What's True About Intentional Communities: Dispelling the Myths
Compiled by the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, October 1996
1. Myth: There are no intentional communities anymore; they died out in the `60s &`70s.
Fact: Not so. Many of those communities survived and thrived, and many new ones have formed since then. A significant new wave of interest in intentional communities has grown over the last several years.
We listed 540 intentional communities in North America in the 1995 edition of our Communities Directory--up from 300 in our 1990/91 edition. Several hundred more communities (who declined to be listed) are in our database. We estimate there are several thousand altogether.
2. Myth: Intentional communities are all alike.
Fact: There is enormous diversity among intentional communities. Most communities share land or housing, but more importantly, their members share a common vision and work actively to carry out their common purpose.
However, their purposes vary widely. For example, communities have been formed to share resources, to create great family neighborhoods, to live ecologically sustainable lifestyles, or to live with others who hold similar values. Some communities are wholly secular; others are committed to a common spiritual practice; many are spiritually eclectic. Some are focused on egalitarian values and voluntary simplicity, or mutual interpersonal growth work, or rural homesteading and self-reliance. Some communities provide services, for example helping war refugees, the urban homeless, or developmentally disabled children or adults. Some communities operate rural conference and retreat centers, health and healing centers, or sustainable-living education centers.
3. Myth: Intentional communities are "communes."
Fact: Many people use these terms interchangeably, however, it is probably more useful to use the term "commune" to describe a particular kind of intentional community whose members live "communally" in an economic sense--operating with a common treasury and sharing ownership of their property. Most intentional communities are not communes, though some of the communities most active in the communities movement are.
4. Myth: Most community members are young--in their twenties.
Fact: Most communities are multi-generational. In the hundreds of North American communities we know about, most members range in age from 30 to 60, with some in their 20s, some 60 and older, and many children.
5. Myth: Most communitarians are hippies.
Fact: While some of today's communities can trace their roots back to the counterculture of the `60s and `70s, few today identify with the hippie stereotype. (Moreover, many of the characteristics that identified "hippies" 25 years ago--long hair, bright clothes, ecological awareness--have become integrated into mainstream lifestyles.)
On the political spectrum, communitarians tend to be left of center. In terms of lifestyle choices, they tend to be hard working, peace loving, health conscious, environmentally concerned, and family oriented. Philosophically they tend toward a way of life which increases the options for their own members without limiting the choices of others.
6. Myth: All intentional communities are out in the boondocks.
Fact: While 54% of the communities listed in the 1995 Communities Directory are rural, 28% are urban, 10% have both rural and urban sites, and 8% don't specify.
7. Myth: Most intentional communities are organized around a particular religion or common spiritual practice.
Fact: While it's true that many groups have a spiritual focus--and most of the better-known historical communities did, such as Amana and Oneida--of the 540 North American communities listed in the Communities Directory, 65% are secular or don't specify, while only 35% are explicitly spiritual or religious.
8. Myth: Most intentional communities have an authoritarian form of governance; they follow a charismatic leader.
Fact: The reverse is true; the most common form of governance is democratic, with decisions made by some form of consensus or voting. Of the hundreds of communities we have information about, 64% are democratic, 9% have a hierarchical or authoritarian structure, 11% are a combination of democratic and hierarchical, and 16% don't specify. Many communities which formerly followed one leader or a small group of leaders have changed in recent years to a more democratic form of governance.
9. Myth: Community members all think alike.
Fact: Because communities are by definition organized around a common vision or purpose, their members tend to hold a lot of values and beliefs in common--many more than shared among a typical group of neighbors. Still, disagreements are a common occurrence in most communities, just as in the wider society. The object of community is not so much to eliminate conflict as to learn to work with it constructively.
10. Myth: Most communities are "cults."
Fact: Many sociologists and psychologists know that the popular image of "cults" and "mind control" is distorted. Both the American Psychological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion have done research that refutes the idea that religious or other groups are systematically brainwashing their members or interfering with their ability to think critically.
Although the term "cult" is usually intended to identify a group in which abuse occurs, its use frequently says more about the observer than the observed. It would generally be more accurate if the observer said "a group with values and customs different from mine; a group that makes me feel uncomfortable or afraid."
Most communities are not abusive toward members. The ones which are, especially those prone to violence, can attract media attention which falsely implies that intentional communities are abusive in general. It's our experience that the overwhelming majority of communities go quietly about their business, and are considered good places to live by their members--and good neighbors by people who live around them.
11. Myth: Community members have little privacy or autonomy.
Fact: The degree of privacy and autonomy in communities varies as widely as the kinds of communities themselves. In some communities individual households own their own land and house, and have their own independent economy (perhaps with shared facilities, as in many land co-ops); their degree of privacy and autonomy is nearly identical to that of mainstream society. However, in communities with specific religious or spiritual lifestyles (such as monasteries or some meditation retreats), privacy and autonomy are typically more limited, as part of the purpose for which the community was organized. Most communities fall between these two points on the privacy/held-in-common spectrum.
The trend among intentional communities forming now is toward more individual control than was common among those which formed in the `60s and `70s. For example, one of the fastest growing segments of the communities movement today is cohousing, where residents enjoy autonomy similar to that of any planned housing development. Finding a healthy balance between individual needs and those of the community is a key issue for the `90s--in both intentional communities and the larger society in general.
12. Myth: Most members of intentional communities live impoverished lifestyles with limited resources.
Fact: Communities make a wide variety of choices regarding standard of living--some embrace voluntary simplicity, while others emphasize full access to the products and services of today's society. Communities tend to make careful choices about the accumulation and use of resources, deciding what best fits with their core values. Regardless of the choices made, nearly all communities take advantage of sharing and the opportunities of common ownership to allow individuals access to facilities and equipment they don't need to own privately (for example power tools, washing machines, pickup trucks, and in some cases, even swimming pools).
In terms of material wealth, communities evolve like families: starting off with limited resources, new communities tend to live simply. As they mature, they tend to create a stable economic base and enjoy a more comfortable life--according to their own standards. Many established communities (20 years and older) have built impressive facilities, some of which are quite innovative in design and materials. The dollars to finance these improvements have come from successful community businesses, ranging from light manufacturing to food products, from computer services to conference centers.
13. Myth: Most people who live in communities are running away from responsibilities.
Fact: Many people choose to live in community because it offers a way of life which is different, in various ways, from that of the wider society. Since living in community does not eliminate everyday responsibilities, most community members raise families, maintain and repair their land and buildings, work for a living, pay taxes, etc.
At the same time, communitarians usually perceive their lifestyle as more caring and satisfying than that of mainstream culture, and because of this--and the increased free time which results from pooling resources and specialized skills--many community members feel they can engage more effectively with the wider society. In fact, many communitarians are deeply involved in their wider community of neighbors, and often provide staffing or even leadership for various local civic and social change organizations.