From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2012 05:24:24 -0700 (PDT)
I recently came across an article from 1972 that I found it enlightening, "The 
Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman. It is an analysis of the Women's 
Movement, which shared similar goals of inclusion and cooperative action as 
cohousing but adopted practices that would defeat them, namely lack of formal 
governance structures. I found it enlightening in view of the problems in 
cohousing of cliques forming a few years after move-in. 

When a cohousing group is forming, particularly once land is acquired and it 
becomes "real", everyone pulls together and functions as a cohesive group. 
Decisions are cleared with everyone, everyone is informed of delays or 
progress, and everyone is informed of social events. As time goes by, however, 
sub-groups who share interests or proximity or family types mostly just talk to 
each other. 

Social events become exclusive because they are not announced. Decisions start 
being made outside the team structure. Information is communicated word of 
mouth, not on community email lists or bulletin boards where everyone has 
access. Unless you are a schmoozer and schmooze with the right people, you 
begin wonder what happened to the cohousing idea.

Why Structurelessness?

Many Woman’s Movement groups in the late 1960′s rejected all governance 
structures as inherently autocratic and oppressive. Small groups of women had 
begun by meeting in homes and church basements in consciousness-raising groups 
that functioned with full-group consensus in which each woman had an equal 
voice. There were no leaders; all roles were rotated. The bonding and harmony 
combined with a new-found sense of personal power was profound. 

In an attempt to preserve and extend this power, the practices of 
consciousness-raising groups were transferred to political action groups. 
Things quickly fell apart. 

When organized action was required, full-group consensus became burdensome and 
respecting the values of individuals was no longer practical. Many groups 
became either undemocratic or ineffective, or both.

Structurelessness in Cohousing

In forming cohousing groups, it is incredibly empowering to be working together 
to create a community of choice. There is intense inclusion. Successful groups 
are fully focused on the task and members submerge personal dislikes for the 
sake of the larger goal. The desire to bond is strong. The compulsion to remold 
people in our own image of what they should be is suspended. The same thing 
happened in the Women's Movement, perhaps to an even greater extent because 
many of the women had less organization experience. Structurelessness itself 
was credited with their success. It became an ideal.

In this stage, cohousing groups often avoid decisions about governance. Partly 
this is because the early group doesn't want to impose decisions on people who 
have not yet joined or to decide how they will live when they aren't living 
that way yet. If they have made decisions "for the bank" they ignore them. In 
groups working well together, a primary reason for perpetuating 
structurelessness is that they see no need to confront those decisions. We are 
different, they think. We will just work things out. After move-in, simple 
exhaustion provides a honeymoon. Whoever makes decisions makes them.

Eventually, the failure to designate leaders becomes confusion about who is 
supposed to take action. The lack of specific written agreements defies 
enforcement of expectations. (Workshare is one of the areas in which this is 
most evident.)

The group had already accomplished an incredible feat together. It had it all 
going for it. Why couldn't it go on the way it always had? Why couldn't people 
just get along?

When Informal Structures Work

Freeman would say cohousing groups can't go on that way because the task has 
changed. The characteristics of a group that can work together with informal 
structures are: 

1. Task oriented. Its function is very narrow and very specific.

2. Relatively small and homogeneous. While diversity is a value, during the 
early periods it is largely suppressed in order to focus on getting built.

3. A high degree of communication. People practically live together for the 
most crucial phases of the task.

4. A low degree of skill specialization. Not everyone can do everything, but 
everything can be done by more than one person.

The task of forming and building a cohousing community meets all these criteria 
for functioning with an informal structure. and a group may stay in this mode 
for a few years after move-in, though an early crisis can move the group 
forward much sooner. After move-in, diversity becomes real, people are not 
meeting every week, the task of "building community" is too undefined, and 
specialization is required to run a big facility. In the absence of a formal 
structure that can cope with the new tasks and decisions, a covert structure 

Just as there are no leaderless groups, there are no unstructured groups. A 
group is inherently structured, informally or 

Covert Structures and Friendship Groups

Covert structures have no name. They are casual and personal. Like the "old 
boy" network. their existence is easily denied. Freeman defines this as a 
structure of friendship groups "elites."

Elites in cohousing are groups of friends who agree on the "right" 
characteristics of the playground or the "best" plan for meals or the "proper" 
allocation of funds. Friendship groups are natural and inevitable in any group. 
The problem is when friendship groups begin making decisions, consciously or 
unconsciously, for the larger group without their knowledge or permission:

"These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any 
regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. 
If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. 
Because people are friends, because they usually share the same values and 
orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each 
other when common decisions have to be made, these networks have power.

At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell 
who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to 
each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt 
less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore 
or grapple with the 'outs' whose approval is not necessary for making a 
decision. But it is necessary for the 'outs' to stay on good terms with the 
'ins.' … Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is 
made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running 

The covert structure is like a sorority. People listen to people because they 
like them and not because they say anything meaningful. The covert leader's 
power was not given to them so it cannot be taken away. In cohousing groups, 
one sign of governance by friendship groups is beginning to choose people for 
tasks because they "work together well." By implication another person will be 
excluded because they don't fit in.

One reason outside facilitators are required to resolve issues is that an elite 
has taken charge and only an outsider can confront it. And the elites will 
often try to block hiring a facilitator as unnecessary and too expensive.

All of us have experienced unstructured groups that worked very well. But if 
you think back on them, they met the criterion Freeman identified -- a club 
with a specific focus, a common cultural background like a religious group that 
had already filtered out real diversity, easy communications to the degree 
required because everyone saw each other often, and they required few skills or 
ones that were possessed equally.

Compare this to a cohousing group. Unless the group is small or over time has 
become less diverse through natural selection or was formed by culturally 
related households to begin with, the ideals of inclusion and cooperation in 
cohousing can't be met with informal structures.

Next Post is on inclusive governance structures.


My full post on Freeman's article is at:

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