Structure and Culture

by Raven Glomus

When I was at Ganas, Michael Johnson, of the core group, was fond of saying that “Culture eats structure for breakfast.”  I recently looked the saying up on the net and found that the more popular quote was that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, although I also found quotes of culture eating structure for breakfast and one writer claiming that culture eats strategy for breakfast and structure for lunch.

Regardless of whether it’s breakfast or lunch, I am going to claim that culture eating structure could be seen as an example of cannibalistic matricide.  (Sorry. I am probably stretching the metaphor too far.)  Let me explain.

GPaul once gave a talk on what he had found out from visiting a bunch of communes in Europe.  He talked about one community where they did a very simple version of income sharing, with a literal box of money that people added any money that they made into and just took from whenever they needed something.  He said that a couple of visitors who saw the system at work were impressed at how well it worked and started another community, with a similar box of money.  It was a disaster.  People misused the system left and right.  

When the dust settled on the fragments of what was left of their community, these visitors went back to the first commune, and this time asked more questions, including the history of this community.  It turned out that when the first community started, there were all sorts of rules around using the money box and various accountability procedures.  After many years of this, folks got into the habit of using the box appropriately and paying some attention to who took things out and why, and the rules and procedures fell into use and were abandoned.  In other words, the structures they started with helped create a culture that made those structures unnecessary.

I recently wrote a post on communities as living organisms.  Think of community founders as parents.  While parents can’t determine what their child will do when they grow up, most parents do try to give guidance as they grow up.  Founders can and should create structures that may well become unnecessary later.

Jo Freeman wrote a brilliant essay in the early seventies called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”.  In it, she points out that if we really want to challenge hierarchy and create horizontal organizations, we need to create the structures to do this, otherwise we fall back on the hierarchical structures we were raised with.  Structures, she says, are absolutely necessary and always exist–even if they are invisible at times.

The takeaway:  If you are creating community, you need to begin by creating the structures to help guide the community in what you see as appropriate directions, since those structures can help create a culture where all that is taken for granted.  When the culture is flourishing, the structures are no longer needed and the culture can eat them for breakfast or lunch or whatever.

Structure and Culture

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