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Bohill, RR 2010, 'Intentional communities: ethics as praxis', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright RR Bohill 2010


Intentional communities are formed by a group of people who have voluntarily chosen to live together for a range of reasons in the creation of a shared lifestyle. They concern practical forms of living that may reflect diverse structures and distinct philosophies. The intentional community literature is both broad and unique in its representation of intentional community living. Intentional communities may also be considered sites that form the basis for resisting mainstream forms of living and representations of subjectivity. Through an active process of self-constitution, participants engaged in communal forms of living may construct different identities and styles of life.

Although the term ‘intentional community’ is fairly recent, notions of utopian living have a long history. Forms of utopian living can be found in early biblical times, while Foucault’s domain of ‘ethics’ is also derived from what the intentional community literature considers to be early utopian communities. Despite an extensive literature, very little research explicitly focuses on communal living as a form of ethics as praxis. This may be due to the characterisation of ethics as a form of rules, duties and consequences, rather than ethics as a relationship that a person cultivates with their ‘self’. Foucault’s domain of ethics provides a valuable context to explore whether intentional community living can be theorised as a Foucauldian form of ethics.

Although there is contemporary interest in Foucault’s domain of ethics, relatively few texts have sought to use Foucault’s ethical conceptualisation as a qualitative methodology in the context of empirical research. Even fewer studies have drawn on Foucault’s theoretical framework in the context of empirical research on intentional communities. This is despite a number of themes that the literature shares concerning notions of resistance, identity as a form of selfconstitution and the potentially transformative effect of communal living. This research therefore seeks to make a significant contribution to a relatively underresearched and under-theorised area of the literature.

Drawing on Foucault’s ethics as a theoretical framework, this thesis explores twenty-eight narratives of participants who live on five rural communities in northern NSW, Australia. Fieldwork was conducted over a nine-month period between 2004 and 2005, with periods of time spent on each community. One community was revisited for the purpose of collecting further empirical data. Foucault’s ethical analysis and Foucauldian constructionism are used in the analysis and interpretation of the interviews that resulted from this fieldwork. Where individual interviews were not undertaken, a document analysis of former empirical research serves to affirm participant observations. Ethical issues concerning confidentiality and representation were addressed through the

attendance at communal or ‘tribal’ meetings where required.

The findings suggest that intentional community living may be theorised as a Foucauldian form of ethics, with an analysis of the empirical research providing further insight into each of the four aspects of Foucault’s ethics: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, the self-forming activities and the telos. The findings also indicate that communal, or co-operative, living may reflect the dominant form of ethics for intentional community members by the way it permeates all other aspects of ethics. In this light, it can be said that intentional community living is an ethics as praxis—a truly practical philosophy. The implications of these findings suggest that through their very practice of an ethics, intentional community participants may be ethical, or ‘individualising’, subjects. That is, through notions of personal choice, acts of resistance and the performance of practices on the self that effect transformation, participants may construct both a ‘self’ and ‘styles of life’ that they both like and affirm, thereby positioning themselves differently against mainstream representations of ‘suburbia’.