Thursday, 19 August 2010

Neighbours these days: not recognised, not interested? Legal and General's Next door strangers survey report got some press coverage earlier this week (eg) and more to come I gather. It's gloomy but what I like about this one is the recognition of recognition. It goes further than assessing socialisation with neighbours and knowing their names, claiming that 70% of respondents 'wouldn't recognise their neighbours if they passed them in the street'. This echoes a point in the literature about the fractured nature of contemporary neighbouring compared with the sense of collective neighbouring experienced (and evidenced) in close-knit neighbourhoods in the past. The necessity neighbouring of close-knit neighbourhoods disguised major disadvantages which we would not wish to see return in the looming effects of the recession. Most of those self-defined communities were gradually eroded by relative economic wealth and by diversity (the latter reflected in the Legal and General study) so the need for 'manifest neighbouring' has diminished. But that does not mean that recognition is any less important, indeed one could argue that it's more important, and I think this study highlights it in a smart way: 'On average, Brits would only be able to pick one in three of their neighbours out of a line up.' At one point the report refers to the notion of 'immediate recognition' which I also like. Of course, as often with reports like this, we aren't told the wording of the questions so it's sometimes hard to interpret the findings. But as I've suggested before, we can still draw conclusions from even the most 'methodologically-carefree' of studies. To be fair, generally it's not the methodology but the writing-up that is a bit carefree. Here's an example: 'Our findings indicate that people feel less responsibility for looking out for suspicious activity in their street...' Note the word 'less'. Less than when or less than who? Implicitly I think I'm supposed to hear 'less than they used to be'. As so often, the language contributes to the narrative of decline, without justifying it. We simply don't know if neighbourliness has declined, although it's what we'd expect, but we're surrounding ourselves with assumptions which make it harder to see either other benefits or how the role of neighbouring may have changed. There's one other striking finding that I'd like to dwell on: 'More than a third (35%) of us don’t believe that we should have any responsibility for the safety or security of our neighbourhoods.' Someone should tell David Cameron and the orchestral conductors of Big Society: if some of the co-producers haven't turned up, others are gonna have to play louder and longer. This is a good example of where we could do with more from the data: if 35% said 'no' to whatever the question was, what proportion said yes and what proportion said 'don't know' or declined to answer? Just 16% of 'don't knows' might suggest, for instance, that less than half of us are prepared to co-produce the safety of our own local environments. That would be surprising and...

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