Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on bonhomie snake-oil and social pharmaceuticals Disasters like hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Japan understandably give rise to examples of neighbourliness and generalised discussion on the nature of community. I posted some points on post-Katrina social capital here. Here's an example of an article considering sense of community, following the Christchurch earthquake. The author, Emma Woods, writes: The resiliency of areas not only depended on how extensive the damage was, but also on what resources were available and how well these were pooled. A friend in one of the most damaged areas of Christchurch told me how one of her neighbours had a generator, several had barbecues and all shared the food that had been in their freezers. Everyone had something they needed and something they could share. The stories that emerge in this genre are not dissimilar to historic forms of 'necessity neighbouring' which became institutionalised, for instance in the mythology of British urban communities in the first half of the twentieth century. People share and collaborate and support one another partly because it is in their interests to do so, as well as out of a sense of common humanity. It seems to me that only a theoretical psychologist would feel compelled to separate these two motivations rigidly. If humans were able completely to separate altruism from long-term self-interest (of self, family, species...) then I suspect we would not have evolved as social animals. People rightly recognise enormous value in the social phenomenon of community when it emerges to play its part after a disaster, and it's not unusual to hear regrets voiced about how our societies have 'lost' the values that are starkly evidenced when adversity strikes. What is meant, I think, is 'wouldn't it be nice if we could have the community bit without the adversity?' Unfortunately the question tends to be asked with so little reflection on people's motivations to connect with each other, that it becomes meaningless. It might be better to understand the metabolism of community and study the micro-conditions under which the flourishing of highly-visible communal support emerges. Sense of community during times of large-scale crisis serves to fuel the interest already committed by policy makers who have been searching for strategic devices to stimulate routine neighbourliness. Yup, we're talking social chemical engineering, you just need a prescription-oriented culture and the elixir that captures the market. Schemes like the Big Lunch or l'incroyable pique-nique or European Neighbours' Day - or even the Big Lottery's recently-announced People Powered Change programme (see David Wilcox's report here) - all appear to be macro-level attempts to stem the supposed decline in social capital and sell us all some universal-cure bonhomie snake-oil. This industry sector appears to be growing rapidly. The Prime Minister has a term for it, wait, no, i've forgotten it again. Apart from asking where the money goes and where it might go if it didn't, it might help if we could be reassured that what is being injected into the social system is genuinely pro-social and not...
'Likely to do so locally' The Hansard Society are launching their 2011 report today and the beeb have offered an early peep into research about attitudes to political engagement. A quarter of us (26 per cent) are either 'apathetic' or 'alienated', with a further 35 per cent either having 'no urge to get involved' or 'not very interested in more involvement'. About 14 per cent of us are 'strongly' engaged and described in this research as interested in doing more, which probably confirms Citizenship survey and other data. The most interesting group is categorised by Ipsos MORI as 'willing localists' - 'not actively involved but willing and likely to do so locally' (emphasis added). The category headings sent me back to research carried out by the Henley Centre a few years ago, which suggested that more than two thirds of us are either 'community bystanders' or 'passive participators'. The Henley Centre researchers, Michelle Harrison and Michelle Singer, categorised 16 per cent of us as 'community conscious' - which may offer an interesting comparison with the 'willing localists' in the new Hansard data. We need to understand differences in interpretation between general prosocial engagement on the one hand, and involvement that is related to the political process, on the other. This requirement applies most of all to the political theorists who seek a cure-all innovation. Harrison and Singer describe the 'community conscious' as relatively affluent, and note: 'they feel time pressure but are not low on energy. They have a very strong belief in the values of community overall, and in a sense of community where they live. This group is disproportionately female... They organise and volunteer, and are more likely to attend church or a place of worship. They are not, however, “political”: our qualitative research did not suggest that they are any more likely to engage in local politics than their less “community focused” neighbours.' This resonates strongly with the sense that Hugh Flouch and I got from our Online neighbourhood networks study last year, that local online networks are providing a means by which this category of people can more easily and productively get involved. And the Hansard data also seems to hint at some limits to the extent to which that involvement can be politicised. The need is to detach the community and the civic from the political. Universal politically-driven coercive messages won't work, but stimulating the local communications ecology in the civic context could be promising. This is because, as I've said often enough, there need to be conversations about all sorts of things going on at local level before we see lasting change in some of these statsitics.

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