Can We Live Without Hierarchy?
From: R Philip Dowds (
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 2015 03:11:21 -0700 (PDT)
Folks —

I’ve been (re)reading the Coho US “6 Defining Characteristics of Cohousing”, 
and keep getting hung up on Number 5:

5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making. Leadership roles naturally 
exist in cohousing communities, however no one person (or persons) has 
authority over others. Most groups start with one or two “burning souls.” As 
people join the group, each person takes on one or more roles consistent with 
his or her skills, abilities or interests. Most cohousing groups make all of 
their decisions by consensus, and, although many groups have a policy for 
voting if the group cannot reach consensus after a number of attempts, it is 
rarely or never necessary to resort to voting.

"Non-hierarchical structure" is something of an oxymoron:  Structure implies 
hierarchy, where distinct components have differentiated purposes and 
relationships.  Without hierarchy, you don’t have structure, you have just a 

Well, let’s not get hung up on parsing the language.  Here’s the real problem:  
What about delegation?  In an ideal world, perhaps, all decisions are made by 
all the members in the room at the same, in “plenary” or “full circle” or 
whatever.  But in the real world, hardly any of us work that way.  Instead, we 
(meaning, in cohousing, plenary) subdivide aim and decisions into logical 
groupings, and delegate the authority to make these kinds of decisions to 
“committees” or “circles” or whatever.  So, we have a hierarchy:  Plenary, plus 
the committees to which plenary has delegated a defined amount of discretionary 
authority.  Some cohos even have sub-committees that also have powers as well 
as duties.

All of which sounds like hierarchy to me.  Lacking any delegation, all you have 
is centralized command and control.  I am not persuaded that central command 
and control is an OK organizational model, even when the center is plenary (or, 
especially when the center is plenary).  So I am wondering if Characteristic 5 
needs a clarification or re-write …

Philip Dowds
Cornerstone Cohousing
Cambridge, MA

mobile: 617.460.4549
email:   rpdowds [at]

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