Networked, Part 2: Strive for Mutuality in Communal Relationships

Besides social interactions that provide positive emotions and influence (see Networked, Part 1), we need mutual support to thrive. The intentional community of Srisa Asoke thrives because everyone shares work and resources—the residents support the community, and the community supports them.

A tour through the village shows how well this system works: At the center is the Common Hall where both religious and secular activities take place. This is a sturdy cement-and-tile structure open on four sides, which while by no means fancy, was obviously constructed with care. Surrounding this domain are tree-lined lanes of traditional Thai-style wooden houses on stilts; facilities for cultivating mushrooms, weaving cloth, and recycling trash; organic vegetable and herb gardens in every available space; forested areas; as well as a museum, a convenience store, a library, a rice mill, a boarding school for 200 students, and much more. It is astounding that this beehive of activity started as a barren, abandoned cemetery—this is the power of group effort.

The way of life at Srisa Asoke could be called collective or cooperative. The eighty permanent residents (including seven monks) volunteer for jobs that ideally match their interests and skills while fulfilling community needs. In return, residents receive spiritual support for their Buddhist practice, the four necessities for a comfortable material existence (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine), as well as free education and a positive environment for their children. While a few residents maintain private houses, money, and vehicles, most give up all ownership to the collective and share the common resources.

It’s important to note that this community came together during a time when communists were killed in Thailand to preserve national security, so residents are quick to clarify that they are not communist: members are free to come and go, to choose and change their work, and to participate in decision making through democratic vote at weekly community meetings.

Payasin (a 43-year-old former teacher who works in Srisa Asoke’s Common Hall, library, kitchen, and gardens) explains the community’s organization this way:

We eat using the central kitchen; when we listen to sermons we use the Central Hall; and money — we use money from the central fund. Whenever I buy brooms or other things for the temple, I use central money. Whenever we sell things and receive money, we bring the money to the central fund. It is a system of public property that the Buddha taught, to make it central and not have things that belong to any one person. Everyone works and adds to the central resources, they don’t take it for their own. If it is our own, we will want to get a lot and won’t want to give it to other people. But if we keep it in the central fund, we sacrifice — whoever wants it can take it, can use it. But this is for practicing dharma.

Srisa Asoke residents clearly benefit from the tangible communal support—they truly have everything they need for a comfortable existence.

Yet Payasin’s explanation indicates that the Asoke system of organization serves a larger purpose than affording convenience to members and facilitating community self-sufficiency: namely, the Buddhist practice of non-attachment not only to material things but to feelings of possessiveness.

Mootao, a new college graduate who helped with the community finances, explained this idea to me one day as we walked passed the community cremation site. Essentially, when we die we cannot take along anything we have gathered up in our lifetime, so in a sense it is not really ours. There is no point, then, to grasp things or feelings of ownership. That sums up the central Asoke goal: to release attachment to the material world and attain spiritual freedom.

Stepping back from the explicit Buddhist motivation, collective organization is not so strange in rural Thailand. In the Thai tradition of long khaek (loosely translated as “hosting guests”), the whole village would come together to harvest rice, moving from farm to farm to clear the fields within time constraints (perhaps a window of good weather). To show appreciation, the family whose crop was harvested that day would host a fine feast for all who helped. The next day, the crew would move on to the next homestead. This practice has become less common with the proliferation of wage-based day laborers, but absent the mediation of money, agrarian society is inherently cooperative.

Implicit in the sharing of labor and resources is the sharing of knowledge. One of my favorite examples of this occurred while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, supporting women’s groups in microenterprise. When a couple of groups expressed interest in making bamboo field hats to sell, I reached out to my network and found another group three hours away with the necessary know-how. I offered to pay them to lead a training, but they refused money—it was a grand adventure! So I arranged transportation and women on my land settlement took care of the rest, including places for the guests to stay, lovely communal lunches for the 3-day training, and a grand finale appreciation party.

Just a few short months later, the women were busily churning out hats to keep up with local demand and had started marketing them to shops in town. And years later, I am still humbled by how generously the hat-makers freely shared their expertise with strangers, how graciously the women on my land settlement welcomed them, and how beautifully the whole community benefited.

Lesson: Share mutual support to make life easier, strengthen social bonds, and elevate the common good.

