Sustainability and utopianism: an ethnography of cultural critique in contemporary intentional communities


What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics? The text is about utopianism and sustainability, an ethnography on contemporary intentional communities in Western North Carolina, and an assesment on how those intentional communities are a cultural critique.

 Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?Intentional communities, ecovillages in  Western North Carolina.


What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?One community was  born in 1937 and is still active in the present, while ethnographic fieldwork was conducted  in 2001 and 2005, the other community was born in 1995 and ethnographic fieldwork was conducted  in 2001 and 2005. In the chronology across all the existance of the communities emphasis is focused on the role of  these intentional communities as a form of cultural critique to social and environmental problems.

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale? While the text goes through several scales, the main focused I believe is at Meta level, at the level of the discourses. To set some examples below:

Eco-atmo:  ecology and climate - description of the context and surrounding areas of the communities, whether in the middle of urban areas, or miles aways through dirt roads in a hill. Also, positioned in a broader context of climate crisis, which is core to the cultural critique conducted by the object of study.

Micro: Labor, and communicative practices - communitary work as a regular activity.

Meta: discourses - the dominant discourse presented to be able to structure the proposal for an ethnographic cultural critique are two kinds of cultural critique, epistemological (critique of ideology) and cross-cultural juxtaposition (direct and empirical form of critique). The discursive risks are given due to different domains of articulation of language between the community members and the outside world. Other discourses circling the topic is peak oil consumption, climate crisis, and reflexivity v.s. common sense shaping behaviour and belief systems.

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? Players are members of intentional communities, and individuals who are not yet part of the community but has a desire to join.

Incremental technology and technology changes are determined within the community and very slightly affected by the outside world technology advances. 


What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization?  Temporal frame is contemporaneous, some communities have a trajectory since the late 30’s with a woke after the great depression. Other in the 90’s as a response to increasing globalization, but these communities are constantly re-creating or re-inventing themselves, renewing temporal frame in which they play to make it always contemporary. In the early years they were influenced by utopian members coming to the community, and those influences remain much as part of today’s institutions and its common cultural legacy.

Citing one of the members of the community, through the ethnographic work, the context of appearance of this community is a context of “modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.”


What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? Permaculturists, members of intentional communities, ecovillagers. Alternative socio-cultural institutions, for eg. equalitarian, income sharing communities, or consensus decision-making.

Part of the culture of this community is tied to the concept of “maintaining  a considerable degree of freedom from the pressures and compulsions of the going economic regime, with the aim of using that freedom to try to orient themselves to the economic world in ways that would be in harmony with what they considered to be fundamental ethical considerations.“  [Morgan 1957b:1]


What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds? Practices that respond to alternative socio-economic institutions. For example, economic relations have the form of small-scale cooperative economic self-sufficiency, with a focus on environmental stewardship, through collective ownership of land and consensus decision-making in community governance.

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described? Most of the technology involved is related somehow to permaculture principles born in Australia in the 70’s as a form of sustainable alternative and cultural critique. 


What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text? Communities have their own constitutional documents, and even though in the last instance they are still governed by local, state and federal laws, they have their own body of policies which they follow internally as an alternative institution to common law.


How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? The community values hold this Foucauldian consciousness of power that leads to a questioning of cultural meaning and received wisdom; it employs Gramscian notions of hegemony and Foucauldian discourse analysis to create understandings of how ideologies are promulgated by the powerful in order to ensure that society functions to further the interests of the powerful. And the foundational values of its institutions seek to break that logic of concentrated and perpetuating power.


Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? The phenomenon is both situated within global structure and processes, but at the same time the phenomenon consciously seeks a separation from global structure and processes, and isolation from it. Auto sustainability is part of their ethos. 



What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?  Both to challenge and extend prior theoretical claims. For example, it challenged Hicks analysis of Celo community that presented the utopian effort as a failure, as the author presents a different perception from failure. 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

  The main conceptual argument of the text is that intentional communities effectively are a form of cultural critique, and recognizing the relevance of utopianism. It is rendered explicit.


What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? Utopian experiments in culture, for example tracing an analogy with Gandhi.


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?  Notes of the community meetings, foundational documents, self-representations of the member of the community for themselves and for the outside world, and observer notes,  provide argumental support and facts that support the theory and conclusions reached.


How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? The theoretical approach and arguments presented are sound. The main challenge could be done from a functional perspective, where the relevance of utopianism might have no relevance for the outside world, while this arguments hold stronger if considered hicks perspective that utopia failed.  


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

One important assumption is: members of intentional communities are aware of the problems of representation, of their own power to choose how they should be represented and of my power as a potential representor.

The author does not assume functional stability as a goal.


What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? Foundational documents, notes taken during community meetings, official documents generated as outcomes of the meetings, ethnographical, statistical data from surveys ran in place.

Some of the documents used: community statements of vision, mission, or goals; individual statements of interest and intent; community wide rules and procedures and the rationales for adopting them; individual statements of commitment to community vision and rules and procedures; community meeting minutes; individual journals; community websites; pronouncements produced by individuals but intended to provoke community discussion; individually authored articles in alternative journals; and community planning documents and project descriptions. 


