Saturday, 23 December 2006

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The inconsistency of neighbouring A friend was telling me today about a conversation with a neighbour, who she reckoned has lived in her street for well over ten years. The question she was asked was something like 'have you seen so-and-so over the road? I haven't seen her for a while.' The lady in question had died some three years previously, unbeknown to the questioner. For my friend, who grew up in a rural area, a bit of adjustment was necessary, because this couldn't have happened in her village. But she lives now in a northern English city. I'm not surprised and probably most people who think about neighbourliness in contemporary society wouldn't be surprised, which suggests that this sort of disconnection between neighbours is far from exceptional. My friend works full time all week and is often out of the country, yet she had known about the neighbour's death. The story highlights an inconsistency about neighbouring in urban areas, an unpredictability, which is related to risk and which is accentuated by comparing it with the relative consistency of neighbourhoods in rural areas. Put simply, when humans move into unfamiliar areas, like any social animal, they do so at risk of being unwelcome, and we prepare for such risk by being ready to put up shutters, to close in on ourselves. In complex urban societies there are a lot of people moving into unfamiliar areas, among unfamiliar others, so there are lots of people ready to put up the shutters on engaging with those around them - especially when the connections we need for sociability can often be sustained remotely and through our work or travel, and when we don't have to collaborate with those around us for basic needs like food and energy. We have lots of ways of closing others out of our worlds - gates, curtains, personal sound systems, mobile phones, and cars especially - and too few ways of giving connections a chance. I went on from that conversation to a meeting which included consideration of an outline research proposal on the role of celebration in 'building stronger community ties'. I'm a fraction clearer now about why that's a good idea.

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