Spookily, the BBC have done a big feature on ‘community’ a day or so after Sanna raised the issue on her blog and prompted much discussion. Off the back of this Lucy notes that she’s now from the North. But I want to expression confusion at the central premise behind all this, as summarised by the BBC’s Mark Easton:
In particular, the study focuses on the concept of “anomie”, a measure of people’s sense of – or lack of – belonging to where they live.
Perhaps we’re forgetting that ‘belonging’ to a geographical location is just as imagined a community as any other. Perhaps it would be possible, theoretically, to actually know and interact with everyone on your street or in your small village. But there’s no way this can be plausibly extended to even fairly small regions: I may feel I ‘belong’ to Willesden, Brent or London, but it’s just that: a feeling within me. And whilst it’s probably obvious to most people that we need to feel we ‘belong’ to some sort of community – or communities – why does it need to be geographic?
In fact, I would argue that to place the focus on geography is profoundly limiting. Not only does it creates needless tension against immigration but – ultimately – isn’t it lonelier to be restricted to a far smaller pool of people in which to find others who share interests, outlooks and activities? Transport, urbanisation and communication – especially online – provide the tools to overcome the harsh limits of geography whilst providing for all-important real world interaction. Does this mean that people and families are less committed to their immediate neighbourhoods leading to a suffering in community life, as Easton suggests? Well only if you equate ‘immediate neighbourhoods’ with ‘community life’ it does. But if the evidence is that immediate neighbourhoods are less important to people than previously then why is this such a problem?
(Incidentally, if you’re looking for causes as to why this is supposedly* happening, may I draw you away from the wild conspiracies floating around and – for once – suggest that class is actually a pretty relevant factor. Research suggests that the middle class tends to maintain a more diverse range of close contacts from different areas of life – school, university, work, random-guy-I-met-online and so on – and it’s hardly news to suggest that recent decades have seen a big expansion of the middle class.)
*I say ‘supposedly’ because you could probably have written this story at any point over the past couple of centuries.
"Does this mean that people and families are less committed to their immediate neighbourhoods leading to a suffering in community life … ? Well only if you equate ‘immediate neighbourhoods’ with ‘community life’ … "
Yes. I think the ‘problem’ – in terms of what I wrote – is that people don’t know their next-door neighbours, don’t have an immediate neighbourhood community. The result of this is isolation, a lack of safety nets in the form of neighbourhood watches, housing associations (our own has declined to almost nothing in my lifetime), someone to check on you if your fire alarm goes off, etc. I don’t know *anyone* who can rely on their neighbours for anything from a cup of sugar to kid-watching to calling the ambulance for you when you’re having a heart attack.
Mama and I have this conversation at least once a year. We agree that over-the-garden-fence chat has been largely replaced by reality TV. We are still fascinated by other people’s business, but we watch it on the box (and then maybe blog about it or something ).
I’m not decrying other forms of community, whether online or spiritual or academic or whatever. They’re a fulfilling part of my life too. But they shouldn’t be your only community. You shouldn’t be living in a situation where you don’t know your physical neighbour. I’m coming out and saying it now: yes, you ought to have strong local community. I believe a LOT of societal problems can be solved/improved this way.
It is interesting to note how a lot of the BBC article and indeed your blog is written from a very London-centric / city-centric view (obviously).
Where I live this ‘community spirit’ is still live and kicking, and I’m not sure whether anyone can say it’s good or bad. Yes, it’s nice that I know my neighbours intimately and consider some of them almost like family. It’s also nice to have someone to look out for us and our house when we’re away, for example, and borrow cups of sugar from and so on and so forth. However, you can’t say this extreme intertwining of neighbours’ lives is necessarily a perfect way of community living. It fosters bad trends (I don’t really want to go into the generic views of my local area) and people seem to start believing they have a right to discuss and interfere with the genuinely private lives of others – a problem experienced by my family personally.
However, it’s too simplistic to separate community living as it is demonstrated in my hometown as a reflection of the ‘golden age’ of housewives chatting in their front gardens, or as something that needs to be pushed out in favour of progress, progress, progress.
My opinion is that society really doesn’t need fixing, and that goes for my society of neighbourly contact and city society of comparable solitude. Neighbourly contact and community is simply just a feature of different areas and the dynamics change as soon as a neighbourhood change. For me, Longbridge Rover was the glue that joined my community together and now it’s gone I’m quite excited to see how my village will develop, with or without that neighbourly contact. It really isn’t as important as the BBC feature tries to make out, and my experience of various people living in various different kinds of community (city versus village community living etc.) is that most people find a way to be perfectly happy within every different circumstance.
I can think of lots and lots of people on our street with which we’d be comfortable helping each other out, lending a cup of sugar, watching kids, feeding pets etc and we do do these things quite often. Maybe our road’s just a crazy outlier or village-ness in the middle of London?
(No, Tash, I think you’re right and it’s not at all unusual! But I suppose it’s still pretty far removed from a ‘strong local community’ – not that it’s a weak one, but just that the bonds are relatively loose and don’t cover everyone in one unit?)
Hmm… I have to say that I adore the anonymity of London. The fact that no one I don’t choose to know I’m alive does (ouch grammatical construction) excites me. I love just disappearing in the human throng of, for example, the tube. I don’t know who my neighbours are, and frankly, I’m relieved. I am aware that I’m weird….
I guess that historically being part of a community has never meant that everyone liked every one else.
For most of our history we were hunter gathering tribes, perhaps a band of on average around 100 individuals.
Within that tribe there would be lovers, there would be rivals, there would those who bore grudges, those who would cheat, those who would lead, and those with conditions such as schizophrenia.
Our brains are still wired up to behave as social apes but it seems the big difference between us and our ancestors is that the "outsiders" among us can survive more easily than those born into those ancestral hunter gatherering communities.
What baffled me about the BBC survey was its conclusion that areas with a high student population have the lowest social cohesion. From what I remember, especially of collegiate life, there are few communities better connected than a university.