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Hilke Kuhlmann. Living Walden Two: B.F. Skinner's Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities.

Hilke Kuhlmann. Living Walden Two: B.F. Skinner's Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P, 2005. xiii + 245 pp. $35.00

Kuhlmann's fascinating study examines the history of intentional communities inspired by Skinner's novel, Walden Two. In that novel, the Harvard educator--disillusioned by the consumerism, alienation, and inequity of mainstream America--constructed a socialist rural utopia based on the principles of behavioral psychology. Though published in 1948, Skinners book received scant attention until the late 1960s, when behaviorism and communalism both were much in vogue. Thereafter, according to Kuhlmann, Walden Two earned its reputation as not only the century's "most influential and hotly contested fictional utopia" but also one that, by eschewing the use of punishments to alter behavior, had an "immense impact" on movements for societal and educational reform (ix-x). Surprisingly, however, its author displayed little interest in the communities spawned by his vision, and tended to distance himself from their problems and achievements.

Kuhlmann analyzes two phases in the creation of Skinnerian communities, both of which grew out of the Waldenwoods Conference held in 1966. Invitees ranged from cautious academics who dreamed of a community that was "scientific and experimental," though not otherwise resembling Skinner's model, to eager would-be communards wishing to replicate every aspect of the fictional Walden Two.

Some of the psychologists in attendance subsequently proceeded to establish and test "token economies," based on Skinner's theory of "positive reinforcement," within institutional settings such as asylums, prisons, and schools. In a few cases, these exercises in behavioral engineering resulted in the creation of residential communities, including Walden Three (organized by one of Skinners proteges from Harvard, who ultimately reintroduced punishments in "treating" autism). With the exception of Los Horcones, discussed below, most such experiments fizzled, whether because of factionalism, disagreements over work, substance abuse, power struggles among several would-be leaders, or between an established leader and restive subordinates. Indeed, Kuhlmann quotes one communard as wondering why behavioral psychology attracts so many "control freaks" (75). She observes that within one community nearly everyone "wanted to be Frazier" (59), referring to the brilliant but temperamental psychologist who was the eminence grise behind Walden Two. As in Skinners novel, democracy was not typically on the agenda of these mini-societies, and most tended to be dominated by the charismatic individuals who designed them.

Los Horcones, in rural Mexico, managed to avoid most of the problems identified above, and Kuhlmann devotes several chapters to analyzing its apparent success. She concludes that two factors were decisive here: the continuing--and universally accepted--leadership provided by its founder and chief theorist, Juan Robinson, and the community's patriarchal social structure, inherited from the surrounding culture. Initially a school designed for autistic children, Los Horcones evolved into a communal-living experiment in which the seven original members held all property in common and employed behavioral modification techniques to achieve "'cooperative, non-possessive, egalitarian, and non-violent'" social relations (146). But because it was deemed unacceptable to design schedules of reinforcement to control the behavior of others, the emphasis fell squarely upon voluntary self-control. Over the years, Los Horcones expanded in size to about thirty people, mainly through procreation and the recruitment of relatives rather than by attracting outsiders who might or might not share their intellectual commitments. That selectivity yielded smooth interpersonal relationships, especially when coupled with economic self-sufficiency and mandated heterosexual monogamy. Interestingly, the traditional aspects of Los Horcones coexist with innovations such as an open family structure, with children regarding all adult communards as parents, and vice versa. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the community resides in its political system, known as "personocracy." As Kuhlmann explains it, personocracy strives to maximize the participation of all members in communal decision-making, based on the principle of consensus rather than on voting and majority rule. The system thus rests on implicit acceptance of the critique of democracy developed in Walden Two without either embracing Skinners favored alternative of planner/manager government or falling victim to the personality cults that have doomed so many other utopian experiments. And yet, the leadership of Robinson remains amply in evidence.

Though admiring aspects of Los Horcones, Kuhlmann's portrayal of the commune is far from uncritical. In particular, she complains about the secretive nature of the members and their refusal to discuss interpersonal relations with outsiders. One can sense her frustration at being excluded from complete access to information about the community's inner workings: "the communards were not willing to discuss 'irrelevant' topics with me. They also soon ceased corresponding.... Anybody who failed to view Los Horcones with the eyes of a behavioral analyst bent on evaluating a scientific experiment is not welcome" (138-139). Kuhlmann hints that aside from the ideological reasons for such a policy, there may be something more sinister afoot: "a malicious, manipulative undercurrent" in the community, as expressed in the tendency to turn behavioral psychology into a quasi-religion (162).

