Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Mending broken window theory What's the effect of a disordered physical environment on children's behaviour and exam results? Here's a Guardian article by Jessica Shepherd on recent (apparently qualitative) research suggesting that boarded-up houses and shops, and littered scruffy pathways aren't exactly going to inspire young people to pro-social behaviour. Indeed. So has the death of broken window theory been exaggerated? The Harcourt and Ludwig (2006) research discrediting the original theory may tell us that physical signs of disorder do not predict neighbourhood crime; but what they do predict is more physical disorder. And on what grounds is it deemed acceptable that people should be expected to live in such an environment? Where broken windows are not being repaired and other maintenance is not being carried out, residents (yes, that includes schoolchildren) are being subjected to disrespect on the part of the services established and funded to maintain order. From work I've done on estates in the past I'm sure that local people often sense the danger of a tipping point of disorder, although they might not articulate it in terms of 'broken window theory' or collective efficacy or whatever. And schools are, or should be, an integrated rather than separate part of their localities ('community' if you like). As the researchers point out: 'throughout government policy, schools are presented as though they exist in isolation from the surrounding area.' Too many schools resemble fortresses or prisons, and I guess this research could help begin the reversal of that trend. Previously: A crisis of community presence It's curtains for broken window theory
On superficial neighbourhood relations From time to time I argue that 'shallow' informal interactions, such as simple gestures of recognition at neighbourhood level, are more significant in terms of social capital than is generally recognised. I raised this recently in relation to the CLG guidance on 'meaningful social interaction,' which argues that for social interaction to be 'meaningful' it needs to go beyond a superficial level and to be sustained. My view is that yes it makes a difference if it's sustained, but 'superficial' does not mean trivial. Superficial is good. Now I'm just catching up with a paper in BMJ last month about happiness and social networks, which got quite a bit of publicity for its finding that happiness is 'contagious'. The researchers looked at 20 years of data from the Framingham heart study in Massachussetts and found that: People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This includes close neighbours, but apparently next door neighbours have a much stronger influence than neighbours who live a few doors down in the same neighbourhood. The researchers observe: the strong influence of neighbours suggests that the spread of happiness might depend more on frequent social contact than deep social connections. So let's take that as a tentative endorsement. More evidence needed of course. And behind all this are the challenges of defining (without solidfying) what we're talking about. A few weeks ago I was questioning some of the assumptions about definitions of 'belonging' in the methodologically-creaky Changing UK research, and perhaps there are comparable dangers in assumptions about 'happiness'. One commentator on the BMJ paper observes: Happiness research that attempts to find generalisations about happiness... will not challenge inherent assumptions about what makes people happy, what is happiness, and who is happy in society or indeed, as Anthony Storr suggests, who is 'happy alone!'

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