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The Tyranny of Structurelessness

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 and contemporary.

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 well.

(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!

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