Construction, Maintenance and Dynamics of an Intentional Community : Producing Social Innovations Through a Collective Re-appropriation of Life

par Farias, Carine

Édité par emlyon business school 2015 - En anglais


Capitalism in all its variants, and the market disconnect economic exchanges from social relations (Adler, 2001; Polanyi, 2001). As such, it has always been perceived as a potentially dangerous system, prone to systematically destroy affective links (Adler & Heckscher, 2006; Tönnies, 1988). The current phase of advanced capitalism dominated by financial logics can even result in the subjugation of life (Banerjee, 2008; Fleming, 2013a, 2013a). Emancipating from this subjugation not only requires putting capitalism in question (Adler, 2013; Parker, 2002), but also realizing collective processes of territorial (Pickerill & Chatterton, 2006), economical (Gibson- Graham, 2006), and political re-appropriation at the local level. In this sense, pre-capitalist and community-based forms of organizing, which re-socialize the economy and re-integrate it in a territory, benefit from a renewed interest (Adler, 2013; Gibson-Graham, 2006). In fact, establishing an intentional community involves a rejection of the norms established in the surrounding environment for trying out alternative social arrangements (Kanter, 1972; Pitzer, 2014). As such, it constitutes political attempts to appropriate civil society through the (re)creation of meaning, without confronting directly with the sources of power (Schehr, 1997). However, alternative organizations drifting and challenging dominant institutions necessarily face the essential challenge of being embedded in (and dependent of) the larger system while resisting it (Cheney, Cruz, Peredo, & Nazareno, 2014; Meira, 2014). Hence they are always at risk of being co-opted (Flecha & Ngai, 2014; Vieta, 2014) or caught in a process of degeneration (Cornforth, 1995). If scholars have well documented the paradoxes and tensions existing in the everyday life of alternative organizations, we still know little about the conditions under which a sustainable process of re-appropriation of economic exchanges, life and work is possible. How do people interact within these autonomous geographies, and with the larger society, so as to construct a project of collective empowerment? The present dissertation builds on an ethnographic study of Longo Maï – a European network of intentional communities created in 1973 to experiment an alternative mode of living – to explore how a group of people construct, maintain and develop a community aimed at producing collective empowerment and social innovations. This question is addressed in three parts: we first look at how the group interacts with the larger society, then focus on how they relate with each other inside their territories, and finally, we explore how production is organized in a small world of equals. It is proposed first that the neutralization of symbolic threats coming from the environment helps the group in creating an alternative culture of exchanges; second, that the use of the territory allows the group to frame specific political actions and to craft an oppositional relational structure based on friendship and hospitality; and finally, that the existence of a functional hierarchy allow them to survive as an economic unit. These aspects have been identified as essential conditions in the shaping, maintenance, and development of Longo Maï, as an enduring collective project of empowerment and social transformation. More precisely, the analysis shows that Longo Maï is continuously shaping a productive community in which economic exchanges, work and life are re-embedded in social relationships and in a territory. From this analysis, we conceptualize praxis-based form of collective empowerment facilitating the ongoing production of social innovations. Instead of relying on a strong and unified ideology, actors experiment various and fragmented practices which incorporate political beliefs. This praxis approach, associated with the crafting of a perpetual democratic dialogue, and with the nurturing of hospitable practices, facilitates the production of social innovations through the crafting of collective forms of empowerment based on a re-appropriation of life . This study contributes to ongoing discussions around the possibility of constructing sustainable community-based and value-rational organizations (Adler, 2013; Cheney et al., 2014; Gibson-Graham, 2006; Stohl & Cheney, 2001) by analyzing collective processes of enduring and empowering social transformation at the small group level (Fine, 1979; Fine & Harrington, 2004; Harrington & Fine, 2000). It can also contribute to current discussions on processes of collective empowerment (Drury & Reicher, 2005; Rao & Dutta, 2012; Vallas, 2006) leading to social innovation. More largely, this is a story of an organization facing several contradictions and striving to survive, not only in spite of them, but also with them. As such, this study can contribute to organization theory by analyzing processes through which ambiguity and disorder are accepted in daily organizational life (Robertson & Swan, 2003; Stark, 2011; Thanem, 2006), and appropriated so that to facilitate the maintenance and development of the organization. Construction, Maintenance and Dynamics of an Intentional Community: Producing Social Innovations Through a Collective Re-appropriation of Life. Available from: [accessed Jun 2, 2015].

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