University of Southern Indiana
Labyrinth at New Harmony

Center for Communal Studies

About the Center for Communal Studies

The Center for Communal Studies is located in room 2009 of the Liberal Arts Center on the campus of the University of Southern Indiana. Our hours are Monday and Wednesday, 8 am to 4 pm.

The Center for Communal Studies promotes the study of historic and contemporary communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. Established in 1976 at the University of Southern Indiana, the Center encourages and facilitates meetings, classes, scholarships, publications, networking and public interest in communal groups past and present, here and abroad.

The rich research resources of the Center are housed in the Special Collections/University Archives in the David L. Rice Library. The Center archives hold primary and secondary materials on more than one hundred historic communes and several hundred collective, cooperative and co-housing communities founded since 1965. Noted communal scholars have donated their private collections and their extensive research notes and papers to the Center archives.

Why Study Communalism?

The United States has long been identified in the popular imagination as a land of rugged individualism and free market capitalism. The individualistic tendencies of American society have nevertheless been balanced by contrary impulses towards community which have led to the creation of communal societies. Communalism has been a consistent theme throughout American history and has manifested itself in a dizzying array of groups -religious and secular, immigrant and home-grown, conservative and radical, authoritarian and anarchist, celibate and free love - from the colonial era to the present. These groups have typically included some form of joint ownership of property and communal work arrangements, though the precise nature of each has varied tremendously.  

From one perspective, these groups seem marginal to the American story. They have typically existed at the fringe of society, attracted only a tiny minority of America's population and formed a counterculture (or, more accurately, countercultures) to the American mainstream. For most contemporary Americans, communalism conjures up images of Shaker historic communities, hippie communes, or the traces of communalism that remain in modern American material culture—Oneida silverware, Shaker furniture and Amana appliances. Throughout American history, these groups have captivated, bemused and infuriated the broader public. Their efforts have provoked deep controversy as they questioned some of the most fundamental ideals of society—private property, capitalism, republican government, traditional gender roles, mainstream clothing, diet mores and monogamous marriages. 

The attempts by communitarians to transform society by expressing in concrete form alternative visions make them a key component of the American reform tradition. Besides challenging private property and capitalism, communal groups have sought to refashion nearly all aspects of American society. Reformers since Plato have argued that devotion to the nuclear family has the potential to undermine commitment to broader communities. Thus, many of America's utopian and communal experiments have sought to restructure family life, using mechanisms from celibacy to group marriage to polygamy to accomplish this purpose. In addition, many American groups have been more sympathetic to gender equality than the broader society. Most American communal groups (especially in the twentieth century, but also before) have sought to create communities that foster sustainable interaction with the physical environment. Communitarians have also shaped reform movements by collaborating with others to agitate for social changes from antislavery to women's rights to environmentalism.

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