The Social Brain team has been brainstorming ideas for new projects recently. One idea that came up was to do some work developing ‘civic chat up lines’. Making connections with people around us is a key ingredient in our wellbeing, so being able to start conversations with strangers is surely a useful skill. Avoiding doing so in a way which makes the recipient of your chat up line think you’re weird or feel their space is being invaded is obviously of some importance. The writer and director Miranda July addressed this subject in the Guardian this weekend, but I’m not going to recommend testing what she suggests as I think grabbing hold of the nearest stranger by the arm might not lead to the kind of meaningful and rewarding social encounter we’d like to promote. So, how do you start a conversation with a stranger?
I’m a Northerner, where, by reputation, everyone chats to strangers all the time, and people generally are much friendlier than in an anonymous city like London. Having spent the last few years living in Manchester, I arrived in London to take up my job at the RSA in September, and in the six weeks or so since I’ve been here, I’ve actually had several encounters which have gone quite a long way to subverting the stereotype of Londoners being standoffish and aloof. Walking back to the office after popping out for coffee one afternoon, I was stopped in the street by a man who noticed my RSA lanyard and asked if I worked there. This led to a brief chat about how beautiful the house is, and what it’s like to work at the RSA. Sure enough, the fact that this conversation had taken place gave me a good, warm feeling of connectedness. At a lunchtime concert a few weekends ago, I got talking to someone in the queue for coffee who had the same bike pannier as me. We continued chatting and discovered we had overlapping research interests and exchanged email addresses so we could share resources. One morning on the bus I overheard two women having an animated chat, and would have assumed they were firm friends until one of them got up to get off the bus and exclaimed how nice it was to meet the other, and the two introduced themselves. I don’t know how their conversation started, but it was obvious that both of them had enjoyed it very much. So, connections between strangers are clearly possible, even in a metropolis like London.
The internet has made communicating with strangers routine for many of us, whether it’s on Twitter, or through commenting on blogs or news stories. Kristin Hugo writes effusively about making connections with strangers through lift share websites, and resources like Couch Surfing. In these cases, the ice is broken by making a specific arrangement over the internet, which then leads to meeting in person. Online communication on its own is just not the same as face to face interaction, and doesn’t reach the same places as making connections in the flesh. Sociologist Theodore Zeldin says that as we live in the technological age, our need for real conversation is ever more pressing. His foundation, The Oxford Muse, organises events in which complete strangers are invited to a public place and then paired up. The pairs select topics from a ‘conversation menu’ and engage in discussion which is designed to take them beyond the superficial, with the exchanges typically lasting two hours.
Depending on your disposition, this might sound like a lot of fun or the most excruciating ghastliness imaginable. Either way, it does sound rather time consuming. But, my recent experience demonstrates that a question or point of common interest are pretty effective as conversation starters, and the effect of talking to strangers is certainly gratifying. Why not give it a go? And do let me know if you’ve got any good chat up lines…
One of the main reasons that older people give for not going online is that “people like them” don’t using the Internet. No amount of free computers or cut priced broadband will change that. That’s why Race Online 2012, the organisation that is pushing to get more of us online, constantly uses examples of older people using the Internet as a key way of encouraging other older people to go online. If people feel that it is normal for people like them to do something, then it is very easy for them to do it.
I recently interviewed a middle aged woman, let’s call her Lynn. She explained to me that she does not have enough time to be involved in her local community. She said that she would love to volunteer but she has so many other responsibilities that she just can’t find the time. She seemed to regret not being able to volunteer and, more importantly, she seemed to be somewhat ashamed. I think she felt like she should volunteer and that I might disapprove of her for not volunteering.
The more Lynn spoke the more amazed I became at the range of things she did, in her community. As well as working full time she also looks after her dad on Saturdays, her mum on Sundays and various grandchildren 3 nights a week. She also helps neighbours write letters to officials and has a regular drink with her neighbour whose husband died recently.
Lynn doesn’t volunteer in the way we normally understand the word. However, she does an incredible amount to improve the lives of those around her. In fact, the strain this had on her was obvious to see. She told me that she feels like she never has any time for herself and she takes medication for depression.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons
Why does Lynn feel like she should give more to her local community? Why does she feel ashamed by how little she is doing, when she is doing so much? Perhaps the answer can be found in our stereotype of the volunteer.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons.
