Ticks, poison ivy, and other hazards of fieldwork in communities

Fieldwork conducted in rural communes presents issues that one doesn’t encounter in other settings. I’ve already gotten poison ivy on more than one occasion (communities mark poison ivy spaces, but it jumps on me somehow). Tick checks are also essential. When I was staying with some groups in the Midwest, I learned of a variety of tick bite (Alpha-Gal) that renders you allergic to red meat. This was particularly problematic for the family I stayed with, as they raised goats and sheep for food and sale, and all had become susceptible. Living life outdoors, which had seemed quite pastoral until that point,  became suddenly less appealing to me.

One of the creatures who shared his sleeping space with me.

Other elements of the land trust community were more pleasant, although no less unusual.

Although there are five farms/families, there are no roads. Mowed areas, not quite visible at first, serve as walkways and property boundaries through the pastures that make up this community. The official type is “community land trust.” Members don’t own land, but lease it for 99 years. Although one who moved in now might be able to get improved land with buildings, most moved onto their land with no buildings, and created everything – barns, cob houses, pens, farms – once they got here. Most families live off grid, using wood for heat and growing and eating organic meals.

The founders’ dream for this community was to create a new variety: the  “permaculture farm” (as distinct from the permaculture created in the much smaller footprint of an ecovillage, an example of which is nearby). I ask this same founder if they succeeded, and she remarks, “Google Earth shows that the earth here looks better than it did when we started. Greener.”

This is roughing it – true homesteading. The family I stayed with had a large red barn and a smaller, two-room house (with cob oven, gas stove, and running, although not potable, water), and an outhouse. But most life is lived outdoors, with the animals (two dogs, ten goats, six sheep, geese, chickens, and three horses) far outnumbering the people (father, mother, and three children under seven, including a newborn, who does not usually wear a diaper). This is subsistence living – real farming, often for people who’ve never done it. The groups all seem to be making enough money to survive on their needs – somewhere in the range of $10,000 – $15,000 a year – but people are working, often telecommuting on laptops, and also farming and building, so it can be a difficult life.

On the plus side, there are wide-open spaces for children to play and explore, alongside the livestock and nature. There are many opportunities for experiential learning – with children there is constant chatter, about everything that is happening around them, from docking the rams to whatever is is that is afflicting the horses’ eyes.

People are more isolated here. I get the sense that families left the nearby ecovillage, despite its own smallness, because it is too closed in – perhaps too much process, too much community. There are communal work parties along with some shared fundamental values, but each farm operates under its own personal visions and choices. Among the groups here are monogamous couples with children, some solo homesteaders, and a group who is income-sharing. They are on good, but not overly friendly, terms with each other, and don’t seem to engage in the frequent communal events and celebrations that some of the other communities do. At least one resident is not too happy about visitors, or trespassing off the mowed paths. There are some concerns about each others’ dogs, livestock getting into fruit trees, that sort of thing. Maybe good mowed paths aren’t quite enough to make good neighbors.

Housing Cooperative in Formation

The group also calls itself an ecovillage and has planning since 2008. There is no ethic or driving spiritual force, outside of living in community and creating something to halt environment degradation through intentional agriculture, restoring the soil, and other communal efforts at sustainability. This vision, however, comes with the idea of creating a more diverse rural model that is intergenerational, and then also passing that model on. Unlike the dominant US notion where we all expect to own and profit from our own homes, the community consciously promotes the idea that the community as a whole promotes the value of the community, and are working to resocialize people about this way of thinking about property.


Legally what they want to do is called a land trust, with a conservation easement. Each involved will purchase a share in the cooperative (probably about 40K), with a lease for 99 years. Everyone will be both landlord and lessee in that sense, since they will also have a voice in the government of the community. If you leaves, you get some of the equity, although not as much as if you sold a house, and they haven’t decided yet how much; it will be your share plus some investment. There will also be a monthly fee — $1500-1600 on average (based on unit size) to cover the fees to maintain the common areas. Funding (as low as 2% rates) can come from the National Cooperative Bank.

The land they want to buy is sizeable but about three-quarters forested, with some cleared pasture. The community will have about 30 single-family homes in the 500-800 square feet range and 4-5 housing units for apartments. The houses will have a common aesthetic. There will be car sharing, a solar array, and the use of passive solar. There will be a common house with guest bedrooms.

There is to be a weekly work commitment. This will include child and elder care, as well as farming, cleaning of common areas, caring for animals, and the management of the forest land. However, it will not be an income sharing community; the founders actually feel that income sharing is limiting. “There are other ways to build fairness and community.” Members can create their own businesses there, but only ones that are consistent with the land.


