Interpersonal Processes in Nineteenth Century Utopian Communities: Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists

Article excerpt

Traditional and emerging social values often clashed amidst the dramatic changes sweeping through the new American republic in the early years of the nineteenth century. The former colonies reveled in their freedom but had not yet fully worked out the norms of the new order; the fledgling industrial revolution created new economic opportunities and uncertainties; and political and social freedoms expanded, especially those involving rights of participants in close interpersonal relationships. For example, divorce, birth control, abortion and prostitution were more readily available, people were freer to choose their own marital partner, and women's rights were enhanced (Altman and Ginat 21; Foster 223-238; Kern 34-49).

Not surprisingly, there were reactions to some of these liberalizing trends, often based on religious ideologies that called for restoration or re-interpretation of traditional values and approaches to everyday life. The Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists were two examples of utopian movements of the era who sought "ideal" and stable lives for individuals, families, and communities. These and other social experiments promised security and religious salvation through unique family structures based on strict behavioral norms, strong authority systems, economic self-sufficiency, and a degree of separation from society at large (Foster 1-13; Hayden 3-6; Brewer 5-6).

The present article focuses on interpersonal relationships in Shaker and Oneida movements, especially their unique attempts to restrict or prohibit close and intimate heterosexual relationships. Although differing in many ways, both Shaker and Oneida doctrine sought to eliminate monogamous marriages, or any form of enduring or permanent heterosexual relationship -- an idea that sharply contrasted with long-standing values in America and most western societies. Traditional heterosexual relationships, these groups argued, often resulted in selfishness, inattention to spiritual responsibilities, and insufficient commitment to other people and the larger community. To achieve an ideal life, the Shakers called for their members to practice celibacy and sharply curtail informal contacts between men and women. In contrast, but in order to reach the same goal, the Oneidans practiced "group marriage," in which men and women could engage in physical sexual activity with many others-albeit only in accordance with strict rules designed to prevent permanent bonds. (Later, they practiced "stirpiculture," a eugenics-like program in which more enduring relationships sometimes occurred.)

To understand the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in Oneida and Shaker communities we pose the following questions: 1. How did the Shaker and Oneida movements employ environmental design, rules for use of the physical environment, and social practices to control close heterosexual relationships? 2. How viable were their approaches to close interpersonal relationships in light of present day concepts and theory?

Our research and theory on close relationships is based on transactional and dialectical philosophies or "world views," which we here apply to an analysis of Oneida and Shaker ideologies (Altman and Rogoff 7-37; Altman, Vinsel and Brown 117-126; Brown, Werner and Altman in press). Briefly, the transactional perspective calls for a holistic understanding of interpersonal relationships. This means, first, that one simultaneously attends to multiple aspects of behavior that are inseparable, function as an integrated unity, and reflect several domains of interpersonal activity. Consistent with our earlier research, we describe how the design of homes and the physical layout of Shaker and Oneida utopian communities were related to interpersonal relationships. Next, we discuss how the two groups guided their members in the use of physical environments. Finally, we address how they prescribed a variety of social rules, norms, and behavioral practices regarding heterosexual relationships. …