For Lynn, volunteers are not “people like me”. They are people who can afford to give their time to others for free, expecting to get nothing back apart from perhaps a sense of satisfaction.
Under the banner of the Big Society, the government has made a number of recommendations and exhortations to increase the amount of volunteering in Britain. According to Ipsos MORI the number of hours that people say they volunteer has remained constant for decades now, despite various governments’ best efforts. I am sure I am not alone in being sceptical about the potential of current government initiatives to increase this number.
There is a risk though that exhortations from the government for us to volunteer more will make people like Lynn feel slightly more ashamed.
The government could take a different approach; recognising and celebrating the contribution that people like Lynn make, so that others find it easier to contribute to their community in the way that Lynn does.
On 5th May British citizens will be asked to vote on their preferred voting system; First Past the Post (FPTP) or the Alternative Vote (AV). One of the boldest claims that the proponents of the AV make is that it will give voters “a stronger voice”.
If this were true (I have no idea if it is true I’m afraid) it would be an attractive offer to a lot of people. According to the Citizenship Survey just over a third (37 per cent) of the UK adult population believes they can influence decisions in their local area whereas almost three quarters (73 per cent) feel that it is important to have an influence and 44 per cent said they would like to be more involved in decisions made by councils affecting their local area.
Of course voting is only one part of this problem. There are a number of ways that we can influence the world around us ranging from voting to campaigning to getting out our brooms and cleaning the pavements ourselves.
The government has recognised this and have announced that they will fund the training of 5,000 community organisers; to act as “catalysts for community action at the neighbourhood level”. This has proved to be a controversial decision. There are even those who argue that community organisers should never take money from any government, ever.
Tessy Britton has written a couple of blog posts (here and here) with an interesting take on these questions. I think she is arguing that an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) (http://abcdeurope.ning.com/) approach is preferable to an Alsinky style community organising approach if you want to build stronger communities.
You might crudely boil the question down to; “do we want to run projects or campaigns?”
I think the discussion can usefully be split into three parts (As Matthew Taylor has written it always seems to be three parts…); building campaigns, building stronger communities and building more empowered communities.
The main achievement that the London Citizens like to boast about is their success in securing the ‘London Living Wage’ for a number of workers, for example cleaners at major banks. This campaign used a number of classic Alinsky style techniques including focusing their campaign on one individual (normally the CEO of the bank in question).
These campaigns are able to achieve certain types of change. They are good at changing the practices of organisations that benefit from a community but are not rooted in that community (e.g. slum landlords, employers that pay low wages etc…).
Building Stronger Communities
The Alinsky model for community organising brings together existing organisations (e.g. churches, trade unions etc…) and gets them to focus on campaigning. Part of Tessy’s argument is that this approach is not conducive to building better connected, creative and stronger communities. Since the campaigns are designed around conflict and attack there is little space for creative collaboration. Instead, she argues that we should use an approach that brings people together in shared spaces in a way that celebrates and builds on those things that people already value. An example she gives of the type of project she supports is the People’s Supermarket.
This type of approach can be very successful, especially in areas that have a large amount of “hidden wealth” i.e. community assets (broadly defined), that can be connected or mobilised.
Building Empowered Communities
This suggests the tricky question; which of these approaches will give people the influence that they seem to want and that AV is promising?
Alinsky’s supporters point towards visible changes that happen directly as a result of their campaigns, whereas the ABCD enthusiasts point to the spontaneous emergence of new projects that arise out of their approach.
You will have to make your own mind up on this question. However, I do see a deeper similarity between the approaches than might be apparent.
Both approaches rely on building and utilising relationships within communities.
The Alinsky model works on the assumption that there are more or less formal associations already in existence within a given area. The organiser’s job is to bring these associations together, to connect the connectors, with a sense of purpose.
The ABCD model also tries to make new connections, although these are often between individuals rather than formal associations. Once these connections have been made the creative collaboration can take place.
One might even speculate that a community organiser using the Alinsky method would be much more successful if they worked in an area that had benefited from one of Tessy’s Traveling Pantries than if they worked in an area where there was much weaker levels of social connection.
But perhaps I am drawing connections where none exist?
