Joreen Freeman, Ph.D.
From the Communities Directory: A Guide to Cooperative
Living (second edition), Published by the
Fellowship for Intentional Community
Absence of structure in many intentional communities is a natural
reaction against the overstructured society in which most of us found
ourselves, and against the inevitable control this gave others over our
lives. The idea of structurelessness, however, has moved from a healthy
counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right.
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a
structureless group. Any group of people that comes together for any
length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some
fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may very over time; it may
evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power, and resources among the
members of the group. But a structure will be formed regardless of the
abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very
fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions,
and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or
intersect on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness;
but that is not the nature of human groups.
The idea of structurelessness does not prevent the formation of informal
structures, only formal ones. A "laissez faire" ideal for group structure
becomes a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish
unquestioned hegemony [predominant influence] over others. Thus,
structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. As long as the
structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made
are known only to a few, and awareness of power is limited to those who
make the rules.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a group and to
participate in its activities, the structure must be explicit, not
implicit. Decision making must be open to everyone, and this can happen
only if it is formalized.
This is not to say that formal structure in a group will destroy the
informal structure. But it does hinder the informal structure from having
predominate control and makes available some means of formal negotiation
if the informal leaders are not at least responsive to the needs of the
group at large.
Once a group has given up clinging to the ideology of structurelessness,
it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its
healthy functioning. this does not mean blindly imitating traditional
forms of organization or blindly rejecting them either. Some traditions
will prove useful, and some will give us insights into what we should and
should not do to meet the objectives of the members. But mostly we will
have to experiment with different kinds of structures, both traditional
While engaging in this evolutionary precess, there are some principles we
can keep in mind that are essential to effective democratic structuring.
(1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for
specific tasks by democratic procedures. If people are selected to do a
task after expressing an interest or willingness, they have made a
commitment that cannot easily be ignored.
(2) Responsiveness of those to whom authority has been delegated
to those who delegated it. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the
group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised. This is how
the group exercises control over people in positions of authority.
(3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is
reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those
in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of
exercising their authority. Such decentralization also gives many people
the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to
learn different skills.
(4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities that are
held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as
that person's property, and are not easily relinquished or controlled by
the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual
does not have time to learn the job and acquire satisfaction for doing it
(5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria such as ability,
interest, and responsibility.
(6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
Information is power. Access to information enhances one's power.
(7) Access to needed resources. Skills and information are
resources as much as physical equipment, space, or dollars. Skills can be
made available equitably only when members are willing to teach what they
know to others.
Organization structures developed according to these principles can be
controlled by the community as a whole. These principles encourage
flexibility, openness, and modest terms of office for those in positions
of authority. Since ultimate decisions will be made by all group members,
those individual members with positions of authority will not be able to
institutionalize their power easily. As communities go through various
stages of development and positions of authority are rotated among
different members, the group will gain experience in determining which of
their members can provide the effective leadership needed to meet
different challenges and opportunities. Over time, as more and more group
members gain experience in positions of authority, the organization can
realize increasing effectiveness and creativity in group
endeavors--joining personal growth and community growth to a common end!