Structure and anti-structure: communitas in Damanhur, federation of communities

Kara Margaret Salter

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Having celebrated its 40th anniversary, Damanhur, Federation of Communities, is one of the longer-lived examples of contemporary intentional eco-communities. Damanhuris located in the foothills of the Swiss Italian Alps in northern Italy. Drawing on ethnographic data from twelve months of fieldwork in 2009-10, I investigate how the members of Damanhur have used certain social mechanisms to facilitate the achievement of some social, spiritual and ecological goals.
Focusing on concepts developed extensively by Victor and Edith Turner, I argue that the members of Damanhur cultivate and sanction liminal/liminoid activity (occurring outside of structure) with the intention of fostering communitas (the epitome of antistructure).In particular, I draw on Victor Turner’s argument that awareness and experience of communitas facilitate a social structure that serves communitarian ends. In large measure, Damanhurians are seeking Turner’s (1969) ideological communitas, a blueprint for a utopian society, where cultural activity is instrumental to attaining communitas; in the Damanhurian case such activity is oriented to achieving a ‘communitas of nature’. Edith Turner (2012) uses the phrase ‘communitas of nature’ to refer to an ideal experience, one of interconnectedness among humans, human-made environments, fauna, flora, and the very landscape itself.
While social structure creates essential order and organisation, it also differentiates human relationships, and can lead to experiences of ‘alienation’, ‘difference’, ‘inequality’, and ‘exploitation’, whereas communitas as anti-structure is egalitarian. Where structure is sustainable and definable, communitas is momentary and inexplicable. A social structure without communitas is likely to succumb to its fundamental weaknesses. Using O’Dea and Yinger’s (1961) ‘dilemmas of institutionalization’, I demonstrate how the Damanhurian approach has overcome some common institutional challenges. I argue that regular instances of communitas, as facilitated by the Damanhurian social structure, serve to inoculate this social structure against some of what O’Dea and Yinger (1961) identify as institutionalisation’s potential pitfalls.
All communities face tensions between communitas as a binding force and structure as a functional tool, a tension observed in Damanhur. These two complementary elements must be balanced in order to provide a sustainable foundation and an ability to adjust social mechanisms in accordance with community members’ intended and evolving aims. A positive view of change, realised through autonomous sub-communities, a focus on individual change (self-improvement), and the free movement of members between sub-communities facilitate continual adaptation of and within Damanhurian frameworks. The acceptance of change in Damanhur can also be seen as acknowledging he likelihood of fractionalisation, whose management I discuss within the framework of Jonathan Andelson’s (2002) interpretation of Bateson’s (1936) conceptualisation of schismogenesis.
Damanhurians have developed their social structure creatively, and, in turn, this has allowed them to approach some of the challenges of institutionalisation from new angles. Damanhurians demonstrate that their actions accord with their spiritual and ecological ideals. Collective action provides opportunities for experiences of what Edith Turner (2012) calls a ‘communitas of work’. The successful completion of projects, inturn, also motivates further activity. As much of this activity serves their stated aims, including those deemed to be ecologically responsible, my analysis provides insights into what motivates social and behaviour change in such communities.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


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