Richard Nixon once said “People react to fear, not love; they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.” Perhaps this explains why David Cameron had so much more popular success with his idea of Broken Britain than with his idea of The Big Society.
There are plenty of approaches to solving community level problems which stress the importance of identifying problems and designing solutions to those problems (for example the LEAP method).
There are also a number of approaches which seek to identify what is good about a community and to build on that. Examples include appreciative enquiry, asset based community development and positive deviance. Tessy Britton’s Travelling Pantry project would be an excellent example of this type of approach.
The RSA’s Connected Communities project is commencing work in 7 areas of England to see if projects built on an understanding of local social networks can improve people’s well being. We are trying to ensure that we do not use a “deficit model” of these areas and instead build on each area’s “hidden wealth”
One of the areas will be the Wick estate in Littlehampton. Some people speak poorly of the estate and the area scores badly on many of the measures that the government uses for the index of multiple deprivation.
I went for a walk around the estate with a local resident and a council employee. Regular readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive me if I go in to some detail about what I found.
One of the first stops we came to was the Wickbourne Centre.
From the outside it looks slightly foreboding but inside there was a great deal of activity. A busy coffee shop selling very cheap drinks and snacks and dozens of toddlers happily causing chaos as their parents (mostly mums) watched on. The building is run by a local church and was paid for through the government’s SureStart scheme.
One of the workers from the church explained to me that they run Alpha courses at the centre. These are rehab courses for men coming out of prison. ‘Alpha’ here has religious connotations as well as meaning something like “top dog”.
As well as the Wickbourne Centre there is a youth centre
And a drop-in centre for young people
The staff at the youth centre were quite suspicious of us. They asked me what I knew about the forthcoming cuts. I suppose that I seemed like a member of the establishment to them.
A couple of people told me that the youth centre used to be run by a local milkman. Back then it had seemed very welcoming. However, allegations had been made against him and it was now run on much more formal lines.
I was surprised to find out that there is only one, modestly sized, pub in the estate.
There used to be more pubs but these have closed down. People told me that there are lots of informal drinking establishments.
The local shopping parade was not particularly noteworthy
Walking along the parade did bring out a bit of nostalgia in one of my guides. He explained to me that when he was growing up the local shops would let you buy bread on trust and would tell your mum you had been in. Now they were much more likely to be chains with little local connection.
One of the most visible signs of public investment in the area is the new housing.
There is a mix of tenures in the area but the council is still a major landlord. Some of the properties are empty and there are active discussions to turn one of them into a space for community use.
One of my guides explained to me that there are people in the area known as “mums”. These are people who have an open house which teenagers can come into to get away from things (including drugs). One of the ideas for the converted flat was to be a sort of official mum; a place of quiet and solitude for anyone to retreat to.
Many of the people we talked to made reference to the rivalry with Worthing. I was told that this rivalry could be seen in the outrageous refereeing of football matches between the two towns. Someone told me that he had been sent off for “aggressive shrugging”.
The people I spoke to in the Wick were quite clear that there were problems. People mentioned problems with drink, drugs, unemployment, anti-social behaviour, stigma and insufficient public services. However, people were much keener to talk about what they liked about the area.
When I asked people “what do you like most about the Wick?” they invariably said “the people”.
I would not want to draw any dramatic conclusions from any of this.
As I walked around I kept thinking of a quote from King Lear; “Nothing will come of nothing” Perhaps policy makers are too quick to assume that deprived areas have nothing to recommend them. This leads to a desire to introduce solutions to these areas; Enterprise Zones or New Deal for Communities depending on your politics. This tendency needs to be balanced with an understanding of what is good and valuable in these areas and how this can be connected, galvanised and enhanced.
Whatever you think of the content of Cameron’s speech, the written form of the speech is pretty striking. Most points are expressed in single or double lines, with three line points being the exception, and one or two deviant ideas spilling over into four lines.
It seems the key not to dwell on one point for too long. I am not sure what to think about this yet, but the next time you listen for a political speech, look out for this structure of sentences without paragraphs, ideas without qualifications, facts without sources.
Who writes his speeches?
Is this particular to Cameron, or are all political speeches written this way?
If so, why?
Does it make them easier to deliver?
Does it make them sound better to the audience?
Should we be worried that speech writers filter political ideas in this way?
Is it part of our the relentless dumbing down of political culture?
