This has led scholars to suggest that the structures of communities are permeable and amorphous and hence they display multiple and often conflicting beliefs and attitudes. This suggestion is rather disingenuous; for it takes an obvious limitation of a theory as if it is a limitation of the object about which this theory is supposed to give an account. It is the theory that proposes that communities are to be looked at primarily as carriers of beliefs and attitudes. But when the actual data falls short of the expectations engendered by this theory, rather than questioning the theory, reality itself is mooted to be somewhat inchoate.
A way out of this problem is to figure out the route by which we landed here in the first place.
Beginning from the second half of the 19th century, sociological thinking has differentiated societies from communities. In fact, ‘society’ was introduced as a term of art to refer to people living under particular nation-states of the West as unitary groups. A dominant feature characterizing such societies was the use of legal devices such as contracts in their transactions. Societies were conceived not merely as those human groups using contracts in particular transactions. Instead, their very becoming a unitary group was conceived of as due to an implicit contract. In other words, the contract model, applicable to particular transactions, is taken as a template to grasp the entire web of such transactions. This web of transactions is seen as a higher-order contract which supposedly generates a unitary group, the society. Thus introduction of the term ‘society’ is coeval with conceiving its referent as a higher-order, i.e., a meta-level, object.
As a consequence, the notion of community also undergoes a transformation. First, ‘community’ also becomes a term of art referring to those human groups prior to the advent of modern forms of social organization: that is, those groups that do not have contractual transactions. And secondly, corresponding to the feature of the meta-level contract bringing about society as a unitary group, something analogous is needed in the case of communities too. Thus a deep-seated but elusive cognitive device of beliefs and attitudes were introduced to account for the unitary nature of entities referred to by ‘community’. It is not the transactions discernible at an empirical or object level that makes for a community, but rather a postulated transaction at a meta-level.
Thus, for a long period in Western thinking, human transactions and traditions have been talked about and analysed by privileging the meta-level talk of societies and communities. I call them instances of meta-level talk because they focus on the supposed corporate-body level, and not on what I previously called the object-level: the habits, inclinations and associations that we engage with and learn from. In contrast to the sociological tradition, it is this object-level of habits, inclinations and learning situations that is the primary referent for the word ‘community’ as I use it here.
In what contexts do we employ the register of a meta-level talk, that is, a register of informative discourse, while talking about communities? Usually the meta-level register is used in contexts where traditions and communities need to be justified against contending traditions and in contexts where traditions have to be evaluated with reference to external norms. It is important to remember that while traditions provide resources to evaluate and justify particular actions, they cannot themselves provide the resources to evaluate and justify the tradition in toto. Circumstances of justification and evaluation of tradition necessarily take recourse to a meta-level talk because the point of concern in such situations is not particular objects and means of talking about those objects recognized within a tradition, but the tradition perceived, from a distance, as a whole. In these contexts, the tradition itself is referred to as a unified body about which statements can be made.
Nowadays we routinely encounter instances where traditions are called upon to justify themselves and are evaluated by standards of a secular, rational and liberal canon. However, it is worth remembering a point seldom acknowledged: a tradition, to be evaluated against another, or asked to justify itself, must be first treated as a set of contending claims about a common world of objects. While it is possible to create such equivalences for particular cases; case-by-case, it is not possible to do so summarily. In general, evaluation and justification of disparate actions and statements presuppose a common domain. While a custom of casting a charm on children to save them from smallpox can be seen as belonging to the same domain as vaccination does in the context of disease eradication, and the former evaluated as an ineffective means of protection compared with the latter, the same evaluation cannot be generalized for other contexts involving the same two actions. Therefore, traditions are available for justificatory or evaluative operations in toto only if a universal context is presupposed, which, after all, is not available unless one makes a series of untenable assumptions like the following: a) there is a common world of objects and a common set of distinctions to operate with; b) traditions involve propositions in the same way as theories do and so are amenable to expression as belief sets; c) there are universal evaluative criteria for actions outside the particular contexts of actions.