Although it’s fashionable to bemoan the collapse of traditional communities in Britain and the consequent loss of what social scientists have come to call social capital, we should be wary of accepting this bold story at face value. For a start, the UK has not suddenly become an individualist nation—individualism has deep historic roots in the Protestant Reformation, roots that were further strengthened by the early adoption of market economics across large swathes of British society.
Even bodies that grew up to resist the logic of market atomization, such as trade unions and cooperative societies, often preached collectivism as the only way in which their members could hope to enjoy the individual freedom and personal autonomy that others took for granted.
The cosy, close-knit vision of community we project on to the recent past is a myth. Yes, poverty and close proximity obliged neighbours to look out for one another, but privacy remained jealously guarded, relations with neighbours were often fraught, and reliance on strangers, as opposed to family, was widely seen as a last resort.
In recent years, my research has focused on re-analyzing the surviving field notes and interview transcripts from a range of historic social science projects conducted between the late 1940s and the late 2000s. Interrogating original testimony from the forties and early fifties demonstrates that the motto of many living in tight-knit, working-class communities like Bermondsey and Bethnal Green—so often held up as the epitome of “traditional” Cockney London—was always “we keep ourselves to ourselves, and then we can’t get into trouble,” as one Bermondsey labourer put it. The famous sociologist Michael Young heard the phrase so often during his research for Family and Kinship in East London (1957) that he simply wrote “Again!” in his notes after a Bethnal Green housewife told him that “[you’re] better off if you keep yourself to yourself”. For many, the demands of forced community were a burden to be managed, rather than something to be celebrated.
In the years after the Second World War, people came increasingly to question the dictates of custom and tradition. Millions leapt at the opportunity to escape the close-quartered, face-to-face communities of Victorian Britain, where everyone knew each other’s business.
But this was not a rejection of community per se. Rather, it represented an attempt to find new ways of living better suited to the modern world. In the process, community became increasingly personal and voluntary, based on genuine affection rather than proximity or need. Contrary to the claims of the doomsayers, we have actually never been better connected or better able to sustain the relationships that matter to us than we are today.
Contrary to the claims of the doomsayers, we have actually never been better connected or better able to sustain the relationships that matter to us than we are today.
The desire to reconcile personal independence with social connectedness is in many ways the defining feature of English popular culture in the modern age. But this reconciliation is not easy to achieve. Many struggle to find a happy balance in their lives between self and society. In turn, policy-makers have also struggled successfully to reconcile the potentially competing claims of individualism and community, especially since the 1980s. But the fact that so many profess to lament the current bias towards materialism and narrow self-interest, and mobilize powerful narratives about the death of community to underscore their dissatisfaction, reminds us that the ascendency of economic liberalism may not be as securely based as we often imagine.
What we need is concerted, joined-up policy designed to facilitate social connection at the grassroots level. Much is already happening, notably in the help offered to local groups to run community resources like pubs and shops and in the heightened awareness of loneliness, but this will count for little if we don’t stop the decline of other vital community facilities such as libraries, parks, sports fields and civic space itself (all too often ceded to private developers in recent decades). Popular individualism and the powerful urge for personal independence will always limit the scope for grand, top-down plans to build community, but if policy makers, public bodies and voluntary groups work with the grain of popular culture, and focus instead on systematically providing the diverse contexts within which social connection can flourish on the ground, much can still be achieved.
People have long sought to reconcile autonomy with social connection—self and society. It is high time that we valued and nurtured the new groups and forms of sociability that have developed in recent decades, rather than bemoaning the passing of a largely mythic version of community.
Featured image credit: Image owned by Jon Lawrence. Used with permission.