Is there an rhetoric expert out there who can enlighten us?
This post was prompted by a very interesting article by Jonah Lehrer in which he brings together two recent papers on how a city’s population size affects the lives of its inhabitants. In the first, theoretical physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt demonstrate that the inhabitants of a city will, on average, produce and enjoy around 15% more of almost everything – from the trademarks and patents they register, to the local restaurants they can visit, to the income they earn – than the inhabitants of another city that is half its size. They also show that it isn’t just the nice things in life that scale in this way: negative variables from murder to bedbugs also increase exponentially with population size. This isn’t a surprise in itself: as Lehrer says, city dwellers understand and accept this trade-off between the good and the bad aspects of urban life. What we didn’t necessarily appreciate is the high level of consistency between and predictability of these variations.
The second paper is by Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School. These researchers looked at the incidence of prosocial behaviour, such as organ donation, voting and helping strangers, and how this varies with city size. In contrast to West and Bettencourt’s strikingly consistent results, they found no one statistical rule to describe variation in all types of prosocial behaviour; instead, different activities increased or decreased at different rates as city size changed.
This contrast is interesting. If people’s behaviour and experience in cities is predictable in so many ways – registering more patents and doing more shoplifting; having access to more restaurants and encountering more bedbugs – why should the same not apply to helping strangers on the street and giving money to political campaigns? What makes prosocial behaviour different and less predictable than other forms of behaviour?
One answer might be that in general the predictable factors of urban life both support and suppress a city dweller’s propensity to behave prosocially, and that more specifically an individual’s inclination to carry out a particular type of prosocial behaviour is influenced by his or her reaction to the combination of the factors he or she encounters.
Engaging in prosocial behaviour requires the opportunity and desire to cooperate with and consider the needs of others. West and Bettencourt’s research shows that larger cities certainly provide us with a greater desire and more opportunities to cooperate – for our own ends, at least. But it also shows that living in a city strengthens forces that prevent us from engaging with and caring about others, especially strangers.
Different people will react to these competing forces in different ways. A higher reported murder rate will induce varying levels of fear of crime in a local population, which in turn will deter some from going out of their way to help strangers more than others. A more cooperative environment will encourage varying levels of political discussion and debate, which will make some more interested and involved in politics than others. And that more cooperative environment may trump a fear of crime and encourage engagement with strangers, or a fear of crime may increase cynicism and disengagement from politics – or the opposite may be true.
All this would mean that, for a city as a whole, while the strength of productive and disruptive forces might be closely and broadly related to the size of the population, the combined influence of these forces on different types of prosocial behaviour will be much less consistent and predictable. Perhaps that’s why measuring and encouraging prosocial behaviour is so difficult, and why it needs more attention. It is important, after all, even if there is no convenient magic rule to describe it.
Do the ends justify the means?
There has been much discussion recently on how to get more people to volunteer but how important a goal is this? How much would we be willing to sacrifice to see this goal achieved? My guess is that the answer for most people would be “not much”.
Matthew Taylor has written on his misgivings on what he calls “involunteering” i.e. forcing people to volunteer.
I am certainly not saying that we should hope for either, however, these observations do raise lots of questions about how much of a goal increased volunteering really is.
Indeed, perhaps one of the (many) PR problems with Cameron’s idea of The Big Society is that it appears to be both a means (reforming public services, training community organisers etc…) and an end (people feeling more responsible for their area and more empowered). Without making this split clear it’s hard for us to debate which means we are or are not willing to tolerate for which ends.
The news that Nat Wei, the Government’s advisor on the Big Society, wants to spend more time in paid work and with his friends and family, and less time volunteering as the Big Society Tsar has lead to much gloating.
Some of this ridicule is just the rough and tumble associated with being a public figure in a country that loves cutting people down to size.
However, some have seen this episode as an “allegory” of the impossibility of building the Big Society. As Polly Curtis writes in the Guardian “people don’t have time to run a public service on top of holding down a job and seeing their families”.
Nat Wei himself has replied to these criticisms, saying that the Big Society “is about much more than volunteering – it’s about helping people to take control over their lives, however much time they have”.
I think that the episode does tell us something interesting about the prospects for building more empowered communities in the UK but I don’t think that it has much to do with how much free time we have.
