Our society seems to be crying out with a perceived need to stimulate neighbourliness. The assumption is that the supply of neighbourliness in many residential populations is simply inadequate for the demand: people are not neighbourly enough, it seems, and the entire social structure is in jeopardy. The hunt is on to invent ways of stimulating neighbouring. So here's the Campaign to End Loneliness starting to capture ideas for instance, and we have one or two over on the 50 Ways site also. Is this the right approach?
The study was about ‘the significance of proximity’ and looked at the nature of informal care at neighbourhood level. What Lilian found and describes is starting to excite the social welfare field in the Netherlands, and there are good reasons to reflect on her conclusions.
The research was carried out in a low income urban area, perceived as fairly cohesive in the traditional sense, with a population of about 2,400, clamped between an industrial zone and several highways. (I was driven close by last week, as it happens). Lilian speaks of ‘informal care’ in a very broad sense, she means I think the full range of informal support provided, including informal care and some very intimate tasks carried out by known co-residents repeatedly.
‘Apart from the willingness to help a neighbour, a plethora of problems like poverty, alcoholism, incest, disease, divorce, debts, domestic violence and loneliness was found. Therefore the dividing line between givers and receivers of informal care is blurred. The model is one of mutual aid.’
She found that most support was provided one-to-one, not on a collective (‘community’) basis, but simply because people knew each other. It had everything to do with trust at a personal level.
One of the things that Lilian latched onto, with keen insight, was the reticence in requesting neighbourly support. She calls this the ‘request scruple’ – a reluctance to ask for help. This contrasts sharply with the ‘support scruple’ – the reluctance to offer support.
Neighbours prefer social distance and are surprisingly reluctant to ask for support. Nonetheless, they do help each other, on an individual one-to-one basis, in personal and sometimes demanding and intimate circumstances.
The reluctance to ask for support extends to friends, acquaintances and family members, largely because of the fear of dependency and the social ideal of autonomy.
Lilian’s key finding is that the request scruple is far more of an impediment to informal care than is a shortage in the supply.
This helps to clarify the argument that informal care is not a consequence of neighbourhood cohesion: it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you have a cohesive neighbourhood, people will care for one another in time of need. That depends on personal relationships.
One last point. Lilian draws attention to the significance of mutual support between vulnerable people. This is a tidy example of the difference between the Dutch approach and the English. Big society thinking clobbers away at notions of charity and philanthropy, thinking those of us with some kind of surplus should be supporting those without. In the Netherlands, as I have been describing in recent posts, there is serious policy impetus behind the principle of informal care and mutual support.
You can see a clear English language presentation summary of Lilian’s work here.
Speaking to the study tour group last week, Lilian's colleague Rick Kwekkeboom had some important points to add, particularly around the invisibility of informal care. She noted that informal support only becomes visible when it is over-loaded. The role for formal services is to help people to care for one another and not get overburdened.
I don't see the request scruple as a peculiarly Dutch phenomenon. In the UK we could do with an approach to social support that acknowledges these nuances of mutual support, and is less obsessed with some kind of charitable or philanthropic motivation.