There are at least three major limitations of theory for community developers. First, it can be argued that the profession is undergirded with theories from so many disciplines that it is difficult for practitioners to sort through them all. Second, the balkanization of theory is compounded by theoreticians whose language is cumbersome and fraught with jargon that scares away most practitioners. Third, the culture of the community development profession consists of many practitioners who often want to dispense with theory and "get down to earth." They want studies to shed light on issues such as urban slum life, growth versus the environment, globalization or a range of other issues that need immediate attention.
The purpose of this paper is to ask what is essential about theory and to identify several theories that are essential for community development research and practice. Bhattacharyya's (1995) definition of community development as solidarity and agency is offered as a starting point to select theories that are most relevant for the field. I argue that the most important issues for community development theory concern structure, power and shared meaning. These are expressed in functionalism, conflict, and symbolic interaction theory.
Structural approach: functionalism
Structure is about organizations and group capacity to bring about or stop change. In essence, structure is related to the Giddens' concept of agency or capacity building. The theoretical concept concerned with structure is known as structural functionalism. It is also called systems theory, equilibrium theory, or simply functionalism. According to this theoretical framework, societies contain certain interdependent structures, each of which performs certain functions for the maintenance of society. Structures refer to organizations and institutions such as health care, educational entities, businesses and non-profit groups, or informal groups. Functions refer to their purpose, mission, and what they do in society. These structures form the basis of a social system. Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton are the theorists most often associated with this theory. According to Merton (1968), social systems have manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are intentional and recognized. In contrast, latent functions may be unintentional and not recognized. For example, it could be argued that the manifest function of urban planning is to assure well-organized and efficiently functioning cities, whereas the latent function is to allocate advantages to certain interests such as those involved with the growth machine or real estate developers.
Functionalists such as Parsons argue that structures often contribute to their own maintenance, not particularly to a greater societal good. Concern for order and stability also led functionalists to focus on social change and its sources. They view conflict and stability as two sides of the same coin. If the community developer wants to build community capacity, she will have to pay attention to the organizational capacity for stimulating or inhibiting change. Structural function