The Explicitness of the Everyday: Pursuing Meaningful Lives in the Context of Intentional Community in the Northwest United States
Intentional communities are distinctive socio-cultural contexts which encourage and enable their residents to: live according to explicit beliefs, values and morals and pursue goods that extend beyond the self in an assessable manner in order that progress might be recognized. As such, intentional communities are experienced by their residents as more conducive for the realisation of meaningful lives than „mainstream‟ contexts in contemporary America. This thesis supports this claim through exploring the everyday activities through which residents of an intentional community in the Northwest United States worked to build meaningful lives for themselves, and those with whom they associate. A meaningful life, in this distinctive context, is understood to be constituted both by living according to one‟s beliefs, values and morals, as well as contributing to the pursuit of goods that are outside the self. The analysis is based on fourteen months of fieldwork with a rural intentional community known as Cedar River, twelve months of which were spent living in the community and participating in every facet of community life as though I were a community member. In this thesis, intentional community is understood to be a context for the construction, negotiation and actualisation of individual and communal goals which are informed by beliefs, values and morals that might be considered „alternative‟ from the perspective of the ambient society. Thus, intentional community residents‟ pursuits of meaningful lives are socio-culturally distinct, rendering them particularly well suited to anthropological investigation where the primary concern is on the role of culture and society in shaping individuals‟ ways of being, and vice versa (See Matthews 2009). Whereas many social scientific studies tend to focus on significant experiences, such as sacred ritual, in order to examine the production of meaning (See Turner and Bruner 1986), this thesis focuses on ordinary, everyday activity within the context of Cedar River. The activities associated with community-building, interpersonal relationships, organisational viability, human-environmental interaction and food-related practices, in particular, are explored. I argue that daily activities, in the context of intentional community, take on a heightened significance due to the explicitness of value attached to them, thereby rendering them a key medium through which residents of intentional communities experience their lives as meaningful. Additionally, I argue that daily activities which can be understood as contributing to the communal projects of the pursuits of sustainability and well-being have an even greater impact on residents‟ ability to experience their lives as meaningful. This is due to the fact that both sustainability and well-being (understood as being intimately connected to one another) are goods which extend beyond the individual and the community. They are referred to as projects because they do not have fixed achievable ends, but rather are goals, set by the community-as-a-whole, that become more accurate in the processes of pursuit (See Levy 2005). Thus, the activities associated with these projects, and similar ones such as the pursuit of world peace, have the power to confer “superlative meaning” on the lives of intentional community residents (ibid). How selfhood and identity are conceptualised, negotiated and recognised by residents and the community-as-a-whole, through these activities, emerges as a secondary theme throughout the thesis. I suggest that the disjuncture between communal vision and individual experience becomes most apparent in the ongoing processes of goal actualisation. I conclude by suggesting why it is that intentional community possesses the distinctive sociocultural qualities of: everyday explicitness of values and support for the pursuit of projects that reach beyond the self. I argue that, ultimately, intentional community is concerned with social change, thereby requiring demonstrability of the specific aspects of their chosen lifestyle which are thought to be beneficial for the ambient society in order that said aspects might be used as a model. Thus, intentional community is worthy of further anthropological enquiry into the social relations, cultural processes and institutional structures that make it what it is. However, due to the idiosyncratic nature of goal fulfilment and meaningful life conferment, it is inherently difficult to assess the overall contribution that intentional community – and Cedar River more specifically - might make towards the pursuit of social progress in the context of the ambient society, thereby calling into question intentional community‟s viability as a model for development. The move towards the eco-village model of intentional community suggests an attempt to address this issue.