About 12-15 people are centrally committed and meet at least once a month. There is an additional group of 50 who come to some of the workdays. Then there is an outer circle of 50 more who are on the mailing list but even less committed (this now includes myself). They have been planning for a long time, but the group does plan to buy the land outright from the amenable owner within the year. Membership will involve a screening to make sure the persons share the values of the cooperative.


They practice “sociocracy” in their decision making, which means if something is proposed, three things happen. Everyone goes around and gets to say something about the issue. Then everyone gets to ask a question. Then everyone who has concerns gets to say what would they need to know or what would need to change to make them more comfortable with the proposal. So it isn’t quite consensus but it’s a model that gives everyone a chance to contribute. Diana Leafe Christian, [1] who is at the heart of some of this, famously said “I’ve tried consensus and it doesn’t work.” Sociocracy also evolved from the decision-making at Quaker meetings. When it’s used in the business world it’s called “holocracy.” [2]

What are some of their struggles?

Getting people to make the financial commitment. There are only 3 individuals/couples who would move tomorrow; others are waiting to see how it falls out. Obviously a related struggle is recruitment. Lack of diversity is another. The modal category of involvement is a single woman in her 50s-60s, although there are some single men of that age and some couples. They have a few young people, a few with families, but the median age is high. They have a few Latinos in the interested group; not really any African-Americans. In terms of economic class diversity they are doing okay, but no serious money has been asked for yet.

[1] Christian, Diana Leafe. 2003, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities. 2007, Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community

[2] Buck and Villines. 2007. We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy.



Continuum of Intentionality

In my Research Methods course I asked my students to guess what an “intentional community” was. Two students answered with variations on the “Chinatown” idea – what sociologists call an “ethnic enclave” — that people move to a geographic area to be with others like them, in this case to take advantage of the economic and cultural resources of common language, national origin, and race/ethnicity (sociologists would also note that this definition could be far from “intentional,” as many of these types of communities are also ghettos, groups not allowed to live in other parts of the larger community). At any rate, something quite distinct from what people think of when they hear the word “commune.”

Similarly, when I used the phrase in Germany, “intentionales Gemeinschaft,” the literal translation of “intentional community,” it didn’t make sense to commune members. There are no intentional communities in Germany, and all communes (Kommuna) appear to be income-sharing, at least those I encountered. There are other types of intentional living arrangements (e.g., cohousing is quite common, as it is in most parts of Europe) but all types are not lumped together as intentional communities the way we do in the US.

Still, I think it is useful both to make clear the distinctions between different living arrangements, AND show how all of these are part of a larger social movement toward a new way of living communally, intentionally. I am arguing that the concept of “intentional community” is something that exists along a continuum, with the large scale, income-sharing commune being merely the most rigorous example of an intentional community. At the other end exist ways of organizing that employ similar ideals to intentional communities: community gardens, community day cares, worker-owned businesses, consumer cooperatives, neighborhood organizations, grass-roots action groups, etc. In the middle are eco-villages and other forms of cohousing. The commonalities include both the desire for community and an intention to live a certain way (often outside traditional capitalistic forms of exchange).

I’m going to start with one end of the spectrum and go to the other. Each week I’ll provide a little information about one type in a series of short blog posts outlined below. I’ll talk about an example of each from an ethnography I’ve done, and try to show some of the ways they differ in terms of formation, goals, decision making, egalitarianism, and economics:

Cohousing in Formation

Land trust, non-income sharing

Ecovillage, non-income sharing

Ecovillage, non-income sharing, off the grid

Income sharing, small group

Income sharing, large group

Income sharing, German style

Former commune




1001 influences, and counting

I’ve been meaning to write the second half of this post for a while, about both my research influences and why I felt compelled to do this sabbatical (even before I visited Twin Oaks). I kept putting it off and I wasn’t sure why until my first day in community, walking about the ecovillage where I stayed: there are so many things that connect my life and experience to this project. The more I thought about it, the more came out of the woodwork! So much that I almost cannot imagine all of the pieces of my life that led me to this place.

I’ll try a list anyway. But I’ll keep adding.

I have to start with my dad’s interest in unusual architecture, passive solar, berm houses, tiny homes (before that was trendy), Frank Lloyd Wright and Usonian houses, and his building of my own childhood home from scratch. In the ecovillage, the houses are quite unlike and unusual, often made with an adobe-like material called “cob,” and thatched roofs. Dad would love it.

