Sunday, 25 January 2009

Informal influences on local social capital I love these little coincidences. This afternoon I was sitting in the final plenary at an international conference on community cohesion run by the British Council and iCoCo in Manchester. Just before Runnymede Trust director Rob Berkeley stood up to speak, an email from Communities and Local Government plopped into my mailbox offering figures released from the 2008-09 Citizenship Survey: '76 per cent of people feel that they strongly belong to their neighbourhood with 81 per cent of people satisfied with their local area as a place to live.' Presumably unaware of this news, although quite possibly already informed about some of the survey findings, Rob reflected quietly on the need to bring some refinement to the evaluation and measurement of cohesion and belonging: 'I live in south London. If my neighbours don't break down the door, I think we're getting on pretty well. In a rural village, if someone doesn't turn up to the fete, their neighbours might think relations have completely broken down. We do need to think about the different ways people think about belonging.' This echoes a point I made in my own presentation yesterday, consolidating a strong sub-theme of the conference, which was best expressed in a comment by Haroon Saad, director of QeC-Eran (Quartiers en Crise). First, in his presentation, he observed that: 'Intercultural dialogue is taking place on Facebook' (I think he meant social media in general) 'and what's significant is that it's dissociated from institutions.' Then in a discussion about how agencies were still trying to deal with tensions between local factions in Northern Ireland, Haroon said: 'What organisations are doing pales into insignificance compared with what's going on in the informal sector.' And that's it: sooner or later policy makers and cohesion practitioners are going to have to get to grips with informal social relations, because everything else we do is not enough. Ciara Wells, deputy director of CLG's Communities and Faiths Division, spoke on Wednesday about the ongoing work on meaningful interaction. Substituting for one of her colleagues, I followed it up with some points about neighbourliness, home zones and neighbourhood online networks, contrasted with reflections on the slightly more organised, formal occasions of street parties and living library. Devices like steet parties and living library justifiably generate a lot of interest, because they legitimise conversations that otherwise probably would not take place. But ultimately they're artificially constructed occasions, and however transformational the experiences they stimulate, it's hard to see how they can trump all the informal influences on local social capital. I very much welcome CLG's commitment to further work on meaningful interaction, and I hope it will be seen as an opportunity to develop some more nuanced understandings of the sense of belonging, the importance of trivial encounters, and the value of social networks. Previously: On superficial neighbourhood relations Enter the official local handyman

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