Tuesday, 26 May 2009

It takes a village I've always been suspicious of bald calls for heavy cash investment in areas as the solution to social problems, and I've seen enough of some heavily-funded local projects to know how money can generate new unwanted difficulties and tensions. We need to know more, in particular, about low-income neighbourhoods that function well because levels of interaction are relatively high. The other day my attention was drawn to some research on prosocial behaviour, reported by David Sloan Wilson and colleagues, in Evolution and human behavior (subscription required). The article describes a study of students in a small city in New York state, and finds that prosocial (or 'altruistic') behaviour correlates strongly with the level of self-reported social support at local level. That support is evidenced in terms of family, school, neighbourhood, religion, and extra-curricular activities. Further, the researchers note that 'it appears to require social support from multiple sources... It really does take a village to raise a highly prosocial child.' The untrained and untamed anthropologist in me is revelling in the way the authors combine evolutionary, economic and social capital theories to seek to explain why social co-operation can succeed as an evolutionary strategy and not be subverted from within by individual selfishness. It's interesting that the neighbourhood level of income does not seem to predict prosocial behaviour and indeed may be a negative indicator: 'the most prosocial students live in neighborhoods that are high in quality and low in median income - perhaps because, in the absence of financial capital, they need to rely more on social capital in their everyday lives.' This could be a seminal research finding. Does it mean that policy should be focusing more on local social relations rather than financial investment and the generation of wealth? The study is part of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. More here.
Neighbouring in inner-city apartments Take a relatively young, diverse and wealthy population of 'small-sized, non-familial households' in a new apartment development in a booming European capital: what level of neighbouring would you expect? I don't think you'd be surprised if it was well below the kind of average I've been referring to lately. Peter Howley has just published a study of neighbouring in apartment units in inner-city Dublin, with a very welcome article in Irish geography (subscription required). He found that only 13 per cent felt that neighbours 'look out for' each other. Well, 77 per cent feel that it is likely or very likely they will move residence in the next five years, so maybe they won't invest much and it's not surprising that 22 per cent 'never' speak to their neighbours. Howley rightly asks questions about the social impact of promoting high-density housing. But there are a few other things to take into consideration. First, previous research (Churchman and Ginsberg in Israel for instance) has shown that some people regard it as an advantage of certain kinds of high-density housing that they can avoid contact with others. Churchman and Ginsberg looked at moderately 'high-rise' blocks and found that those who wished to were able to develop active social ties with fellow-residents. Secondly, there is an established reputation (although I'm not aware of any research) for the balance of sociability and privacy in city centre apartments in central European cities. A long-standing cultural tradition with less sense of transience can make a lot of difference. Thirdly, neighbouring does not always take off in new developments - presumably it depends mostly on household structure, levels of employment, and housing type. Howley reports that in his sample, 29, 31 and 29% respectively of households surveyed consist of either a single person living alone, a couple without children or non-family households - not exactly propitious. There's one curiosity among Howley's findings, which might justify further attention: residents who are from an ethnic or cultural background other than Irish are much more likely to interact with their neighbours than their Irish counterparts. The usual explanations for higher levels of prosocial behaviour and participation among minority groups are about compensating for having more complex social and economic problems, and being less likely to have informal connections to power and influence. But it doesn't sound like that's the explanation here, and in light of the national stereotype of Irish garrulousness the finding stands out. My last point is that the housing developments described by Howley are probably crying out for an experiment in neighbourhood online networks. If a network had been in place at the outset, when people were getting the teething problems with their properties sorted, it might have created the platform for some consistent and supportive neighbouring. Sounds like a job for folk like Neighbo.

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