University of Southern Indiana

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 or 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 a sustainable relationship with the physical environment. Communitarians have shaped reform movements by collaborating with others to agitate for social changes from antislavery to women's rights to environmentalism. For an example of how knowledge of communities is being applied in the real world, check the Community Updates link.

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