In the last decade, scientists have begun teasing out how social support influences physical health and responses to stress. As resiliency researcher Elliot Friedman says, “The availability of social support in all its forms—instrumental support, emotional support, support with how you think about things—they all matter and help us in facing challenge.” But this research is still quite limited—it doesn’t explore the benefits of social support that extend beyond health and resiliency, nor does it explain how social interactions function to build or maintain that support in the first place.

Luckily, anthropologists have something to say on the matter: mutual support in the form of reciprocity and the community commons play a vital role in social wellbeing by knitting together the fabric of society and helping the interdependent individuals within it to thrive. Let me explain a bit.

Reciprocity, a core anthropological concept popularized by Marshal Salins in 1965, refers to the continuing sequence of giving and receiving tangible objects and services that are meant to create, maintain, or expand social networks over time. Reciprocity may be general, where the return is not immediate (like birthday gifts), or balanced, where immediate return is expected (like Christmas gifts). Different cultures and social situations have varying rules for reciprocity, but all carry an obligation for fair exchange (however that is defined in particular contexts). Reciprocity is thus a binding mechanism that helps to hold society together.

Reciprocity is particularly important to spread social support in communities of unrelated individuals with weak emotional ties. Research from Stanford psychologists suggests that for social support to be beneficial for both the giver and receiver, the giver must be emotionally invested. If not, the act of providing support becomes a burden. But the norms of reciprocity suggest otherwise. We provide tangible support because it is our social obligation and because “what goes around comes around”—someday when we need it most, we will want to be on the receiving end.

This sort of exchange of support does not require the close emotional connection of family and friends, but it does require trust that others will uphold the social contract. That trust may come from common social identity (like Thai women) as well as a shared understanding the cultural rules of the game (like what transpired at the hat making training).  And trust is built over time: starting with small acts of reciprocity (like exchanging holiday cards) lays the foundation of mutual trust that can be drawn upon when more significant support is needed.

Reciprocity improves the explanatory power of current research on social support, which is dominated by psychological studies of individual giving and receiving. But what about collective mutual support like that found in Srisa Asoke? Reciprocity is still relevant, yet a different process is also at work—what economic anthropologist Stephen Gudeman (my dissertation advisor) would call contributing to the community commons. Gudeman describes the commons as a community’s shared interests such as physical resources and products as well as intangible things (like knowledge, technology, laws, skills, customs, and beliefs) that help sustain the members’ individual and collective livelihoods.

The act of contributing to the commons serves the needs of the community while at the same time reinforces commitment and identity as a community member. The key element in any community commons is the social relationships that create, maintain, and share it.

The question remains: how can these commons-oriented relationships ensure the collective wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the environment? We tend to doubt this is even possible: the well-circulated “tragedy of the commons” theory says that individuals prioritize self-interests over the common good and will thus inevitably spoil everything (the classic example being cattle overgrazing common land).

But since political economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 (the first woman ever to do so), we now have more hope for the commons—Ostrom’s extensive research showed that people can in fact collectively manage shared resources sustainably and equitably for the good of the group. Now, interest in the commons has blossomed, taking the concept beyond environmental sustainability concerns to more fundamental discussions of alternative social organization that depends on neither the market nor the state.

Back to painting a clearer picture of how communally oriented relationships can promote collective wellbeing like that found at Srisa Asoke. Feminist economist Julie Nelson argues that we first have to rethink the individual—not as isolated (as in the mainstream economic theory of self-interest on which the “tragedy of the commons” is based) but as “individuals-in-relation,” which recognizes people as both individually unique and embedded in a social context.

Nelson then calls up a core feminist relational value, mutuality. Nelson explains mutuality as “[w]hen individuals-in-relation treat each other with respect and consideration….In relations of mutuality, people have mutual respect and mutual constitutive influence. They help each other grow and develop in healthy ways.” Mutuality can be symmetric—among equals in in cooperative, democratic, and egalitarian enterprises—or asymmetric—in “relations characterized by unequal power, status, ability or resources” such as parent/child or teacher/student, where respect and consideration rather than domination are emphasized.

It’s important to note that mutuality does not necessarily emerge naturally from communally oriented relationships. If we want them to result in collective wellbeing, then we have to work at it.

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