Intentional Communities

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Intentional Communities

Intentional communities, utopian communities, communes, alternative communities, collectives, cooperatives, experimental communities, communal societies, and communitarian utopias are some of the more popular terms used to describe what many consider to be nonconventional living arrangements. The definitions of these terms vary from study to study but, for the most part, the term intentional community is broad enough to encompass all of those listed above. These terms are often used interchangeably.

According to Geoph Kozeny, "An 'intentional community' is a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, in a suburban home, or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings" (1995, p. 18). Lyman Tower Sargent defines an intentional community as a "group of five or more adults and their children, if any, who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose" (1994, p. 15). Timothy Miller identified the following seven criteria as necessary ingredients to be considered an intentional community: "(1) A sense of common purpose and of separation from the dominant society; (2) some form and level of self-denial, of voluntary suppression of individual choice for the good of the group; (3) geographic proximity; (4) personal interaction; (5) economic sharing; (6) real existence; and (7) critical mass" (1998, p. xx).

Contemporary intentional communities come in many different varieties including communes, ecovillages, urban housing cooperatives, residential land trusts, student co-ops, co-housing developments, monasteries, kibbutzim, and spiritual communities. The nature of intentional communities varies depending on the criteria selected to define the community and the group's mission. Housing cooperatives, ecovillages, and co-housing developments are the most popular types of intentional communities listed in Communities Directory: A Guide to Intentional Communities and Cooperative Living (Fellowship for Intentional Community 2000).

Intentional communities are not new phenomena nor are they transitory or ephemeral. Those who seek to live in community mirror, in many ways, the essence of early utopian thought which stated that human beings had the potential for goodness and that they could attain that goodness if they lived in the proper kind of society. Philosophers and writers throughout the centuries have shared their thoughts on how these societies should be constructed. In his book Utopia, Thomas More ([1516] 1965), a sixteenth-century British humanist, attacked the economic and social conditions as well as the other evils affecting the society of his time. He was particularly critical of the ruling elite in the government and the church officials who were abusing their powers at the expense of the commoners. More designed an imaginary society based on a shared life and called this society Utopia. His book, which is a critique of the Elizabethan social order and status quo, has become one of the most read and cited works in literature. More's Utopia inspired hundreds of other thinkers throughout the centuries to share their visions of an ideal society.

Benjamin Zablocki (1980) identifies three varieties of utopias: exhorted, imposed, and communitarian. Exhorted utopias, such as those discussed in More's Utopia and B. F. Skinner's Walden Two, are fictional places. These utopias have been created with no practical plans for implementation. Imposed utopias are actual attempts sovereign powers have made to provide citizens with a better-functioning communal structure. Examples of imposed utopias include Calvin's City of Geneva, the Jesuit order in seventh-century Paraguay, and the New Town movement in England and the United States. The Chinese communes are probably the most ambitious of these utopias. In 1949, after the defeat of Chiang Kaishek and the ascendancy of Mao Tse-tung, 80 percent of the Chinese were peasants. Mao organized 500 million peasants into 24,000 communes. His goal was to create a socialist utopia through collective agricultural communes. In 1977, Deng Xiaoping came to power in China and revealed that Mao's experiment with communes had failed (McCord 1989). Communitarian utopias are those that develop from the combined interests and intentions of their participants. The majority of utopian experiments have been communitarian utopias.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1972) believes the origins of American utopias and intentional communities, in particular, can be traced to one of three major themes: a rejection of the established order and a desire to follow religious and spiritual values; a willingness to reform society from corruption, injustice, inhumanity, and evil, especially within the realms of economics and politics; and a rejection of the alienation and isolation of society by promoting the psychosocial growth of the individual within community. These three themes compare favorably with the three historical waves of development and growth among communitarian utopias. The first wave of communitarianism began in the early years of the United States and lasted until approximately 1845. Religious themes were popular during this time. The second wave began in 1820, peaked in the 1840s, and continued until 1930. It emphasized economic and political issues. The third wave, or the psychosocial period, emerged following World War II and peaked in the late 1960s.

Historic Commual Utopias

Donald E. Pitzer (1997) provides examples of historic communal utopias. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers, began during the depression and millenarian upsurge following the American Revolutionary War. The Shakers built twenty-four communities, and scholars estimate that overall membership was about 17,000 persons. The Shakers were founded by Ann Lee, a charismatic woman who made celibacy a central tenet of Shakerism.

German Pietists groups found the United States very appealing, at first because of religious freedom. The Community of True Inspiration, or Amana, rejected Lutheranism and believed in biblical prophecy. The Community of True Inspiration was founded by Christian Metz, who settled near Iowa City, Iowa, and created seven villages. Communal living was eventually eliminated, and members separated economic functions from religious functions and formed a joint-stock company (a business whose capital is held in transferable shares of stock by its joint owners) in 1932.

John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida Community in Oneida, New York, and preached a theology of perfectionism. Noyes was a charismatic leader who introduced his community to mutual criticism, complex marriage, and male continence. Noyes's ideas and practices eventually forced him into hiding, and the community eventually disbanded into a joint-stock company similar to Amana. One of the Oneida Community's many successful business ventures was the manufacture of silverware.

Michael Barkun (1984) reports that the United States experienced four periods of communitarian utopianism (1842–1848, 1894–1900, the 1930s, and the 1960s), and he believes that history strongly suggests the presence of a utopian cycle in the United States. Barkun hypothesized that utopian development occurs in approximately fifty to fifty-five year waves that follow accelerations and decelerations of prices.

