Monday, 01 January 2007

The respectable and the rough in low-income neighbourhoods I came across an article by Paul Watt in the December issue of the International journal of urban and regional research, which is well-worth tracking down if you're interested in research that genuinely tries to make sense of what housing estate residents are saying about their environments and everyday lives. Watt interviewd 29 residents in the London Borough of Camden and sifted out interesting insights into how people make social distinctions under constraining economic conditions, and explores how those distinctions relate to images of place. His account illustrates sensitively how people tend to place others around them on a scale of respectability and roughness. The low-status others and problem tenants constituted an amorphous group who were condemned both for their sheer presence as well as for their behaviour. The latter included a widespread array of activities ranging from violence, drinking and drug taking, to noise, vandalism, graffiti and playing football, as well as failing to maintain the appearance of the dwellings. The research also seems to suggest that racism is often subordinate to the respectable/rough distinction: racist discourse is not denied, but contextualised in this framework. What's enormously valuable in this article is the way in which the author scrapes away some of the structural grime that has clogged up the ethos and processes of neighbouring. He shows how maintaining 'respectability' has become more and more difficult in unstable economic conditions and in neighbourhoods where 'knowing exactly who is respectable, or rough, is increasingly problematic.' The paradoxical result is that expressing a social distinction between themselves and the low-status others around them, via emphasizing their own respectability, has become increasingly ‘necessary’ within the contemporary working-class habitus at the same time that the material basis for such a distinction has markedly narrowed. I started to wonder if this has implications for the greater formalisation of cultural capital. It certainly points to the need for more effort to appreciate diverse forms thereof, which is perhaps what the community cohesion agenda amounts to. The residents who see themselves as struggling to maintain respectability in such a context, as Watt points out, lack any dominant form of cultural capital such as educational qualifications by which to legitimate their self-avowed status. But there are more urgent indicators here for practitioners, to do with housing allocation and estate management in particular. The fact that the research was carried out before 2000 serves in my mind to emphasise that neighbourhood management in this country was disgracefully overdue and has been not so much a glorious policy success as blazingly obvious. The erosion of public welfare services was routinely regarded as both signifying and causing deteriorating neighbourhood social relations. In addition to the widely criticized paucity of council housing provision, an emphasis was placed upon the communal areas of the estates, including their deteriorating physical appearance, the erosion of support services such as caretakers, as well as the limited facilities for children and young people. At about the same time (I discover from some notes I found on...

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