If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? Questions were wide open, asking for personal stories, and their arrival and link to the community. Some examples are:

Would you start by telling me about this place/house that we’re in now? I like to begin by learning a little bit about the place in which one lives within the community. 2. Now I would like you to go back in time and tell me about your life. Can you start by telling me about where you grew up? 3. Can you describe your family background and your upbringing? 4. Where did you go to high school? To College? What did you study? 5. What did you do after school? 6. What were you doing/where were you living directly before you came to Celo/Earthaven? 7. Were there any particular life experiences from the story you just told me that led you to seek an intentional community lifestyle? 8. A main part of what I am trying to understand is your motivations for joining the community, what it means to community members to be part of an intentional community. Can you describe/summarize your reasons for joining Celo/Earthaven and the decision making process that you went through? 9. 10. Land stewardship/permaculture design appears to be a fundamental component of Celo/Earthaven. Does this seem accurate? Why are these principles important to you? Or why not? 11. What would be the ultimate ideal outcome of you decision to join the community? 12. Do you think you would join another intentional community if you weren’t a member of Celo/Earthaven?, etc...


How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? Data was analyzed in a descriptive way following the narrates of the stories of each of the members inquired. Hard data is piled and metrics as the percentage of current members that arrive in each decade from the 60’s up to the 00’s is described. 


The individual critique of each of the members of displayed to form a sense of common critique of the community, beyond the official documents of the community.


How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories? People is only aggregated by the community in which they belong, or the decade they arrived to that community.


 What additional data would strengthen the text? Probably a comparative with other research of cultural critique by less organized communities that still function as a cultural critique, like alternative settlements with less organization.



Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project?  It presents the sustainability rhetoric, it presents the symptoms of a crisis for which action towards sustainability is required and to justify why utopian projects matter.


Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? There are complete chapters explaining  the theory behind the text and its methodology.


What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided? It introduces the challenge of sustainability and provides context that legitimate the relevance of utopian projects to the modern world. Then, presents the methodology used for the ethnography, and the ethnographic field work itself, and finally articulates its theory of cultural critique together with empirical observations.


How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? There is explicit chronological development in the sense of how the communities changed their objectives across time, how the communities have grown across time, and how they demographics, for example by age, have changed.


How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text? Constant comparisons of the text between the early days of the communities, the present time, and the visions for the future are displayed across the text. 


How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text? Makes an extensive description of the context of each integrant of the community that participated in the ethnography, considering their socio economic position before joining the community, and a description of their current beliefs.


How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? The anthropologist conducting the ethnography describes that the participating community members are conscious that they will be represented, and that they might be bias towards how the want to be represented to the outside world. The author explicits that this will be consider when making his representation.


How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? In a broad sense, the text puts the implications of science and technology as having set the stage for this communities to exist. Technologies used in the communities for water recycling, energy generation, construction are explain to a certain degree of detail, but there are no technical or scientific descriptions of this technologies in the text.


How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? For example, it provides complete transcripts of the discussions with the members. Those transcripts are presented as a narrative, an individual narrating her or his story, which makes it still engaging.


What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument? It’s engaging, it lays out an introduction to the theme and the theoretical structure to comprehend the reading, and then moves into a description of the objects and empirical observations, while constantly connecting back to the theory.

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? Maps of the communities, pictures of the constructions. To give the reader a sense of reality of what is being described.


What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? I have seen no footnotes.


How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”?  There are different players that might play as opposition. For example, the text arguments against Hicks view of the Celo Community utopian project as a failure, presenting it as a transformation according to contemporary values rather than a failure. On the other hand, it presents the modern world as opposed to the object of analysis, to the ethos of the intentional communities.


How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?  The author is aware of his role of representing the community, as the community members are. So he proposes a combination of letting the members represent themselves and him representing the members and community, he provides the transcripts of conversations with the members, and then makes his own analysis. So the reader can address both sources. The author decides to spend several months in the communities, living as one of the members, involved in all activities of the community, in order to recreate the experience. He waits a month before starting with the ethnography, so the members feel comfortable speaking with him.



Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? I believe the text is written for the academia, for Anthropologists and other social scientists who desire to do research on them, or at least become aware of the discussions around it.  Arguments and evidence is shaped so that other social scientists can use it as a trustworthy source for further research.


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope? Anthropologists, and social scientists in general.

 Government agencies with scope on topics such as environmentalism, dissidence and marginalization, sustainability.

 Intentional community members who desire to see how they are represented. 

 Individuals who have a desire to begin an intentional community.

 Eventually lay people very interested in the topic.


What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?  The potential success that intentional communities may have as a cultural critique, and to satisfy their own goals. Display at granular level how an intentional community is different both from the modern world and from 60’s “hippies” communes.


How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research? The main argument is generalizable for communities that hold a similar ethos and structure to the ones analyzed. 


What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text?  The action proposed is to break the logic, the discursive risk that situates intentional communities in a domain that won’t allow them to generate publicity with the general public or even within the academia. As an old object close to a failed utopian project or a new attempt of the 60’s “hippie” communes. 


Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? It could perfectly be an educational module for kids, where it would probably take a full course, very hands on, that allows children to learn about alternative practices for producing food, building residences, coexisting with the environment and with the rest of the community in a sustainable and reciprocal manner. Probably an in-place experience, or intermittent trips to study the phenomenon beyond theory and into practice.



Creative Commons Licence



Contributed date

October 15, 2019 - 2:12pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.

Cite as

Anonymous, "Sustainability and utopianism: an ethnography of cultural critique in contemporary intentional communities", contributed by SANTIAGO CARNICERO, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 15 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024.