Last modified on 16 December 2006, at 09:18

Principles of Sociology/Cohousing and the New Everyday Life Model

Material drawn from Dr. John Scanzoni's 2000 book called “Designing Families”

“The Family” is another term that gets tossed around quite a bit in the public sphere with little thoughtful discussion about its underlying conceptualization. It is most consistently deployed in policy discussions to stigmatize what does not conform to the nuclear family style epitomized in the 1950s. The fact that few powerful people can clearly articulate the dynamics changes that have occurred in the history of American families emphasizes their inability to plot a course for family policy that addresses the changes that the 21 st century information age economy will likely require. Furthermore, the backlash against feminist politics that has dominated our cultural imagination for the past 25 years still obscures the consistent problems that the most disadvantaged segments of our society (women, children, minorities) continue to face. Perhaps a different family style could help us mitigate these issues while offering everyone (including men) more freedom to pursue personal fulfillment without endangering their personal security and well being.

US Family History in brief – The agricultural era that lasted up until the turn of last century necessitated extended kin networks for security and mutual aid. Thus, family decision making were very constrained by the needs and desires of one's kin. The escape from these bonds was achieved through migration to urban centers for better industrial jobs, which ushered in what we today know as traditional gender relations and family dynamics: the dating game, non-connected households free from kin control, female domesticity, extended childhood, etc. Although the Great Depression forced many families back into extended family networks for survival purposes, once the recovery had begun and the state had assumed more welfare obligations like social security, [white] families began the march back to non-connectedness in suburbia.

Challenges Facing Families in Post-Industrial America :

Renegotiating Gender Relations – although the feminist movement really got started during the Civil War, the big changes waited another century to occur. When women began to enter the workforce en masse and gain economic bargaining power in the relationships with men, it forever altered the marriage dynamics, in which responsibilities (family/economic) now became negotiable and less circumscribed by gender.

Productivism – with dual earner households now the norm, the problem became how to equitably manage who would do what tasks in families – earn income/do housework/raise children/care for elderly parents – when the only real way for men to maintain respect remained the provider role while women remained as the natural “caretaker domestics”, but now needed jobs for fulfillment and to guard their independence.

External Risk – the threats to family security today are largely a result of the post-industrial economic shift and neoliberal politics. Lifetime employment is an anachronism, job loss is a very real threat, medical costs have soared, earning power has stagnated, and debt has led to a high bankruptcy and low savings rates

Manufactured Risks – the freedom of individuals to pursue their own dreams and desires has also helped to create the context for very unstable nuclear families. The ability of both men and women to compromise family stability to further their careers and divorce to find more fulfillment in other relationships is key.

Contemporary Attempts to Redesign Family and Community :

Religious Communities – the Amish, the Oneida , Israeli Kibbutzim, the Shakers, etc. all attempt to subordinate individual freedoms to traditional group dictates in order to minimize internal conflict

Secular New Age Hippy Communes – these groups often oppositional viewpoints on individual vs. community relations, emphasizing both freedom and collectivity, but mostly ignoring family processes

Common-Interest Fortified Developments – these are higher income gated communities that often define themselves by a certain kind of activity, most notably and commonly golf and country club lifestyles

Age-Homogenized Communities – these communities have thus far arisen only in adult-only format whereby older people ban younger residents and children in particular to maintain continuity and “order”

Innovative info age family policy should reconnect the household and community to do the following:

  1. Achieve a balance between freedom and responsibility (personal empowerment and security)
  2. Pay special attention to advancing the interests of women and children without alienating men
  3. Advance the use of dialogic, or democratic decision making in family and community matters
  4. Directly confront and illuminate the specter of violence and abuse within the household
  5. Provide opportunities for political action within the context of the community

Cohousing Design:

Cohousing advocates the building of individual houses in a way that accentuates the centrality of community. The houses are purposefully built smaller than average with private kitchens, but less space devoted to living rooms. They follow New Urbanist architecture in that they are built close together and multiple stories, with no garages or driveways, but porches and sidewalks occupying the front area of the home instead of a road. Houses are constructed in a circle around a common green area and one house is built much larger than the others to serve as a common house with extra facilities for accommodating common meals, meetings, and recreation. Cars are relegated to parking lots outside the inner circle.

New Everyday Life (NEL) Commitments:

The NEL model was conceived of in Sweden to blend cohousing community design with feminist politics. Keep in mind that Sweden is one of the most prosperous nations in the world, with perhaps the most generous welfare state system, and the most progressive gender policies – and still some people felt that even after taking all this into account and the existence of numerous cohousing communities, something more was still needed to deal with the challenges the information age poses for individuals and families. NEL attempts to institute specific principles (with political agendas) to guide behavior within cohousing.

• Gender Interchangeability – men and women should actively strive to balance all work and family responsibilities (except gestation/nursing) in order to provide both with the opportunity to fulfill themselves by developing their skills in multiple areas of life – not just work or family… but both

• Renounce Violence – using force against anyone – man, woman, or child – is expressly prohibited

• Group Problem Solving – because interconnectedness means that family dynamics have a much broader impact on the community at large, problems like employment, child care, domestic chores, and interactions with others in the community become important to discuss. Also, the community can aid individuals and families by providing extra resources, mediation, or security.

• Redefined Productivity – due to their “enlightened” view of gender relations, the community can offer men and women rewards for pursuing self-worth in ways that are normally difficult or frowned upon in mainstream society – working for mothers and caring for children for men

• Collective Responsibility for Children – is the idea that everyone in the community should take an interest in producing high quality children that are competent to play an active role in community affairs as well as in the information age economy… they are an asset to be enriched, not a burden

• Diversity – this means that the community should actively try to embrace different kinds of individuals and households to provide a flexible and thus resilient social system… older folks, single mothers, and other non-traditional family styles all should have a way to contribute

Other Avenues for NEL Cohousing:

Ecological – many cohousing neighborhoods have opted specifically for green design and intensive shared use facilities that contribute to sustainable levels of resource consumption... it is easier to finance initially expensive sustainable infrastructure and even harder to keep up consumption norms that are dramatically different than those of the general public unless one is embedded in a community of purpose like this

Political – many would argue that in America, the religious right has the ability to mobilize politically through communities of faith centered in churches and church throughout the country… advocates for this type of housing model and the NEL commitments would say that these communities would have the potential to be a counterbalancing force… they may see fit to contract out to the government to provide affordable housing for poor people and minorities that have been stuck in ghettos and ethnic enclaves… or they may emerge in these communities as a local strategy to make life better – the idea of cohousing doesn't have to be grounded in specially designed subdivisions… it can be undertaken in any neighborhood

Economic – some of the hottest technology companies in existence today have very open policies regarding their office environment… employees can bring pets, children, spouses, and whatever else makes them comfortable so long as they put together a quality product in reasonable time spans. With these information age business dynamics, it wouldn't seem a large leap to consider the possibility of having whole firms or their more specialized departments located in cohousing communities. The question would be whether the needs of the community would interfere with individual or team productivity, but this model certainly works in other employment sectors (think about the military) so it could actually be beneficial. How about the idea of having a cohousing community of social scientists to work on various problems in a particular city?