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Have personal communities replaced geographical communities?

Professor R.E. Pahl (ISER, University of Essex)

I am honoured and delighted by the invitation to give this year’s Eila Campbell Lecture. However, it has prompted something of an identity crisis: can I still claim to be a member of the geography tribe, since it is now some 50 years since I read historical geography at Cambridge? I then defined my specialism as ‘economic and social history with maps’ - which probably indicated that I was already drifting off message. I think it may have been Frank Debenham who remarked that ‘geography is about maps and history is about chaps’. My perception of contemporary geography is that it is now very much more about chaps (taking that term to be gender neutral) as well as maps. But certainly my undergraduate experience provides me with some empathy with Eila Campbell’s life work. Although our academic paths didn’t cross, I was impressed to learn that, like a good ethnographer, she had a rapport with the cleaners, secretaries and porters at Birkbeck, and she said that she could discover more about University departments from them, than from Professors, senior lecturers and other academic staff. Certainly she seemed to be a person after my own heart.

But, to address the theme of this evening’s lecture: I suspect many of you have been irritated by my title. It is suggested that something vague is being replaced by something not yet defined. Literally, my title is nonsense - if by geographical communities I mean simply ‘places’ with no implied assumption about what might go on socially within them. Clearly places, or milieux, don’t get replaced. But what goes on within them may be changing, or there may be changes but these do not ‘replace’ anything but simply add further dimensions.

I want to begin by considering the reality, as opposed to the myth, of historical communities, and then go on to argue that traditional working-class communities of fate are being replaced by middle-class communities of choice and limited liability, and how personal communities are an essential element of belonging.

Leaving aside the virtually meaningless uses of the term ‘community’ whether ‘global’, ‘western’, ‘Muslim’, ‘British’ or ‘academic’, most people in England nevertheless find it hard to escape from an idealised and probably sentimental notion of a ‘village community’, in which everyone is linked in a form of ‘mechanical solidarity’, in Durkheim’s term, and held together by some archetypal gemeinschaft. Indeed, that was the notion that Emrys Jones, perhaps unwittingly, encouraged me to have as a graduate student at the LSE, when he advised me to read Alwyn Rees’ classic study of a Montgomeryshire parish ‘Life in a Welsh Countryside’. Rees appeared to want to retain an essential Welsh culture through the distinctive sets of social relationships that emerged in relative isolation. However, Emrys Jones also alerted me to the danger of equating geographical isolation with social isolation. He had spoken with old men in Tregaron who knew the haunts of Soho and the area round Smithfield Market very well. The drovers of Wales had travelled from the most remote and isolated settlements taking their livestock to market for hundreds of years. One of my geography lecturers at Cambridge, Tony Wrigley, has calculated that, between 1650 and 1750, one adult in six in England had had direct experience of London life and he suggested that ‘this must have acted as a powerful solvent of customs, practices and modes of action of traditional rural England’.

But if geographical isolation did not necessarily coincide with social isolation, perhaps it served to generate the social solidarity and cohesion that is part of the folklore of traditional communities? Many historians doubt this: for example, in The Origins of English Individualism, Alan Macfarlane remarks ‘however one defined ‘community’ there was relatively little of it in the villages…as far back as the sixteenth century’. Likewise Lawrence Stone suggested that in the ‘face-to-face society’ of the traditional village, ‘it was possible for expressions of hatred to reach levels of frequency, intensity and duration which are rarely seen today, except in similar close-knit groups like Fellows of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges’!

This hostility, based on geographical propinquity often turned into open violence between feuding families so that in Stone’s memorable phrase, ‘The family that slayed together, stayed together’!

One of the great insights that has been developed by sociologists such as Georg Simmel and anthropologists such as Evans Pritchard and Max Gluckman, is the way that social cohesion is developed through social conflict. Current attempts to close cottage hospitals or primary schools will turn geographical propinquity into social cohesion. However, when the threat is withdrawn or defeated, all the old feuds and animosities will return.

This endemic violence in the so-called ‘traditional’ communities of pre-industrial England may seem surprising to some. The contemporary turf wars amongst young people in British cities may have deeper roots than many imagine. I remember the hostility expressed towards another Cambridge village when I was teaching a University Extra-Mural class in the early 1960s. When I tried to explore the reasons for this aggression, the students justified themselves by saying that the other village was on the other side during the war. It took me a few minutes to realise that they meant the English Civil war!

