Sunday, 26 June 2011

Rebuilding the Smurf Society Here I sit trying to think what I might say at today’s Compass seminar on ‘building the good society’, only to get distracted by this BBC headline: Do Smurfs provide a model for a good society? I have never knowingly watched the Smurfs, but apparently they lived without money, using their individual skills for the common good, without individual reward, to ensure their community thrives. So that seems to answer the question in the headline, and suggests that today’s delegates might ask themselves if they’re inhabiting a fictional cartoon world. Ah, you know where this is going don’t you? - You can even see echoes of the British government's Big Society idea, part of which encourages individuals to form community groups and engage in social action, particularly through volunteering, says Prof Ellis Cashmore, a sociologist from Staffordshire University. "There are similarities between David Cameron's idea of the Big Society and what we see embodied in Smurf society. "Cameron [is asking people to get] organised with their local community, have organic collectivity and work for each other, like we used to before industrialisation came along and fragmented society." The last bit needs a bit of qualification of course. Historians do still argue that neighbourliness declined at the end of the middle ages, but it was a debt-based society with a great deal of mobility, and the home was a public, not a private place, which must have made a difference. But it’s the phrase ‘Smurf Society’ that catches the eye. I’m floundering in a surfeit of universalised kinds of ‘Society,’ but if I have to choose one, this could be it.
Does austerity cause increase in knowing neighbours' names? Between 2008 and 2010 the proportion of American adults who say they ‘know all or most of their neighbours by name’ increased by some 11 per cent, to 51%. In 2008, 31 per cent said they did not know any of their neighbours by name: two years later, this had dropped to just 18 per cent. This comes from the latest output from the collaboration of Keith Hampton and his colleagues with Pew Internet Research - a study of the impact of social networking sites on levels of trust, personal relationships and civic and political involvement in the USA. (I’ll be posting some thoughts on the main findings of that study, over on the Networked Neighbourhoods blog shortly). The authors note that: It might be that the persistence of the poor economic conditions of the American economy has prompted – or necessitated - that people to turn to their neighbors for informal support. It would be premature to suggest that this current trend is part of a gradual increase in social capital in America. I’ll make my customary point here briefly about the assumption behind the question – knowing someone’s name implies a level of relationship not necessarily consistent with people’s understanding of neighbouring (certainly not mine). Knowing someone by name implies a stronger relationship than is necessarily needed or wanted. So as I’ve noted before, this emphasis perpetuates the unfortunate habit of over-privileging strong ties in the understanding of local social relations. The basis of neighbouring is recognition, which does not depend on knowing names, as nicely illustrated in this quotation from last year’s Gumtree research: 'It's true I don't know many neighbours by name, but we recognise each other, know who lives where and are aware of each other's routines. If something is out of place, we notice. We also pick up the litter in the street and close each other's gates when the postman leaves them open.' The closest comparable recent UK data I have found offers responses to the statement ‘I know my immediate neighbours’ names’ with a return of 83 per cent (Circle Anglia Community Census carried out by ComRes 2009). Maybe this can be compared with the 81 per cent in the Pew survey who know some, most, or all by name. A final point from the Pew report, which is mainly about the impact on social relations of the use of technologies: the authors found 'no indication that different types of technology use predict neighboring. Internet and non-internet users are equally as likely as others to know at least some of their neighbors.' The main point of this post though is to suggest that the positive effect of austerity on local social relations is probably not fanciful and is certainly worthy of closer scrutiny. Any self-respecting community development worker knows that nothing succeeds like adversity. And if an economic decline does have a positive effect on local social relaitons, does the reverse apply?

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