In the early seventies, I seem to recall, the hapless Bruno Bettelheim suggested that the increasing prevalence of dishwashers and similar labour-saving devices in households was likely to reduce family cohesion as people spent less time together doing what needed to be done.
A few more observations like that over the years - for instance about the use of cars, geographical mobility, smaller households, television viewing etc - and understandably we begin to assume that there has been a decline in neighbourhood relations. It's what we would expect. All we lack is some way of proving or disproving it with robust methods.
So along comes the Changing UK report from the Social And Spatial Inequalities group in Sheffield, commissioned by the BBC, which appears to illustrate how Brits are now more polarised and live more 'among our own kind,' than we used to do.
The report is a strange blend of stolid survey-based affirmation of some gloomy, familiar social trends, with constant reference to the BBC's tv and radio areas - a peculiar geography to many of us I suspect. Presumably the client wanted some local and regional social data (tick) and some kind of news story it could broadcast (tick).
Many of the considerations are straightforward:
These trends may be linked to higher likelihoods of fearfulness because we are less likely to see and therefore understand each others' lives... The polarisation and segregation processes may also lead to stronger feelings of isolation and weaker feelings of 'belonging'.
The report justifiably links these trends with evidence of political disaffection and economic polarisation, all pointing to a rather bleak future. To be fair, it's not as if our politicians have been ignoring it all. Although the finality with which social capital was dumped as a policy issue a few years ago remains puzzling, there is a healthy amount of energy being focussed on community cohesion. There is public attention paid to the questions raised, and the BBC is playing its part.
But the evidence does matter. Take this for example, from Mark Easton's piece on the BBC site:
'The study ranks places using a formula based on the proportion of people in an area who are single, those who live alone, the numbers in private rented accommodation and those who have lived there for less than a year. The higher the proportion of people in those categories, the less rooted the community.'
Unh? That amounts to a definition of 'rooted community' which I'd be reluctant to sign up to.
What bothers me a little about this research is the bundling of assumptions about loneliness, living alone, isolation, and not belonging. For a start, loneliness is not the same as isolation - the latter implies a dearth of social ties, which some people prefer, while some people can have an ample supply of ties but experience loneliness. And obviously, living alone does not necessarily imply loneliness or isolation at all.
Again, people claiming that they 'belong' somewhere (or don't) doesn't tell us anything reliable about the strength or extent of their social relations. You may have a weak sense of belonging without experiencing loneliness; or a strong sense of belonging (“been here forty years I ‘ave”) but experience profound loneliness.
I wanted the report to be clearer about these nuances, and more critical about its measures. It's hardly contentious to note that if local face-to-face ties are diminishing, network ties may have been increasing in strength or range - you only have to watch how people make non-business use of mobiles.
So I'm left unsure what the research offers. It tells us that local social relations have weakened, which is a message we're primed to hear anyway; but it does so with an unconvincing voice.