Perhaps it is not always remembered that, back in the 1960s, the notion of a place-based community was largely applied to the working class. The occupational communities that developed through the nineteenth century were based on tin smelting, coal mining, ship-building, railway works, steel making, pottery, textiles and so on. The people that were there stayed there: skill and local knowledge were directly related to the geographically specific industry or occupation. As Josephine Klein put it ‘In a community in which everyone is in the same boat, or where in most people’s lifetime outrageous fortune visits all more or less equally, mutual help is possible, because of a general feeling that it will be mutual. Tomorrow you may need help, today you give it’ (137). This inevitability of mutuality under-pinned the development of Friendly Societies, Co-operatives, Working Men’s Clubs and the community focussed activities of the non-conformist churches.

From Engels’ account of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 to Young and Willmott’s account of Family and Community in East London in the 1950s, the focus of almost all journalistic, statistical and sociological reporting was on working-class communities. I cannot emphasise this strongly enough. The study of community for over a century was largely the study of working-class communities based on specific occupations and industries. It is really quite hard to get any detailed sociological accounts of middle-class life before the middle of the last century. Of course there is plenty of fictional and biographical material, but that is overwhelmingly focused on an individual’s friends, family and career. One delightful source is the Trilogy by M. Vivian Hughes A London Family 1870–1900 in which there is a photograph of their home No. 1 Canonbury Park North. Vivian Hughes writes:

‘Londoners have no neighbours. During our 15 years in the one house we never had the slightest acquaintance with our “semi-detached”, nor with the people round although we knew several by sight and gave them nicknames. A very few became known to us through the vicar, the school master and the doctor’ (p77).

One reason for the lack of any great understanding of a specifically middle-class involvement in community is that, up to the beginning of World War I, their numbers were very small. The geographical expansion of the middle class in the suburbs of the 1920s and 1930s was not based on an ideology of place-based community, although there were some exceptions, for example, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. As Ross McGibbon put it:

‘The extreme separation of work from home, which in the interwar years became increasingly characteristic of middle-class life and which meant that many spent up to three hours a day travelling, necessarily narrowed the possibilities of social life: sociability became not so much impossible, as confined to circumscribed parts of the week and inevitably almost always ‘unspontaneous’. Furthermore, the ‘suburbanisation’ of middle-class England increasingly divorced the home physically from the usual foci of social life – from shops, theatres, cinemas (despite their proliferation), and other places of entertainment, pubs (to the extent that the middle classes went to them), clubs and associations…The social separation of men from work and the physical separation of men and women from collective life or informal sociability became, therefore, a fact of middle-class life – as it was later to become a fact of much working class life.’ (Ross McGibbon Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 p.81)

Hence it was that, in the 1950s, it was recognised by planners that suburban sprawl was not ‘a good thing’. The middle class were being deprived of ‘community’. The publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy in 1957 showing the strengths of ‘traditional’ working-class communities coincided with Young and Willmott’s nostalgic celebration of working-class family life. No one really questioned whether this kind of community is what the expanding middle class would aspire to.

The strong tradition of working-class communal life in geographical locations has little parallel in the middle class. Traditionally, the middle class had an acute awareness of status distinctions, popularly dismissed as snobbishness. In the post-war period there was some kind of yearning for a greater sense of community and, given the wealth of nostalgia and romanticism attached to ‘village life’, it was not surprising that in reaction to ‘soulless suburbia’ more affluent middle-class commuters moved into rural areas. The geographical and sociological consequences of this are what I described in my Hertfordshire research of the 1960s. I tried to show how the middle-class moved into villages in search of community and, by their very presence, helped to destroy whatever ‘traditional’ community was already there.

However, there have been huge changes over the past half-century. The bases of working-class occupational communities have all but disappeared and a large middle-mass has covered the old working-class / middle-class divide. What is the significance of geographical place in a context of globalisation and widespread mobility? Has a new form of community replaced one based on industries such as ship-building, mining, textiles and so on? This is a matter on which there is much debate amongst geographers and sociologists. The notion that those born and bred in an area, who all went to school together, married each other and continue to work in the area, have some kind of moral superiority over incomers, who are resented if they do not conform to social norms, is no longer the dominant paradigm. A more affluent society, largely based on the service sector, has to have a different conception of community than one based on common fate. People now prefer to live in communities of choice rather than communities of fate.