In addition to examining the behaviorist-inspired utopian experiments that grew out of the Waldenwoods Conference, Kuhlmann devotes substantial attention to the non-academic enthusiasts who sought to reproduce the egalitarian, income-sharing practices described in Walden Two. Of the communities set up by this faction, Twin Oaks in rural Virginia remains far and away the most successful, as measured by factors ranging from longevity and growth to influence within the communal movement. While three of its eight founding members (including the dynamic Kat Kinkade, the only one who remains affiliated, however loosely, with Twin Oaks) were attracted to behaviorism, they were unable to generate a critical mass of likeminded communards. As a result, the few behavioral principles that were initially utilized were soon discarded, and Skinner himself grew increasingly aloof, visiting Twin Oaks only rarely, and in conjunction with media events. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, its drift away from behavioral psychology, Twin Oaks became the model for other intentional communities across the U. S. and Canada.

The most influential aspect of Twin Oaks has been its economic structure. Originally, that structure was adopted directly from Walden Two: for each available job, a certain number of labor credits was assigned, depending upon its desirability to members. But the system proved to be cumbersome to administer, easily manipulated by slackers, and ill-designed to yield high-quality results. Eventually, variable labor credits were replaced by a system that awarded one credit for one hour's work, no matter what the job, with the proviso that odious or unpopular duties would be shared equally. Although this modified structure is not without its problems, it has lent stability to Twin Oaks in the absence of a "strong common religion or a powerful, inspirational leader" (111). Indeed, Kuhlmann opines that what mattered was simply that there was a structure at all (167), in contrast to other countercultural living experiments of the period, which tended to embrace structurelessness as a positive value. In any case, Twin Oaks's economic system became the model for other groups that continued to identify with Walden Two. Residual deference to Skinnerian principles fell by the wayside, however. Also discarded was Skinner's planner/manager system of government in the wake of power struggles which took Twin Oaks residents by surprise: they had expected, naively, that such struggles would become obsolete in income-sharing societies.

Kuhlmann observes that to call Twin Oaks a "community" is in some ways a misnomer because its membership has been highly impermanent. Constant turnover has proved to be both a blessing and a curse: new recruits, brimming with enthusiasm and devotion, re-energize the commune while established members become jaded or disillusioned, and defect back to mainstream society. Ironically, the very non-competitive work structure that has accounted for the success of Twin Oaks also drives members away. Because external rewards are absent, "working hard is not reinforced," and pro-work propaganda and the stigmatizing of poor performance must fill the breach (126-127). Ex-communards also cite desires for privacy and changing life-needs as reasons behind their decision to leave. In a PBS documentary in the 1970s which featured a visit by Skinner to the community, one of the communards poignantly wondered, "Why are we always first-generation Twin Oakers?" Skinner replied that the community should develop a richer slate of cultural activities for members as well as a keener appreciation of its own experimental nature. But the latter suggestion probably would not resonate much with non-psychologists. For people craving more stability, the fact that Twin Oaks was a work in progress would more likely breed confusion and dissatisfaction.

For all its strengths, Kuhlmann's book raises problems of substance and method. In addition to library research, Kuhlmann relied for information on site visits and on correspondence and interviews with past and present communards, all of which seem to have transpired in the late 1990s. Why did it take so long for the project to come to fruition, and what has befallen the communes in the meanwhile? An update would have been much appreciated. Further, although Kuhlmann helpfully provides transcripts of six interviews (including two with Kinkade, who heavily influenced her), background material on some of the interviewees is either sketchy or absent, and she seems to rely on her sources uncritically, rather than asking whether they might have had agendas or perspectives that diminished their credibility. Finally, the conclusion is rather weak, and important questions are left hanging, most notably the issue of why behaviorism seemed so appealing to people who craved power. Perhaps the answer can be found in the anti-humanistic presumptions of behaviorism, its repudiation of personal freedom, dignity, and responsibility. If all there is to a person is observable behavior--i.e., if consciousness, feelings, and motivations can be dismissed as meaningless epiphenomena--then there would seem to be little reason to refrain from attempts to mold and manipulate one's fellows, whether by the seemingly benign "positive reinforcements" endorsed by Skinner or the lapse into "negative reinforcements" that occurred at Walden Three. Kuhlmann hints as much briefly (166), but the reader might have preferred more thorough and probing analysis of a theory that enjoyed so much influence.

Sandra K Hinchman

St. Lawrence University
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Author:Hinchman, Sandra K.
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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