Emily Cockayne’s history of neighbours, Cheek by jowl, which I’ve already referred to a couple of times, is packed with little anecdotes of neighbour relations in England since the late medieval period. I’m left in awe of her achievement in accumulating so much absorbing evidence. The pace is sometimes a bit breathless as story follows story; and the author is never in a hurry to offer a theory or generalised conclusion from what she’s shared. But the style is very readable, laced with occasional dashes of light humour.
So come on Emily, we all want to know: how does contemporary neighbouring compare with the past? In spite of her general coyness as far as conclusions are concerned, this bit sounds pretty confident:
‘Active neighbouring has declined, but latent neighbouring has remained. Most neighbours still trust each other and will help out in an emergency. Who would want to return to traditional neighbouring, if that came with the hardship and lack of privacy that fostered it? Modern neighbouring has a different character because the context is different. We rely on neighbours less; we can be passive neighbours.’
Sounds about right to me, and it pretty much fits with other conclusions such as those of Mary Godfrey and her colleagues. My take on it would be something like this:
One form of neighbouring that has almost certainly declined is what we might call ‘negative neighbouring’ – a moral governing culture typically referred to now under the label ‘curtain-twitching,’ which had evolved to establish and reinforce norms, and those norms extended into gender, racial and other stereotypes.
Of course there are plenty of contemporary anecdotes about this form of neighbouring but I don’t think anyone is putting forward the argument that it is more prevalent and influential today than it was 60 years ago.
If we think of some forms of neighbourliness in more neutral terms – just knowing and recognising people whose help could be mobilised in time of need – it’s probably fair to say that the numbers of local people we know in this way have decreased. But that may not be at all critical if, as for most of us, the number of people we know whose help we can summon readily has not decreased. Even if some or many of our contacts are not going to be physically within reach in a home-based emergency, their power to engage appropriate neighbourly support may still be strong.
Finally, what about what I have called ‘supportive’ neighbouring, the sort of behaviour between co-residents in which people go just a fraction out of their way to be supportive and imply readiness to help in time of need, without transgressing the norms of privacy? I really have my doubts that this has declined to any great extent if at all.
Where Emily and I probably differ though is in the weight given to the welfare state as having ‘crowded out’ people’s readiness to offer support. It’s obvious that to some extent, formal services have taken over occasions such as childbirth when in the past neighbours were more or less forced to depend on each other. We’d expect that the nature of neighbouring would change as a consequence; but it wouldn’t necessarily have declined significantly.
My sense is that if neighbourliness really did decline over the past generation, then of all the contributory factors, the crowding out by the welfare state was not one of the most important. The availability of organised social care for those who needed it not only made life more liveable for millions, it probably had far less of an impact on positive neighbouring than did the availability and use of cars; television; new forms of housing; comparative wealth; population diversity; and a cohort of women in the labour market.
And so, as I wrote here:
‘The task is to understand how the notion of an enfolding community might be possible in an age of personal social networks with the looming challenge of living with difference, when there is less need to be neighbourly and few of us really have to be more than superficially friendly with our neighbours.’
I do believe that when residents connect through neighbourhood online networks, where those are collectively-oriented, the potential to resolve this challenge is significant.
Against that, as I’ve said before, investing in formal initiatives in order to generate local social connections may be of limited value, being back-to-front. Emily's pretty emphatic on this:
‘Good Neighbour societies are founded on a notion that organisation will bring about a return to traditional neighbourliness. It will not.’
So with all this in mind, I’m proposing a meeting about the past, present and future of neighbouring, in London in about a month’s time – just before the jubilee street party brouhaha swamps us all with romantic representations of community and soppy insistence on formal mechanisms as the key to revisiting a past golden age of neighbouring… More on that very soon.