Open and Closed Social Relationships

[Don’t get too excited; this isn’t a post on polyamory.]

Quite simply for Weber, a social relationship is open if its system of order does not deny participation to anyone who wishes to join and is actually in position to do so.  A social relationship is closed when, according it its subjective meaning and binding rules, participation of certain persons is excluded, limited, or subjected to conditions.  (43)

Intentional communities are to a large degree closed.  No one can just declare themselves to be a member and thereby become one, nor is joining as simple as mailing in a form and membership dues like many organizations in civil society.  There is usually always an application process, followed by formal approval, and potentially a period of provisional membership.

At egalitarian communities like Twin Oaks, there is a non-discrimination clause in the governing documents, preventing discrimination of members based on various aspects of their identity for the purposes of being able to join the community.  This makes the community much more open than some associations in terms of what is formally written, although not much more than what most corporations are required to do by federal law at this point.

In many ways though, Twin Oaks is much more restrictive.  There is a much more involved membership process for families joining the community than for individuals.  While people won’t be rejected out of hand for something like race or gender identity, there are all sorts of reasons that people can get rejected for membership.  In fact, the only officially invalid reason for a vote against someone becoming a full member is if the vote was for political reasons (something that I never saw invoked in my seven years in the community, and frankly have no idea what that means).  Reasons for rejections could be very reasonable things like seeming to disrespect women in general or not fulfilling one’s work obligations.  There are plenty of less clear cut reasons for people not being offered a membership space, such as “too quiet, didn’t get to know him/her,” or my favourite “not community-minded” (whatever the hell that was supposed to mean).

Openness versus closedness can also fit in nicely the spaceship versus lifeboat debate.

Why would groups choose an open or closed relationship?  According to Weber, this primarily comes down to what the group sees their interests as being.  If more members would appear to lead to an improvement of their situation, they will tend to be more open.  If their position is improved by exclusion, they will have a closed relationship.  Since income-sharing intentional communities provide for pretty much all of the members’ material needs, it’s not that surprising that they have some sort of membership process in order to make sure that those they are accepting will actually at minimum contribute the basic work expectations and not cause significant social conflict.  For an organization with limited resources, opening the group up to everyone is simply not an economically or socially sustainable option.  (For entertaining stories of the kinds of people who often lived at Twin Oaks when they were basically accepting everyone out of desperation in their first few years, see the first part of Kat Kinkade’s A Walden Two Experiment.)

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~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02014.09.13.

One Response to “Open and Closed Social Relationships”

  1. It is worth noting, that Ganas Community on Staten Island basically has an open admissions process. You do need to write the community and arrange a visit, but basically if you are a minimally functional person and you have time to wait until there is a space you can get into Ganas.

    Similarly, there are volunteer organizations, like the Point A project which is looking to build new communities in NYC and DC that are open. Anyone who wants to help, we will find a place for them to plug in. [See http://www.FromPointA.org]

    None of this is meant to disagree with your fundamental thesis that most residential intentional communities are closed groups.

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