Brian J. L. Berry agrees with Barkun's assessment of utopian cycles but carries the argument one step further. His central hypothesis states that "utopian surges embedded within upwellings of millenarian excitation, have been triggered by the long-wave crises (economic fluctuations) that periodically have affected American economic development. A corollary is that the utopias that have been built have been critical reactions to the moving target of capitalism; as capitalism has been transformed, so have the utopian alternatives" (1992, p. xv).

Contemporary Intentional Communities

Even though William Kephart and William Zellner (1991, p. ix) believe the modern communal movement is dead or dormant, conservative estimates by scholars indicate that there are 3,000 to 4,000 intentional communities in the United States. The Fellowship for Intentional Community (2000) has data which include the names and addresses of over 600 North American intentional communities and over 100 intentional communities on other continents. One such group is Twin Oaks of Louisa, Virginia, a community originally based, in part, on the principles of Skinner's Walden Two. Twin Oaks celebrates its thirty-fifth anniversary in the spring of 2002.

In addition to these communal groups there are over 425 Hutterite colonies in North America (75% are in Canada and 25% in the United States) with a combined population of over 40,000. There is also a colony in Japan, started by a group of Japanese who admired the Hutterite lifestyle. The Hutterites are the oldest communal group in North America. They trace their roots back to Europe and the Anabaptist movement of the 1500s. They arrived in the United States in the 1870s and settled in the Dakota Territory. They operate large farms, and their colonies are largely self-sufficient. Hutterites practice Gelassenheit, which means self-surrender (Kraybill and Bowman 2001).

The largest communal movement outside North America is the Israeli kibbutzim. Significant changes have occurred among some of the kibbutzim. Fewer of them have collective dining rooms and children now tend to reside with their parents. Collectivism and egalitarianism have waned under the pressure of modernism and individualism (Ben-Rafael 1997, p. 77). There are 270 kibbutzim in Israel, and together they have 125,000 members (Oved 1999, p. 67).

The Communities Directory: A Guide to Intentional Communities and Cooperative Living has listings for twenty-eight countries outside North America including locations in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, and Mexico. England, Australia, and Germany have the largest number of intentional communities. Communal living is alive and well at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In a survey completed by 600 of the 728 communities listed in the directory, 255 were formed in the 1990s, 133 in the 1980s, 164 in the 1970s, 46 in the 1960s, and 48 before 1960 (Fellowship for Intentional Community 2000).

Zablocki (1980) developed a useful classification system of intentional communities based on his study of 120 communes (60 urban and 60 rural, of which 37 were religious and 83 secular) from 1965–1978. The communal groups were placed in one of eight classifications (Eastern, Christian, psychological, rehabilitative, cooperative, alternative family, countercultural, and political) depending on their strategic philosophy (consciousness or direct action) and their locus of attention (spiritual world, individual self, primary group community, or secular society). Zablocki found the most significant differences regarding membership and social structure to be between the religious communes and the secular communes, not between consciousnessoriented groups and direct-action-oriented groups.

Much has been written on the success and failure of contemporary intentional communities. Kanter (1972) developed a theory of commitment and concluded that those groups that were able to incorporate as many commitment-producing mechanisms (sacrifice—abstinence and austerity; investment—physical and financial; renunciation— of relationships outside the community; communion—shared characteristics; mortification—deindividuation; and transcendence—ideology) as possible were more likely to survive and be successful. She identified three types of commitment that bind people to organized groups: continuance (sacrifice and investment), cohesion (renunciation and communion), and control (mortification and transcendence). Kanter wanted to uncover the structural arrangements and organizational strategies that promote and sustain commitment. She found that nineteenth-century groups used transcendence and communion mechanisms the most, followed by sacrifice, renunciation, investment, and mortification. William L. Smith (1986) investigated contemporary urban religious communities and found that communion, mortification, and transcendence mechanisms were used at moderate or high rates, while sacrifice, investment, and renunciation were not widely used.

In a study of communalists from the 1960s and 1970s, Angela A. Aidala and Benjamin Zablocki (1991 ) found that communalists came from a variety of social class backgrounds. Approximately one-quarter of them were from working-class or lower-middle class origins, while the remaining members were predominantly from the upper-middle and middle-middle classes.

Family and Intentional Communities

Yaacov Oved (1993) states that communal scholars generally agree that family life and community life are usually incompatible with one another. The major assumption is that family ties tend to be a source of conflict in communal groups. Barry Shenker (1986) argues that familial relationships can enhance one's satisfaction and commitment to communal life. Smith (1999) writes that families are an essential component of communal life unless a reliable substitute is found to replace them and their functions. Most communal groups, historical and contemporary, have not abolished the family. Only a minority of groups have adopted celibacy, monasticism, or some type of complex marriage such as pantagamy (every husband is married to every wife) as exhibited by the Oneida community. The Shakers abolished the nuclear family but they substituted for it by creating multiple communal families at each of their villages. Historic groups such as Amana incorporated nuclear families into the community and contemporary groups like the Hutterites and Jesus People USA do likewise. Some intentional communities are better suited for marriage and family life than others.

Aidala and Zablocki (1991) found that few communalists saw themselves involved in building new family forms, and they did not reject the nuclear family in favor of communal alternatives. The reason most often given by communal members for joining communes is to live with people who have similar values and goals. Smith (2001) studied a group of intentional communities who were listed in the 1995 edition of the Communities Directory. These groups stated their primary purpose or focus was family-related. He found that while the stated purpose of the community was family-related only a small minority of communalists ranked family as the most important communal goal or purpose. The majority of communalists ranked consensual community (living with those who share similar values and beliefs) as their top priority.

See also:Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite); Family, Definition of; Hutterite Families; Israel; Marriage, Definition of


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william l. smith

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Intentional Communities

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Intentional Communities