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:
Ecovillage, non-income sharing
Ecovillage, non-income sharing, off the grid
Income sharing, small group
Income sharing, large group
Income sharing, German style