Thursday, 10 January 2008

Respect, neighbourliness and narratives of decline Community safety journal has just published a piece I wrote on the theme of 'respect in the neighbourhood.' I drew on sections of the book plus interviews and focus groups I ran last year with older people and street reps. A key argument I try to make is that serious policy attention being paid to social networks is long overdue: Once the discredited ‘crack-down’ policies have been cleared away and the rhetoric of community engagement has stopped echoing, what remains is a lasting failure of policy to acknowledge the significance and vulnerability of local social networks, and to minimise damage caused to them... Because we know too little about how local social networks function and how vulnerable they are, we lack the intellectual resources to defend them or to detect weaknesses; and it is not until they have gone missing that we begin to recognise their significance. In the work I carried out last year for Age Concern (not yet published, watch this space) people were describing the density of the enfolding networks in the past, in neighbourhoods characterised by a greater volume of available connections. Reflecting on this leads me to comment in the article on the notion of 'community lost': People readily describe acts of helpfulness and friendliness around them now. But these interactions and exchanges are more individualised and do not seem to amount to a healthy stock of neighbourliness, as a resource on which everyone can draw with confidence and without hesitation, as of right. For the people I spoke to, the resource of neighbourliness has somehow become impoverished. A sense emerges in their accounts of a former enfolding community now mysteriously mislaid. To what extent is the local close-knit community recoverable, given the networked nature of contemporary relationships? Various researchers have contested the general validity of the ‘community lost’ thesis: Sampson for instance suggests that it ‘was wrong 100 years ago and remains so today’. But there is a question of degree here: on an individual level, and within many neighbourhoods, a sense of loss is what people experience and express. There are two points I’d like to make about this. First, ‘community’ lost or mislaid is demonstrably recoverable. The notion of a surrounding sense of ‘mutual support spanning the generations and involving everybody’ – a sense of community as sanctuary, as fostering, and as protecting – has not disappeared entirely, and those who dismiss it as a myth in the past may need to spend some time examining its contemporary manifestations... Secondly, however - while filtering out some over-romanticised claims for such close-knit communities, which could be harsh and unforgiving – we should reflect more carefully on the feeling of loss that is being expressed. The sentiment points to the validity of a secure, enfolding community, for older people especially, one in which norms are readily absorbed and recognised, and which also offers interdependence. A version of the article is available here.

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