Norms versus Rules

“I would not want to be the police for this policy.” Someone wrote recently about my blog post on fun tables.

And it made me realize that I had not blogged about one of the most important aspects of community life.  Which is the stratification and interrelation of our agreements and how it is that they are enforced.

At Twin Oaks we have basically three levels of agreements:

  1. Bylaws
  2. Policy
  3. Norms

To become a member, you have to sign to ByLaws.  These are the defining general agreements we make with each other.  They include general text like this:

Together our aim is to perpetuate and expand a society based on cooperation, sharing, and equality:

A. Which serves as one example of a cooperative social organization, relevant to the world at large, and promotes the formation and growth of similar communities;

and much more specific text like this:

All assets not loaned or donated to the Community shall be left inactive from a management or investment point of view, except that, at the Community’s discretion it may allow a member to reinvest or manage assets, if it is to the Community’s advantage that this be done.

The bylaws are fairly short, perhaps 8 pages or so.  They are the highest level of agreement the community has.  As an incoming member, you are supposed to have read them and have some familiarity with them.

wavy roads

Sometimes the path is not direct

Twin Oaks has a lot of written policy.  There are two large three ring binders full of instructions on how we have agreed to do things.  There is detailed information about how we should conduct an expulsion.  There is the complex zoning of our nudity policy.  We carefully describe our prohibition of live television and restrictions on cell phones.  There is also some slightly silly policy like the restriction of transport of nuclear waste through the community.  No one is expect to read all our policies.

None-the-less written policy is important at Twin Oaks.  It is a central pillar in our decision making process.  And we spend a fair amount of time discussing and debating what makes good policy.  With some regularity, members will say “I went back and looked at the policy and it was quite clear.”  I personally think well crafted policy has been important in the success of the community, which is now heading into it’s 49th year.

brains floating

But what happens if you break a policy?  One of the things you will see very little of in our policy is consequences for breaking policy.  Unlike laws, where the punishment for breaking them is clear, mostly it is a bit up for grabs what happens in the community when someone violates policy.  If you violate the cell phone policy, someone is likely to simply tell you that they are annoyed by your behavior, perhaps remind you of the policy and then we are done (this happened to me the other night).  If you violate the restriction on firearms, you might find yourself looking at expulsion.

There are no police at Twin Oaks.  At least none with special powers.  Any member can remind another member of an agreement we have about a behavior which might be problematic.  If they don’t feel comfortable confronting the member they can go to the Process Team or the Planners (our highest executive body).  It is possible nothing will happen with the complaint, we simply ignore some number of small problems.  When something does happen, most of the time it is a simple reprimand and a request to stick to our agreements.

The lowest level of agreements we have are norms.  We don’t write norms down.  Norms are intentionally called norms rather than rules, because generally speaking there is no consequence to someone violating a norm (unlike rules, where there is generally a punishment from breaking a rule).

path to living well

What is the path to living well together?

All of the fun table agreements I discussed in the earlier post are norms.  We don’t have any written agreements about protocols for how to sit at which table and what they can talk about.   As much as we like policy, even for us this would be over the top.

So what about my digital friend who wants to know about policing agreements?  Why do these norms get followed if there are so little in the way of consequences for violating them?

The real answer is that we mostly gently police each other, and much of it is unspoken and self policing.  We are crafting a dynamic binding social contract.  When I was reminded to be discreet about my cell phone use, it was at it’s base a request from my fellow communard to not include them in my habit.

In the larger society a fair case can be made that for laws and rules to hold sway, they need to have punishment teeth to back them up.  In the tiny culture of community, we can spend more time working on our agreements and less time worrying specifically about what happens when they are not followed, because our softer social controls will encourage us to abide by them without police or punishment.




About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

8 responses to “Norms versus Rules”

  1. David de Ugarte says :

    And don’t you see a contradiction between your last paragraph and the «scale free» vision of Twin Oaks? I mean: as became clear discussing with Paul, there are two main visions of community. One is based in the «Society of Friends» (epicurean communities, first decades of Degania, las Indias and so on) other (Twin Oaks, Niederkaunfungen, Kibbutz Artzi, etc.) is open to everybody and pretends to create an universal model able to grow to embrace the whole society with a single set of rules. The first model lays on small scale non-written-consensus-managed communities, the second looks for large scale ones and at the end of the day towns or even small cities. But, as you say, wouldn’t they generate in a bigger scale a kind of legal aparatus more or less bourocratic?

    • paxus says :

      Dearest David: Twin Oaks and almost every other community i know (regardless of size) is NOT open to everyone, we have selection processes. We do pretend to be a somewhat universal model, in that people who dont fit with one particular community )for what ever reason) can perhaps find another community or start one on their own

      • David de Ugarte says :

        Dearest Paxus, you have to sorry my English. I have few nuances using it. I referred the difference between «society of affinity» and «society of ideology» which Paul pointed in this discussion He said then:

        «The way I often describe the Kat Kinkade communes is that they are communities of ideology not communities of affinity. If you are enthusiastic about the basic political tenets and abide by the rules you may join. Although a society of friends is more psychically fulfilling I think that the open society of the Kat Kinkade communes provides us with an interesting and enriching challenge»

        That is what I meant with «open to everybody», that is not open to everybody, but people does not to personally fit or to have a previous relation with the community. Sorry again because it is difficult to explain in written English words to me.

      • paxus says :

        Dearest David: Thanks for trying in English, and i am certainly understanding it can be a hard language to work with.

        Now i am with you. The Kinkade communities are really something of a mix – they are driven by ideology, but people stay because they have friends (or affinity). New small communities, even of the income sharing form, are generally communities of both affinity and ideology – because only friends are willing to do this difficult work together.

  2. tickledspirit says :

    Breaking norms means you lose social currency. Once you’re bankrupt of that, the community isn’t an enjoyable place to live anymore.
    And the great thing about norms is that, ideally, a norm that needs to change gradually starts losing its impact on social currency… And a new norm emerges. No supreme court legislation necessary.

  3. hawstom says :

    Please keep on writing. This is exactly the kind of explanation that is valuable to people as a matter of documentation and evangelization of the community experience.

    I am curious about the reference to the concept of “scale free”

  4. hawstom says :

    Please keep on writing. This is exactly the kind of explanation that is valuable to people as a matter of documentation and evangelization of the community experience.

    I am curious about the reference to the concept of “scale free” in one of the comments above. The only sense in which “scale-free” can apply to communal living is in the sense of reproducibility (infinite proliferation of communities), since communal living runs on (some level of) face time, which is best maintained with a group of less than 250 people (more or less). Is there an essay or article where scale free in the sense quoted is discussed?

    • David de Ugarte says :

      I completely agree with you, and that is the point of view we defended in The book of community (free download in English in ) In fact we guess the maximum number is under «Dunbar’s number» (=150), but it was not the point of view of Twin Oaks founders according to Kinkade’s books. I think this vision of «ever growing commune», as the «ever growing kibbutz» of some kibbutz movements before conditioned many other things and the relation with work, time, identity, etc.

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