At about the same time as I was studying the middle-class migrants into Hertfordshire villages, another movement was taking place in inner London. Large Victorian houses in places such as Islington, which were run-down and often in multi-occupation, were being taken over and turned into comfortable single family homes. In 1964 Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ to describe this process of colonisation, and this term has been widely adopted all over the world from Sydney to New York. An article in the Financial Times earlier this month discussed the likely consequences of the opening of the extension of the East London Line. ‘Gentrification’ and consequent increases in house prices are predicted for Dalston, following an influx of young professionals.

This process of gentrification, as it affects inner London, has been the subject of some detailed and fascinating research by geographers and sociologists over the past 20 years. Early colonisers often referred to the social advantages of living in a more varied and vibrant ‘community’ and I want to make some remarks on the implications of this colonisation for the development and maintenance of geographical places as significant social entities, more generally.

I want to argue that, in the light of recent research, the term ‘gentrification’ is inaccurate and misleading. The gentry was historically defined in terms of its established social standing. The entry in the OED for ‘gentry’ refers to ‘conduct characteristic of a person of gentle birth’ - showing a politeness of manner and magnanimity as evidence of their good breeding. Ever since Elizabethan times the gentry provided a crucial element in the government of rural England. They sat on the local bench, dispensing rough and ready justice to the lower orders and carried out a variety of other responsibilities, such as licensing public houses. They oversaw the operation of the Poor Law, officered the local yeomanry and they and their wives promoted charitable efforts among the poor. There was, of course, a common link to the land: tenants and labourers alike recognised the role of the gentry. However, as Professor Harrison has remarked:

‘None of these duties was pursued to the point where it might become burdensome. A landed gentleman’s life was essentially a life of leisure…doing the things that pleased him’. (p. 92)

If we are to take the term ‘gentrification’ with its putative social connotations seriously, then we ought to expect its expansion in London to have produced substantial social benefits. We might expect that the newcomers would provide active social involvement and leadership in places which, before their arrival, suffered various forms of social, economic and environmental disadvantage. The privileged newcomers would bring a whole range of professional skills and understanding which, coupled with a contemporary version of the responsibility associated with the old gentry, might help to make inner city geographical places into social communities.

However, the evidence does not appear to bear this out. Tim Butler and Garry Robson, in their fascinating book London Calling, carried out detailed studies based on over 400 interviews in the six areas of Barnsbury, Brixton, Battersea, London Fields, Telegraph Hill, Lewisham and the London Docklands. Their specific concern was to discover whether these affluent colonisers helped to upgrade local facilities and, as they put it, ‘look out for their less fortunate neighbours’. These new middle-class colonisers are, in a phrase I coined some years ago, ‘work-rich, time-poor’. Whilst helping to create and drive the flexibility and instability of ‘World City London’, they also suffer from it. Bankers and financiers work long hours and need easy access to the city. The sheer pressure of the lives they have chosen means that, in places like Brixton or Docklands, the authors describe ‘a flight from social obligation’: the very reverse of a putative gentrification. The authors are inclined to describe such people as victims of wider social and economic forces, rather than greedy and self-absorbed consumers.

These colonisers, at best, do indeed aim to create communities - real or imagined - at least amongst ‘people like us’. This is a phrase that occurs again and again. They are in stressful and demanding jobs, working long hours often involving overseas travel. This demanding life can apply to both parents of even quite young children. The colonisers are highly articulate and no more so than in Barnsbury, the locus classicus and probably longest established of ‘gentrified communities’, and they readily describe the advantages of living there. Many value its architectural quality, its trees and squares, the wide range of restaurants and wine bars, the little theatres, their congenial neighbours and so on. They appreciate its centrality and the possibility of being able to pop into Chambers on a Sunday morning, if they’ve forgotten papers they need for a Monday case. Many value its villagey ‘ambiance’ but still find it easier to live there knowing that they can ‘escape to Somerset’ to their second home (as one respondent remarked).

The authors do not explore the relationships between the colonisers and their domestic support staff, nor, indeed, between them and those who clean their offices.

Nevertheless, many respondents recognised the huge gap symbolised by the differences between Upper Street and the Cally (Caledonian Road). Seemingly in some amazement one exclaimed:

‘There’s people like us and then the people on the council estates – they are very different from us, they don’t seem to have resources, personal resources.’

