Why the Three Rings of Community are So Important.

Understanding our “middle-ring” relationships is key to identifying the solutions to our social fragmentation. (Reading Time: 4.5 minutes)

The English language is a notoriously blunt instrument.

It lacks many of the emotive words we find in other languages for complex human feelings and relationships. For example, the Danish hygge (the feeling of coziness from being inside with others), Italian commuovere (having your heart warmed by someone), or Nguni Bantu Ubuntu (being kind to others on account of their common humanity).

English is particularly ham-handed when describing the richness of our social interactions and relationships. Sure, we have the word community. But otherwise our linguistic landscape is a veritable desert.   

This is remarkable, given how much our inner and outer worlds are driven by our social lives. And over the past few decades, our social lives have undergone incredible transformations with significant implications for our democracy and well-being.

How can we talk about these changes without more nuance? We need the equivalent of the Inuit’s fifty words for snow.

Many folks have attempted to add complexity to the discourse on community. One of the best I’ve seen comes from the book, The Vanishing Neighbor, by Marc Dunkelman. Dunkelman’s framing of community is especially valuable because it also provides deep insights into our recent seismic societal shifts. 

Dunkelman describes community in terms of three concentric rings:

  • The inner-ring is our closest friends and family who know the full spectrum of what’s happening in our lives. You could call them our ‘support clique‘ or ‘sympathy group’.
  • The outer-ring are folks who may not live near you, but with whom you share a single interest, experience, or identity. For example, other fans of your favorite sports team, fellow stutterers in a support forum, or an online gaming group. 
  • In between are the middle-ring relationships: people with whom we are familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close. These relationships are typically with people in our neighborhood or town. For example, the neighbor you regularly bump into on your dog walk, fellow PTA or church members, or the barista who serves you coffee every Sunday.

American society has historically been organized around communities with strong middle-ring relationships. Dunkleman calls this the “township” social structure, characterized by our ubiquitous voluntary assistance and decision-making between unrelated people who happen to live alongside one another.      

Urban or rural, we built our governing and social institutions upon the civic life, communal spirit, and shared decision making cultivated by middle ring relationships. Our social fabric is knit from its threads.

But then something happened.

Sweeping changes, such as increasing affluence, mobility, choice, technology, and transformations of our cultural and built environments, have shifted our social routines and our calculus for where we invest our finite pool of social energy. 

Sweeping social changes have shifted our calculus for where we invest our finite pool of social energy. 

We are now devoting most of our time to our inner- and outer-rings. We increasingly spend our time seeking affirmation and belonging in outer-ring communities like social media and online forums. And we’ve circled the band wagons around our prized closest inner-ring connections.   ‘

As a result, we’ve dried up the springs that feed our middle-ring relationships. We’ve abandoned going to church, joining bowling clubs, participating in civic groups, or simply having neighbors over for dinner.

The neighborhood or town is no longer an important center of American life. We may be more connected, but we live next to strangers.

After centuries of society built upon middle-rings, a radically new social structure has emerged that is rooted in the other rings. Dunkleman calls this new social structure ‘networked individualism.’ A more cynical description would be “communal narcissism.”

This shift into a networked social structure is profoundly diminishing our capacity for tolerance and plurality. And it’s directly linked to our increasing social fragmentation and polarization. 

This is because we can navigate networked relationships without ever having our point-of-view challenged or gently expanded. Outer-rings typically gloss over differences and avoid crossing into uncomfortable social spaces. Our inner-rings grant us unconditional love. Our media diets reinforce our bubbles.

We can navigate networked relationships without ever having our point-of-view challenged or gently expanded.

As a result, our muscle memory for tolerating other perspectives has atrophied. Those small but meaningful middle-ring interactions generate mutual familiarity between people with different backgrounds and points of view. They offer windows into experiences beyond our own. They are the foundation for appreciating and respecting diversity. 

A culture of tolerance and acceptance is built from the ground up. Our politics reflect us, not the other way around.

In Vanishing Neighbor, Dunkelman bravely attempts to conjecture how our social and governing institutions could adapt to our new networked social structure. Unfortunately, his efforts fall short, especially in underestimating the rise of bigotry and division.

Instead, we should focus on how to reinvigorate our institutions to build back middle-ring relationships. We can no longer assume their presence behind the scenes, fulfilling their foundational role supporting civic life and introducing us to other perspectives.

For those who shape the built environment, community engagement has much of this potential, yet we do not empower most processes to do the deep work of middle-ring relationship building. Let’s change this.

We should also look at how we can invest into new institutions, systems, and social infrastructure that intentionally cultivate middle-ring relationships. It’s why I’m so jazzed on models like Participatory City, an explicitly scalable and replicable model of participatory social infrastructure. (Shameless plug: I’m working with a group to bring Participatory City to Seattle. Want to help?)

In the meantime, the next time someone starts talking about community, you can use Dunkelman’s rings to slice through the ambiguity.

Oh, and don’t forget to say ‘Hi’ to that new neighbor or put down your phone to exchange a few meaningful words with your regular barista!


Technology and social media are a major contributor to our middle-ring decimation (among other things). The Center for Human Technology is doing an excellent job raising awareness and tracking its impacts. They just recently hosted a “Design Technology for Social Cohesion” conference, and publish an impressive “Ledger of Harms.” Check it out!