Survivalist stuff. Family films about people going off into the wilderness to get away from the rat race, back to nature, and eaten by a bear. My favorite hippy dolls from the seventies that came with DIY instructions for clothing and furniture. They even had their own craft van! How much I loved building forts and tree houses which were my own tiny houses. Reading books like the Little House series with all of its “how tos” for a farm life. A childhood interest in missionaries going to far away villages and living more rural, simple lives. My fascination with Louisa May Alcott and then learning that her father, Bronson Alcott, had started a commune with the family (Fruitlands, which failed miserably) while she was a teen. A love of hiking and camping instilled early on.

Slightly later in life literary choices: Marge Piercy’s Woman in the Edge of Time, first read in 1990 because a friend in grad school told me it was the best book he ever read; read and reread countless times since. A long, long interest in all things futurist and sci fi, fueling the new sociologist’s attention to community and social structure. Alternative futures, Utopias, Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing, apocalyptic films, zombies. The way that everything has to start from scratch when we run out of oil, annihilate most everyone, or whatever: “Testament,” “Mad Max,” The Stand, “Waterworld,” “The Fire Next Time,” The Postman, “Walking Dead.”

My interest in midwifery, which been in my head at least since I read about Ina May Gaskin in Our Bodies, Ourselves and Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, and then birthed my own first kid. Driving that is figuring out a sustainable career if there is no longer an academia option, finding a basic skill that can use when things fall apart. Even off the grid, people will still have babies. Ten years at least I’ve been thinking on this, once I started getting interested in peak oil and “when do we run out?”

Central is my reading several years ago a number of books about “the simple life” and how to get there. I am sure I read about intentional communities when I did that, but it didn’t sink in right away. Visiting Walden and Alcotts’ home when I went to Concord. The desire to build for Habitat for Humanity. Seeking more radical environmental changes one could make at home, looking into investment in solar panels or the waterless toilet. Recycling, saving everything, making things from that stuff (I even did this as a kid) trying to use up everything. Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, plant-based diets, slow food and locavore movements, wanting to grow and can as much of my own organic food as possible, farmer’s markets and food cooperatives. All of the different ways of making the planet better. When I first came to MWC I toyed with the idea of a day care co-op, suggested by one of my students when my son was a toddler. I guess that means I’ve had that interest for almost 18 years!

Getting involved in this project, part one:

The quick story is that I was asked by Warren Rochelle, an English professor at UMW, to chaperone a group of students with him to an intentional community in central Virginia called Twin Oaks. (Warren was teaching a first year seminar on Utopias at the time). I had read an article in the Washington Post years before on Twin Oaks, so I was intrigued. The tour, which took place nine year ago today (February 24, 2007) was excellent, and I have subsequently visited Twin Oaks a few more times.

In an interesting coincidence, today at I gave a social science research colloquium talk on my emerging research on ICs. I got some excellent feedback and questions from colleagues in history, sociology, political science, biology, and other departments, particularly about how to frame the study historically (essentially, why the surge in intentional communities now? Are there certain flash points historically for their emergence, and if so, what are some (dis)similarities from the past?)

But, as all with all good sociology tales, there is far more to the story… More to come.

Just what is an intentional community?

The question “what characterizes an intentional community?” is not easy to answer.

Zablocki, in 1980, defined an intentional community as “any group of five or more adult individuals (plus children if any), the majority of whose dyads are not cemented by blood or marriage, who decided to live together, without compulsion, for an indefinite period of time, primarily for the sake of an ideological goal, focused on the achievement of community, for which a collective household is deemed essential.” Metcalf (1996) refers to an intentional community as “ten or more adults involved in a substantial amount of cooperative sharing.” Both terms are distinct from mere collective living–individuals sharing living space but not resources or a common ideological goal, or cooperatives–groups who share ideological goals but may be more narrowly directed.

In my view, a continuum links all types of intentional organizations. At one end, are fully income-sharing intentional communities which share all resources, including space, finances, and goals, and at the other, groups which may share only space or tasks (community gardens, community day cares, worker-owned collectives, consumer cooperatives, neighborhood housing organizations, etc.). A little less intense are intentional communities that are not fully income-sharing. In the middle are some eco-villages (ICs organized around ecology and sustainability); other forms of cohousing (individual homes within fully, or partially-owned, group property); and shared housing (multiple individuals sharing a home).

The commonalities include both the desire for community and an intention to live a certain way (often outside traditional capitalistic forms of exchange).

