Saturday, 21 March 2015

Appreciating kindliness: informality in neighbourhoods JRF’s programme on risk and trust in everyday relationships was designed to break new ground and it has done so, with a range of stimulating papers. The latest is Landscapes of helping, an absorbing report on informal helping – ‘kindliness’ - at local level, by Meg Allen, Helen Spandler, Yvonne Prendergast and Lynn Frogget. It’s based on an extended case study in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Perhaps because the theme overlaps strongly with issues of neighbouring and neighbourliness, I was privileged to have sight of a draft of this report. I admire the way the authors have drawn out a number of mechanisms that foster kindliness while simultaneously contributing to neighbourliness and sociality. These they describe as: Making kindliness palatable Nurturing bonders and bridgers ‘Creating a shared myth’ and ‘Building common cause’ Third spaces and ‘Hubs of helping’ as ‘ways of connecting communities’; and Creating kinder economies. Some of this we know about: for instance, community development practice and the literature of social capital already give us insights into how bonding and bridging capital can be nurtured, and we know quite a bit about third places, or think we do. But the first and last in the above list are striking as barely-charted areas for potential enquiry. Talking of barely-charted areas for enquiry, this paper helps us realise how little the notion of kindliness is discussed, reflected on or researched. Here’s how the authors came through the entangling thicket of definition – acknowledging several difficulties in distinguishing concepts: ‘It was often difficult to identify boundaries between help within the family and outside; and low level help between neighbours could easily transform into longer-term more intensive support and care. We also found it difficult to distinguish between informal and more formalised (or semi-formal) help and our exploration of kindliness involved going through, and observing, semi-formal organisations who often mediate more informal relationships. ‘Similarly, while we started this research trying to distinguish between giving and receiving help, we increasingly realised that this distinction was hard to sustain. In everyday life it is not always possible, or desirable, to separate out the needs of the self and the needs of others (Munn-Giddings, 2001). People practise kindliness, not only to help others, but to help themselves, and to improve the communities in which they live.’ Ah, I recognise this part of the landscape: we’re back at the corner of Altruism Avenue and Reciprocity Road. And it’s good to know that informal and semi-formal relations in neighbourhoods are receiving a bit of attention at last. While JRF continue pursuing their programme, my good friend Alison Gilchrist has recently won a Plowden Fellowship to explore the theme of ‘informality’ in relation to good governance and social justice. And less gloriously, I’m currently working on a project for Nesta to produce a process evaluation and impact evaluation of Good Neighbour schemes. More on that in due course.
How many light-bulbs does it take to confiscate tiny social interactions? I’ve been reviewing the documentation for a number of Good Neighbour schemes recently, as part of a process and impact evaluation that I'm working on. The descriptions of what schemes offer is generally very consistent: in addition to the universal offer of transport to hospitals and shops etc, they often include reference to helping with basic household tasks like ‘changing a light-bulb’. It happens that I’ve also had builders in recently, and had to go with them to buy various bits and pieces including ceiling lights for the bathroom. The lights that have now been fitted have an estimated life, I’m told, of 35,000 hours. At an average of, say, an hour-per-day, they can be expected to last around 95 years. Hoorah for technological progress. But as I get older, there’s one less reason to have a volunteer come round and check on me while doing handy things about the house. What we have here is another variation on what I have called Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that ‘there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions.’ I mentioned another instance - external security boxes – here. And just to be clear, I am not suggesting that there aren’t technological advances helping us in the opposite direction.

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