Thursday, 03 May 2012

How does contemporary neighbouring compare with the past? Emily Cockayne’s history of neighbours, Cheek by jowl, which I’ve already referred to a couple of times, is packed with little anecdotes of neighbour relations in England since the late medieval period. I’m left in awe of her achievement in accumulating so much absorbing evidence. The pace is sometimes a bit breathless as story follows story; and the author is never in a hurry to offer a theory or generalised conclusion from what she’s shared. But the style is very readable, laced with occasional dashes of light humour. So come on Emily, we all want to know: how does contemporary neighbouring compare with the past? In spite of her general coyness as far as conclusions are concerned, this bit sounds pretty confident: ‘Active neighbouring has declined, but latent neighbouring has remained. Most neighbours still trust each other and will help out in an emergency. Who would want to return to traditional neighbouring, if that came with the hardship and lack of privacy that fostered it? Modern neighbouring has a different character because the context is different. We rely on neighbours less; we can be passive neighbours.’ Sounds about right to me, and it pretty much fits with other conclusions such as those of Mary Godfrey and her colleagues. My take on it would be something like this: One form of neighbouring that has almost certainly declined is what we might call ‘negative neighbouring’ – a moral governing culture typically referred to now under the label ‘curtain-twitching,’ which had evolved to establish and reinforce norms, and those norms extended into gender, racial and other stereotypes. Of course there are plenty of contemporary anecdotes about this form of neighbouring but I don’t think anyone is putting forward the argument that it is more prevalent and influential today than it was 60 years ago. If we think of some forms of neighbourliness in more neutral terms – just knowing and recognising people whose help could be mobilised in time of need – it’s probably fair to say that the numbers of local people we know in this way have decreased. But that may not be at all critical if, as for most of us, the number of people we know whose help we can summon readily has not decreased. Even if some or many of our contacts are not going to be physically within reach in a home-based emergency, their power to engage appropriate neighbourly support may still be strong. Finally, what about what I have called ‘supportive’ neighbouring, the sort of behaviour between co-residents in which people go just a fraction out of their way to be supportive and imply readiness to help in time of need, without transgressing the norms of privacy? I really have my doubts that this has declined to any great extent if at all. Where Emily and I probably differ though is in the weight given to the welfare state as having ‘crowded out’ people’s readiness to offer support. It’s obvious that to some extent, formal services...

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