Psychological Sense of Community:
Theory of McMillan & Chavis (1986)

In 1974, psychologist Seymour Sarason's seminal book introduced the concept of "psychological sense of community," and proposed that it become the conceptual center for the psychology of community, asserting that psychological sense of community "is one of the major bases for self-definition" (p. 157). Quite a few studies have followed, and in addition to some treatment that has been characterized as fuzzy and atheoretical (cf., Pretty, 1990), some impressive theoretical and empirical development has emerged around this concept, which by 1986 had come to be regarded as a central overarching value for Community Psychology (Sarason, 1986; Chavis & Pretty, 1999).

Among theories of Psychological Sense of Community, McMillan & Chavis's (1986) is by far the most influential, and is the starting point for most of the recent research on psychological sense of community.

In their discussions of the construct of Psychological Sense of Community, McMillan & Chavis (1986) prefer the abbreviated label "Sense of Community," and provide the following one-sentence definition: "Sense of Community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together."

McMillan & Chavis (1986) propose that Sense of Community is composed of four elements.

Four Elements of Sense of Community

1. Membership

The first aspect of Sense of Community is membership in that community. Reviewing relevant literature on particular dimensions of membership, McMillan & Chavis identified five attributes:

"Boundaries" are marked by such things as language, dress, and ritual, indicating who belongs and who does not. Especially in groups that have boundaries that are less than clearly obvious, deviants or outsiders may be held in lower regard or even denounced or punished. The authors acknowledge that "boundaries" is the most troublesome feature of the "membership" portion of the definition, but point out that "While much sympathetic interest in and research on the deviant have been generated, group members' legitimate needs for boundaries to protect their intimate social connections have often been overlooked" (p. 9).

The other four attributes of membership are "emotional safety" (or, more broadly, security; willingness to reveal how one really feels), "a sense of belonging and identification" (expectation or faith that I will belong, and acceptance by the community), "personal investment" (cf., cognitive dissonance theorists), and "a common symbol system." Regarding this fifth attribute, the authors quote Nisbet & Perrin, asserting that:

Understanding common symbol systems is a prerequisite to understanding community. "The symbol is to the social world what the cell is to the biotic world and the atom to the physical world.... The symbol is the beginning of the social world as we know it" (Nisbet & Perrin, 1977, p. 47).

The authors then go on to cite examples in the literature of various important functions that symbols perform at a number of social levels. At the level of the neighborhood, for example, symbols might be found in its name, a landmark, a logo, or in architectural style; the integrative role of national symbols is mentioned, such as the flag, holidays, a national language; citing Jung (1912), the authors even offer basic archetypes as symbols uniting humankind. Groups use symbols such as rituals, ceremonies, rites of passage, forms of speech, and dress to indicate boundaries of who is or is not a member.

In 1996, McMillan updated and expanded what he had written in 1986, and with regard to membership, placed greater emphasis on the "spirit" of community deriving from "the spark of friendship" (p. 315).

2. Influence

McMillan & Chavis (1986) point out that influence in a community is bidirectional: members of a group must feel empowered to have influence over what a group does (otherwise they would not be motivated to participate), and group cohesiveness depends upon the group having some influence over its members. The authors cite several studies that suggest that these two apparently contradictory forces can be at work simultaneously, and assert that:

People who acknowledge that others' needs, values, and opinions matter to them are often the most influential group members, while those who always push to influence, try to dominate others, and ignore the wishes and opinions of others are often the least powerful members (p. 11).

The authors refer to a review by Lott & Lott (1965) in which the major finding was a positive correlation between group cohesiveness and pressure to conform. On the other hand, the authors also discuss the "consensual validation" research, which "demonstrates that the force toward uniformity is transactional -- that it comes from the person as well as from the group" (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 11), providing members with reassurances that they are experiencing things similarly to other group members.

In 1996, McMillan discusses this element primarily from the standpoint of "trust," pointing out that it is the salient ingredient in influence (p. 318). He also summarizes the earlier (1986) discussion of the role of power and influence within a community in a single sentence: "This process [of bidirectional influence] occurs all at the same time because order, authority, and justice create the atmosphere for the exchange of power" (1996, p. 319).

3. Integration and fulfillment of needs

McMillan & Chavis employ the word "needs" here (as is commonly used among psychologists, though perhaps somewhat inaccurately) to mean more than survival and other needs as such, but to include also that which is desired and valued. Members of groups are seen as being rewarded in various ways for their participation, which Rappaport (1977) calls person-environment fit. Cited research indicates that this would include the status of being a member, as well as the benefits that might acrue from the competence of other members. "Shared values" is discussed as a concept that can give direction to the issue of which "needs" beyond survival will be pursued.

