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Studying the "intentional communities": Change is the key

January 25, 2011
Bloomington, Indiana --

Groups of idealistic young people settled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana in the 1960s and '70s, establishing "intentional communities" based on reverence for nature and a desire to escape city life.

In a recent study published in the journal, Ecology and Society, students of SPEA clinical professor Burney Fischer and Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, examined those communities.  Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Francisco Kennedy SouzaA study by participants in their Indiana University graduate seminar examines five such communities, drawing conclusions about why some have thrived and others have not. Among its conclusions: Communities were more "resilient" and "robust" if they were able to learn from setbacks and change their institutional rules to adapt and move forward.

"We looked at how each of them responded to disturbances. Did they survive? Did they recover? And how did they recover? Looking at each one and seeing the strategies they used was very powerful," said Burney Fischer. Fischer has taught the seminar with Elinor Ostrom,who also is the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, and Catherine Tucker, associate professor of anthropology.

Lin Ostrom and Burney FischerAuthors include current or former graduate students and visiting scholars Forrest Fleischman, Kinga Boenning, Gustavo Garcia-Lopez, Sarah Mincey, Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh, Katrin Daedlow, Maria Claudia Lopez and Xavier Basurto, along with Fischer and Ostrom.

The seminar, taught every other year at IU Bloomington, applies the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research framework developed in the early 1990s by Ostrom and colleagues at IU's Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Participants typically study one of the five intentional communities in depth, collecting social-ecological data on how the communities, their underlying institutions and the vitality of their forests have changed over time. Groups from two different years collaborated on the Ecology and Society article.

The ongoing IU Bloomington course is part of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions project, which was established in 1992 at IU and is now based at the University of Michigan. IFRI studies forests and the people who depend on them, with the project receiving help from Collaborating Research Centers in the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Nepal and Thailand.

The five Indiana communities -- referred to in the research as "Maple," "Oak," "Box Elder," "Twin Oaks" and "Tulip Poplar" -- vary in size, purpose and structure. Oak and Maple were established as back-to-the-land communities that, at their peak, had about 40 members. Box Elder was a spiritual retreat that hosted festivals. Twin Oaks was a large forest owned by a small group of friends and relatives. Tulip Poplar was established as a retirement and vacation community with hundreds of private lots.

But all have faced challenges and disturbances, including disagreements over tree cutting, internal conflicts, trespassing and disputes with neighbors. Oak and Box Elder went through leadership changes. Fire destroyed a community building at Maple, and flooding damaged property at Tulip Poplar.

According to the study, Maple, Box Elder and Tulip Poplar responded to disturbances by changing institutional rules and revising the community vision. They learned from the disruptions and became stronger as a result. At Oak, on the other hand, disagreements led to lawsuits, dividing and weakening the community. Twin Oaks' small size led to problems when a member died and others moved away.

Fischer said the course produces valuable information about communities and ecosystems, and it also provides students and scholars with research skills, ranging from measuring the growth and health of forests to conducting interviews, surveys and focus groups with community residents. It's the analysis of these data collections that forms the basis for the community report each time one is visited.

And the work isn't evaluated only by the professors. Members of the community that is studied get to read the draft report and give feedback on its accuracy and validity.

"You've got a real-world problem, you're doing a lot of analysis, and you've got to report it back to the people you've studied," Fischer said.

The course will be offered again at IU in the fall of 2011. For more information, see