility over choice? Don’t we want to encourage and empower choice, rather than conformity? Who will prescribe what is appropriate and responsible? Isn’t this how we get trickle-down economic theory by allowing the powerful to define what is appropriate? I would rather empower individual choice and let each person vote from their own self interest.

Nowell and Boyd’s clear distortion of the McMillan Sense of Community theory seems to be another example of confirmation bias (Wason & Johnson, 1968). When they look at the theory they find what they are looking for, ignoring the rest of reality that opposes their point of view. I could do the same disservice to them by suggesting that their theory of the importance of social responsibility supports a neo-conservative political agenda. I could make that case but just because a case can be made does not make it true.


In the end the question of how powerful are human values as a motivator is an empirical one. One might pose the question this way: which is a more powerful motivator “want” or “should?” Another part of the question is: how much variance does “should” carry versus “want.” It would be wonderful if Nowell and Boyd (2010) are correct, that responsibility is a powerful force in bringing people together. And if it isn’t community psychologists should join with Nowell and Boyd encouraging responsibility to become a more powerful human motivator.  But they shouldn’t insist it be part of a reality when it is not.






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[1] The author wants to recognize the contributions of Paul Speer to this article. His ideas, resources and guidance were helpful in shaping this article.

[2] Note personal investment has two parts. One belongs in membership/spirit. The second belongs in Influence/Trust. McMillan reconsidered this sub-element for this article.

[3] Transformative trading and Generative trading are new ideas added to the theory and first presented here.

[4] Published on his website:

[5] Published on his website:

[6] Published on his website:

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