Sarason (1974, p. 157) originally conceived nearly this same construct as "an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them."

McMillan's 1996 update cites several studies showing that perceived similarity to others and homogeneity contribute to group interaction and cohesion, and McMillan confessed that he had become convinced he should give greater weight to the "search for similarities" as an "essential dynamic" of community development (p. 320-321). He also recharacterized this element as "creating an economy of social trade" (p. 322).

4. Shared emotional connection

McMillan & Chavis's summary statement on shared emotional connection includes the assertion that "it seems to be the definitive element for true community" (1986, p. 14). They mention the role of shared history (participation in or at least identification with it). In 1996 (p. 322) McMillan adds that "shared history becomes the community's story symbolized in art" (in a very broad sense). McMillan & Chavis (1986) list seven important features of shared emotional connection, citing relevant research for each.

Dynamics Within and Between the Elements

After defining the four elements in detail, McMillan & Chavis (1986) go on to discuss the dynamics within and between the elements. Some of the discussion of dynamics within the elements is similar enough to definitional points raised above that it does not seem necessary to go into further detail here except to mention two points. With regard to the first element of Sense of Community (membership), the authors argue that the five attributes of membership (boundaries, emotional safety, sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, common symbol system; see above) fit together in a "circular, self-reinforcing way, with all conditions having both causes and effects" (p. 15), giving examples of causal and reinforcing influences among the attributes.

The dynamics within shared emotional connection are summarized by the following "heuristic" formulae proposed by the authors (p. 15):

Formula 1: Shared emotional connection = contact + high-quality interaction

Formula 2: High-quality interaction = (events with successful closure - ambiguity) x (event valence x sharedness of the event) + amount of honor given to members - amount of humiliation.

Dynamics between the elements are illustrated by the authors primarily through examples, as it is "difficult to describe [their] the abstract" (p. 16). The first example presented is in a university setting:

Someone puts an announcement on the dormitory bulletin board about the formation of an intramural dormitory basketball team. People attend the organizational meeting as strangers out of their individual needs (integration and fulfillment of needs). The team is bound by place of residence (membership boundaries are set) and spends time together in practice (the contact hypothesis). They play a game and win (successful shared valent event). While playing, members exert energy on behalf of the team (personal investment in the group). As the team continues to win, team members become recognized and congratulated (gaining honor and status for being members). Someone suggests that they all buy matching shirts and shoes (common symbols) and they do so (influence) (p. 16).

In their conclusion section, McMillan & Chavis suggest ways in which a well-defined, empirically validated understanding of Sense of Community might help creators and planners of programs of various kinds, including the positive impact of a high-quality community on processes that might normally unfold in a one-on-one context or in a context where the community dimension is largely ignored.

The preceding is an excerpt from the literature review chapter of a dissertation by Stephen Wright, department of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park. Permission to reproduce (though not on the web!) is granted for non-commercial purposes if this paragraph remains intact.

The most widely used and broadly validated measure of Psychological Sense of Community is the Sense of Community Index (SCI) instrument designed by Chavis, Hogge, McMillan, & Wandersman, developed concurrently with the theory summarized above and published at the same time (1986).


Chavis, D.M., Hogge, J.H., McMillan, D.W., & Wandersman, A. (1986). Sense of community through Brunswick's lens: A first look. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 24-40.

Chavis, D.M., & Pretty, G. (1999). Sense of community: Advances in measurement and application. Journal of Community Psychology, 27(6), 635-642.

Jung, C.G. (1912). The psychology of the unconscious. Leipzig, Germany: Franz Deutiche. (hardcover)

Lott, A.J. & Lott, B.E. (1965). Group cohesiveness as interpersonal attraction: A review of relationships with antecedent and variables. Psychological Bulletin, 64, 259-309.

McMillan, D.W. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24(4), 315-325.

McMillan, D.W., & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. American Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.

Nisbet, R. & Perrin, R.G. (1977). The Social Bond. New York: Knopf. (Out of print. See The Quest for Community.)

Pretty, G. (1990). Relating psychological sense of community to social climate characteristics. Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 60-65.

Rappaport, J. (1977). Community Psychology: Values, research, and action. New York: Rhinehart and Winston. (Out of print. See Handbook of Community Psychology.)

Sarason, S.B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (See also American Psychology and Schools.)

Sarason, S.B. (1986). Commentary: The emergence of a conceptual center. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 405-407.

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The text above is a portion of the literature review chapter of Dr. Stephen Wright's doctoral dissertation, "Exploring Sense of Community in Living-Learning Programs and in the University as a Whole." Read the one-paragraph summary (abstract), or download the whole dissertation in pdf format (735k).

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