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.