In fact, as repeated surveys have found, we currently spend, on average, three to four hours a day watching tv or dvds, and 15 minutes doing voluntary work. Having more free time does not make it easier to volunteer. Unemployed people are less likely to volunteer than people in work, even though they clearly have more “free” time.
This incident does not tell us much about the impossibility of more people volunteering, since it is quite plain that more people could volunteer more of their time than they do currently. The fact that he will still be volunteering two days a week is quite impressive.
What I take from this episode is the importance of the labour market and the lack of any serious comment on how the labour market should be reformed as part of efforts to build the Big Society.
Another article in the Guardian today looks at the labour market in Morpeth. We are told that one unemployed person is “overqualified for the few public sector, minimum-wage posts that are available – a support worker in a local care home, a contract cleaner for the council, a census collector.”
Why does he not want to do these jobs? They seem to be perfectly noble lines of work.
Dan Pink has found that people are happier and more productive at work if they have autonomy, develop mastery and work in an organisation with a sense of purpose. I would bet that these low paid jobs are not attractive partly because they are low paid, but also because they do not give workers much of a feeling of autonomy, mastery or a sense of purpose.
Whoever came up with the phrase “work/life balance” has a lot to answer for. The idea that our paid work must be something we endure in order to pay for activities that we enjoy seems a horrifying thought, especially given that we spend most of our time working, sleeping and watching TV.
If the Government were serious about giving people control over their lives then it would be contemplating ways of reforming the labour market so that people’s experience of work is itself empowering.
A recent poll found that more people agreed than disagreed with the principles behind the Big Society but thought that the Government’s policies to build this society had little chance of working. Partly, this is good old fashioned British cynicism, but it must also be a recognition of the major structural barriers that prevent people having more control over their lives and the Government’s lack of appetite to confront these barriers.
After writing about the challenge of building the Big Society in the context of economic austerity, it became clear to me that any discourse about the Big Society had to be framed in this particular British early twenty-first century context, and not in abstract.
But between concrete and abstract there is allegory, and the following parallel occurred to me.
JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and creator of Middle Earth, conceived of the Shire, the home of the hobbits, as a gentle, rural, and quintessentially English place, like the West Midlands before industrialisation and perhaps not dissimilar to a tory heartland like Buckinghamshire, the kind of place where David Cameron was bred.
The Shire is a land of plenty, with a flourishing civil society, no state to speak of, and lots of informal mutual support. The Shire embodies the principles of minimal government and localism and barely even needed law enforcement, because it was a voluntarily orderly society. The only government services were the Message Service (the post) and the Watch, the police, whose officers were called Shirriffs, and whose chief duties involved rounding up stray livestock.
Mordor, on the other hand, is the home of Sauron ‘the accursed’, the nazgul, and innmuerable orcs. In fact it’s so bad it’s called dying land not yet dead”. The vegetation clinging to life in this area of Mordor included “low scrubby trees”, “coarse grey grass-tussocks”, “withered mosses”, “great writhing, tangled brambles”, and thickets of briars…Not a happy place.
Mordor is all but barren, the orcs are slaves and resources are not well distributed. Things may not be that bad here, at least not yet, but our conditions are arguably closer to Mordor than the Shire.
A recent NEF report argued that the problem with the Big Society is that the severity of public and third sector cuts militates against all of the best things about the Big Society. Joining groups, volunteering, becoming more politically active and collectively solving social problems all sounds great, but such things require social and economic foundations that may not be available.
So perhaps, at an allegorical level, the challenge of the Big Society is as follows:
Is it possible to build the Shire in Mordor?
Is the Big Society a challenge to the left, and specifically the Labour Party?
I think that it is a challenge for three reasons (you always have to have three reasons);
- Big Society rhetoric argues that there is more to life than paid work
- In arguing for the Big Society politicians are daring to politicise our “free” time, and tell us what we should do with it
- In supporting Big Society initiatives Government is saying that it is legitimate to use state money to fire people up so that they will change the world
These three points are in quite stark contrast with the previous Labour government which behaved as though paid work was of supreme importance, that whatever we did with our free time was our own business and that government should reflect the attitudes of the age.
It is quite dispiriting to see supposedly left wing critics of the Big Society arguing that they would rather sit at home and watch tv (as Mehdi Hasan did recently), but that is the strange situation we find ourselves in.