Cohousing as Civic Society: Cohousing Involvement and Political Participation in Massachusetts

Article excerpt


This study asks whether cohousing as a form of non-political association has spill-over effects on participation in politics. The civic-society literature has shown that organizational and persuasive activities engaged in by members of voluntary civic associations constitute on-the-job training in political participation skills and can lead to higher levels of participation. Using original survey data on members of nine of the twelve cohousing communities in Massachusetts, I test the hypothesis that the exercise of quasi-political skills among members of cohousing communities leads to higher levels of political participation. I find that involvement in cohousing is positively related to political participation and that involvement in cohousing and political participation are positively related to self-reported change in political participation since joining cohousing. These results, in view of data limitations, suggest limited support for the hypothesis to the extent that members claim that their political participation has changed since moving to cohousing.

Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing that typically involves varying degrees of shared ownership and spaces, shared responsibility for expenses and work related to everyday living and longer-term community upkeep, and shared governance (Bygott 2006; Cohousing Association of the United States 2013; Fenster 1999; Kahn 2010; Poley 2007; Saegert and Benitez 2005). Most communities have a certain number of shared meals and are multi- generational, creating an extended-family like environment (Forrest and Rich 2005; Kahn 2010; Martin and Yeugn 2006; Mulder, Costanza, and Erickson 2006; Salhus 2006), and many assert larger goals and ideals such as environmental sustainability or egalitarianism. Numerous communities include affordable housing options, a cause which is now an active part of the policy agenda of the Cohousing Association of America. (Cohousing Association of America 2013; Gray, Marcus, and Carey 2005; Helm, Horvitz, and Ben-Egypt 1993; Kahn 2010; Kennedy 2002). Cohousing community members hold joint events and work on joint projects with neighboring organizations and individuals beyond the boundaries of a particular community (Poley 2007). Cohousing communities generally use consensus and other highly democratic forms of collective decision-making to debate and settle community issues (Cohousing Association of the United States 2013; Poley 2007). Members furthermore hold joint events and work on joint projects with neighboring organizations and individuals beyond the boundaries of a particular community (Poley 2007). Taken together, these basic features suggest that cohousing resembles a form of civic association that is worth studying for possible "spill-over" effects on political participation. Does the exercise of quasi-political skills within cohousing communities carry over to the realm of electoral and interest-group politics, resulting in a more politically active group of individuals?

Cohousing as Civic Society

In asking these questions, I seek to build on the civic-society literature, which argues that involvement in non-political associations and organizations is a crucial training ground for participation in democratic politics (Almond and Verba 1963; Ayala 2000; Bachrach 1967; Barber 1984; Blumberg 1968; Dahl 1970, 1985; Mason 1982; Pateman 1970; Putnam et al. 1993; Putnam 1995a and 1995b; Verba, Scholzman, and Brady 1995). Carole Pateman stated the ideal as such:

The existence of representative institutions at the national level is not sufficient for democracy; for maximum participation by all the people of that level, socialization, or 'social training,' for democracy must take place in other spheres in order that the necessary individual attitudes and psychological qualities can be developed. This development takes place through the process of participation itself. The major function of participation in the theory of democracy is therefore an educative one, educative in the very widest sense, including both the psychological aspect and the gaining of practice in democratic skills and procedures (1970, 42). …


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