Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Issues in Community: Size

How much does size matter in community?  The community I helped found in North Cambridge never had more than five or six adults (plus two children), and FEC groups like Sandhill Farm (currently seven adults and one child) and the Emma Goldman Finishing School in Seattle (currently eight adults) are relatively small.  My belief is that you need at least four members to have a functioning community.  There are joys about living in a small community (closer connections, for example) and difficulties (closer connections, for example).  My experience is that the smaller a community is, the more intense it can get.

On the other hand, communities can be fairly large.  Consider Twin Oaks (with ninety something adults and around fifteen children) and East Wind (with around sixty adults and four children).   Acorn (with around thirty adult members) holds a kind of middle ground.  (And then there are communities like Skyhouse, with four adults and one child, that's part of a much larger community, Dancing Rabbit, which now has nearly seventy people.  A small group within a large group.)

In my recent post Connected (2/3/13), I mentioned 'Dunbar's number', which the authors said was the optimal size for social groups, around 150 members.  I think this is often the high end for communities.  Notice that within the FEC only Twin Oaks approaches this number and they have decided not to grow any larger than they are.

Acorn has also decided that they don't want to have any more than the thirty odd members that they have.  Both communities feel that they would lose what they currently have (and like) if they got much larger than they are.  Still, for a community such as Dancing Rabbit that wants to have a population of 500 to a thousand, it is worth noting (again from Connected) that "The Hutterites explicitly regard a community of 150 to be the limiting size, and they make arrangements to split into two groups as they approach that number."  I suspect DR may want to pay some heed to this advice if their community ever begins swelling over a hundred.

Certainly communities function differently at different sizes.  Twin Oaks, which is the largest of the groups, is also the most highly structured.  Acorn prides itself on all of its face to face meetings and they acknowledge that if they began growing any larger, this would be less possible.  In fact, that's one of the reasons that they don't want to grow larger.

And 'Dual Member' (Twin Oaks and Acorn) Paxus tells of someone excited about joining a community with 'No Meetings'. Quoting from his blog, "One member is leaving Acorn, because a smaller sexy community in Missouri is offering a culture which is free of meetings.  Members make decision on the fly and informally.  This is great for a group of 4 or 6, but at 28 (Acorns current membership) or heaven forbid 100 people (Twin Oaks is this size), this gets much harder."

I suspect that the current controversy about consensus and sociocracy boils down to that consensus tends to work well in small groups that know each other and share common values (Acorn uses it and it seems to work fine there) but for large ecovillages and cohousing arrangements, something like sociocracy may be a better fit.

Obviously, when it comes to communities, one size doesn't fit all, but size is important to think about because different sizes offer quite different possibilities.

Quote of the Day: "...a community's population size and their physical proximity totally affects its social and interpersonal dynamics.  In large communities, say, with 20 to 50 or more people... you don't need to be close to or like everyone in the community, since you won't be interacting with everyone in equal amounts....
"In a smaller community, however, with, say, less than 20 members, you'll have a different experience. ... You'll find it easier to live in a smaller community, however, if you like and get along with everyone most of the time, and much harder to live in a community of this size if there's even just one person who bothers the heck out of you." - Diana Leafe Christian


vera said...

Almost "no meetings" is possible if the people see each other all the time and discuss among themselves, and allow decisions to emerge via such informal consensus. There is evidence that old-time villages worked that way much of the time (see, eg, Original Wisdom).

DR folks know about Dunbar's number, but I was told that they kinda shrugged if off, and figure that if it matters, it will somehow manifest in time. I think they are making a mistake, in not having built it in, and are heading for a conventional town structure.

vera said...

I wrote about band size a while back, FYI:


MoonRaven said...

Thanks for the comments, Vera. You were one of my inspirations for this post on size. I hadn't read your post on 'Bands' until now but it's very useful stuff. Hopefully anyone who reads this post and the comments will follow the link and read what you wrote. I recommend it.

That's interesting that the DR folks just want to see what happens. I guess they'll be a little guinea pig for Dunbar's number.

I'm not familiar with Original Wisdom. Can you clue me in?

vera said...

Thank you for the good words, MoonRaven.

Original Wisdom by Wolff. He lived with various tribal cultures, and notably the Senoi in Malaysia, and write some damn good stuff about it. Downright amazing. It's probably on wiki.

vera said...

It's not on wiki. Here's the amazon link:

Turil said...

My goal is to model natural, healthy systems, such as the human body, which means no meetings! Instead, information is constantly available and updated, so that everyone always knows who needs what and who has what to offer, so that resources can be most effectively moved to where they are most needed.

Certainly group gatherings are great, but they should be celebrations or work parties, so that they both have a goal, and are seen as joyful experiences. (Technically a meeting can be fun, but most aren't...)

But the key really is in getting a nervous system in place, so that communication can be as fast and thorough as possible within a group.

Also, a big part of the success of a group is a shared highest goal. Without that, you're guaranteed to have conflict. With a shared highest goal, no one needs to interfere with anyone else's journey, as multiple paths are usually necessary to get such a diverse range of individuals to where you're all going.