Disasters like hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Japan understandably give rise to examples of neighbourliness and generalised discussion on the nature of community. I posted some points on post-Katrina social capital here.
Here's an example of an article considering sense of community, following the Christchurch earthquake. The author, Emma Woods, writes:
The resiliency of areas not only depended on how extensive the damage was, but also on what resources were available and how well these were pooled. A friend in one of the most damaged areas of Christchurch told me how one of her neighbours had a generator, several had barbecues and all shared the food that had been in their freezers. Everyone had something they needed and something they could share.
The stories that emerge in this genre are not dissimilar to historic forms of 'necessity neighbouring' which became institutionalised, for instance in the mythology of British urban communities in the first half of the twentieth century. People share and collaborate and support one another partly because it is in their interests to do so, as well as out of a sense of common humanity. It seems to me that only a theoretical psychologist would feel compelled to separate these two motivations rigidly. If humans were able completely to separate altruism from long-term self-interest (of self, family, species...) then I suspect we would not have evolved as social animals.
People rightly recognise enormous value in the social phenomenon of community when it emerges to play its part after a disaster, and it's not unusual to hear regrets voiced about how our societies have 'lost' the values that are starkly evidenced when adversity strikes. What is meant, I think, is 'wouldn't it be nice if we could have the community bit without the adversity?' Unfortunately the question tends to be asked with so little reflection on people's motivations to connect with each other, that it becomes meaningless. It might be better to understand the metabolism of community and study the micro-conditions under which the flourishing of highly-visible communal support emerges.
Sense of community during times of large-scale crisis serves to fuel the interest already committed by policy makers who have been searching for strategic devices to stimulate routine neighbourliness. Yup, we're talking social chemical engineering, you just need a prescription-oriented culture and the elixir that captures the market.
Schemes like the Big Lunch or l'incroyable pique-nique or European Neighbours' Day - or even the Big Lottery's recently-announced People Powered Change programme (see David Wilcox's report here) - all appear to be macro-level attempts to stem the supposed decline in social capital and sell us all some universal-cure bonhomie snake-oil. This industry sector appears to be growing rapidly. The Prime Minister has a term for it, wait, no, i've forgotten it again.
Apart from asking where the money goes and where it might go if it didn't, it might help if we could be reassured that what is being injected into the social system is genuinely pro-social and not antibiotic (ie a substance that destroys micro-organisms). If you work at micro-organic level, it's easier to see, and necessary to care, whether (a) it is appropriate to talk in diagnostic terms, (b) any prescription is called-for, and if so (c) it is working. Personally I distrust this social pharmaceutical industry strongly.