Far from making a irrevocable life choice, however, the boundaries of intentional community are permeable and shifting. Individuals may move along that continuum, sometimes living in communes, sometimes moving back and forth between difference intentional communities. Surrounding some long-term income-sharing intentional communities are daughter ICs that spun off from the originals, or “edge communities” of ex-commune members who nevertheless still prefer some type of communal organization. Others may leave an IC entirely but nevertheless continue to engage in cooperative endeavors, but within mainstream society. ICs that were income-sharing may decide not to be any longer, and vice versa. Workers in a collective may decide to live together and share other activities. Shared housing members may decide to create a business together.

Metcalf, Bill. 1996. “Intentional Communities are … Everywhere.” Communities (93):16-17.

Zablocki, Benjamin. 1980. Alienation and Charisma: A Study of Contemporary American Communes. New York: Free Press.

Cocktails, Community, and Fieldwork

It turns out that in the course of over twenty years of sociological research, I have finally found a topic worthy of cocktail party conversation!

I personally have found my previous work (on lawyers and law students, and Latino immigrants to the New South) pretty entertaining, but nothing has garnered me the attention that studying intentional communities has. That is, once I explain that “intentional communities” are now what everyone used to call “communes.”

This week kicks off my first formal foray into field work on intentional communities in central Virginia and elsewhere, about which I tend to blog every week. So, in that vein, I offer up some of the cocktail party questions I have been getting as a way of exploring misconceptions about ICs and explaining what I intend to do this semester.

You mean they still have those?  I thought those all died after the sixties.
They sure do. ICs are neither recent not short-lived phenomenon. There are approximately three to four thousand intentional communities in over twenty-five of the world’s countries. There are over 500 ICs in North America alone. Although some ICs are short-lived and small, many are lasting organizations with many members. A number of ICs have existed for decades and are extremely well-known communities.

You mean like Waco?
No, not like Waco.

You mean like Jonestown? Make sure you don’t drink the Koolaid!
No, not like Jonestown either.

Intentional communities are not cults. “Cult” is a term often used incorrectly, but a common element that distinguishes a cult from a healthy, participative community is interference with a person’s free will. Another big difference between manipulative, authoritarian forms of collective behavior such as the People’s Temple or Branch Davidians is that ICs are actually pretty public organizations. ICs have tours, accept visitors, market their businesses, and advertise on the internet. IC members interact with the public, pay taxes and send their children to public schools.

You mean like nudists?
Yep, some ICs are very welcoming of nudism. These have clothing-optional areas, but not everyone participates.  And you don’t see that on the tours.

And all that free love stuff?
Yes again, many IC members are polyamorous, but by no means all.

But nobody lives there very long, right? That way of life can’t be sustainable.
Anecdotally, the average stay in an intentional community is four years (that’s a factoid I’ll be exploring empirically with my research). However, communes have some very long-term residents, and IC-ers cycle in and out of living in an intentional community or cohousing, and may move from IC to IC.

But their children leave, I bet.
While it’s true that children often leave ICs to attend college, and there aren’t a lot that raise their families to adulthood, I have met some second- and even third-generation IC-ers.

As a social movement, the life of the intentional community is very robust. Individuals are usually very committed to the ideals of intentional community, and new ICs are formed all the time. Like many organizations – including universities! – ICs struggle with issues related to gaining new members, socialization, maintaining the organization’s goals, and retention. Although supposedly the failure rate of a new IC is 90% (just like restaurants), that’s another “fact” to check with my research.

Are they religious?
Some are religious — largely Christian and Buddhist, as well as Jewish (130,000 people, or about three percent of the Israeli population, live on some 280 kibbutzim — which are intentional communities). Most ICs, however, are not primarily religious communities.

Aren’t they pretty white?
Yes, intentional communities are predominantly white (as well as well-educated and often privileged) spaces. However, as I am learning, there are some significant intentional communities of color. The growing movement in urban ICs is more likely to be diverse as well.

Indeed, there is no one variable that describes ICs and there is considerable variation from IC to IC. At the website for the Fellowship for Intentional Community  you can search by categories such as geographic location, size of population, urban/rural, shared community meals, religious/non-religious, dietary preferences, and financial and decision making styles.

Indeed, what is most sociologically compelling for me is that “intentional community” exists along a continuum of communal behavior, at one end of which are communities that share all resources, including space, finances, values, and goals, and at the other, groups which may share only space or tasks (communal gardens, consumer or worker cooperatives, ecovillages, etc.). And the boundaries are permeable, such that individuals may move along that continuum, sometimes living in communes, but other times living in “edge communities” or engaged in cooperative endeavors within mainstream society.

I’ll be here all semester, folks. Come back and check it out.