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.

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