Whilst it is true that some respondents, particularly perhaps in the Docklands area, appear thoughtless and arrogant, there was also evidence elsewhere of a kind of frustrated gentry-ism. A respondent from London Fields is quoted as saying

‘It’s an incredibly deprived area and you don’t feel as if anyone is doing anything to improve it…you can feel it all the time, the guilt about that…I choose not to do anything about alleviating the situation, so that’s all it is, guilt. You see it most starkly at health clinic, where people are obviously in need of help but the system just continues to let them down and fall apart.’ (178)

Amongst PLUs, in their enclaves there is often a strong feeling of neighbourliness and social support, particularly in connection with their children’s education. Another respondent from London Fields said

‘I come across a lot of people unlike us through their children…it’s the childminding mafia that really runs the area, loads of activity, and they’re Sikh, black, Scottish, underclass, everything and our children all end up playing together…so I have plenty of contact with all sorts of people not like me but we all recognise that there are lines that can’t be crossed…so even though I spend a lot of time with these people and have a good rapport, we don’t get close – we all know where that line is.’ (103)

Such views are not necessarily widely shared. In Telegraph Hill residents welcome newcomers as long as they are of the ‘right-minded type’, and the authors comment that ‘there is a lot of ‘genuflection’ to diversity and difference but it is much more of a kind of checklist of ‘political correctness’ that, although present in the area, in no way intrudes on respondents’ lives’ (175). However, amongst PLUs, there is evidence of social support and mutuality. Whilst not exactly popping in to borrow a cup of sugar ‘a new arrival to Telegraph Hill enquired: ‘does anybody need an au pair, we have two’! (97)

I have given something of the flavour of the Butler and Robson study and maybe some of you will be encouraged to read it for yourselves. The PLUs describe the areas they are colonising in terms of what they offer – good schools as at Telegraph Hill, ‘buzz’ in Brixton or even to be able to get out of London easily, as in Battersea. This is what one respondent called ‘the self-protecting middle class’. Time-squeezed but cash-rich, they can at least contribute to the common good by subscriptions to such non-work-related voluntary associations as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or Amnesty International. Over half of all respondents said they contributed in this way. But, there appeared to be very little local direct involvement as, for example, school governors, magistrates or councillors. There are, of course, very good reasons for this, given their time-squeezed lives, but it is clear that this colonisation of inner London cannot be accurately described as gentrification. Setting up these small enclaves of ‘communities in the mind’ – as I once called the commuter villages - amongst PLUs is a necessary survival strategy for those wanting communities of limited liability and who may have second homes, or plans to retire to France. It is unlikely that when these lawyers, bankers and journalists retire they will take on the roles in their existing geographical places that they are now unable to fulfil. Indeed, many may not retire until well into their seventies. [Sir Winfrid Bischoff has just been appointed to chair Citigroup at the age of 66.] Certainly, it would be interesting to see whether London’s senior salariat will, indeed, blossom into a contemporary gentry, taking on local responsibilities in their old age.

Another, more recent, study of 182 interviewees in Cheadle, Wilmslow, Charlton and Ramsbottom in the Manchester conurbation by Savage, Bagnall and Longhurst, provides a useful complement to the London studies. These authors do not refer to gentrification. However, they, too, emphasise the importance for the middle class of  choosing a specific place to live, as a way of confirming a sense of who they are. The Manchester middle class are part of a process which defines residential space as a habitus for social groups to form, cohere and act. New kinds of solidarities again emerge amongst PLUs and the authors refer to this as a form of ‘elective belonging’.

As in London, the significance of elective belonging, particularly for the senior salariat and top echelons of the middle mass, centres on education. Schools become the focal points of social networks around children. However, in Wilmslow, a member of the senior salariat is quoted as saying that, when he recognised that the local school required equipment, he readily agreed to be elected a member of the governing body of which he later became chair. Mike Savage and his colleagues show that the gathering together of PLUs who join together in championing local amenities makes them as local as make no difference. Any elements of an old working-class culture of community are seen as a ‘kind of residue’ (S.41) which is ‘unfortunately’ in decline.

This starkly instrumental approach to place is a far cry from the affective attachment to a community of fate. In the words of Savage et al ‘we argue that places offer visions of living which do not depend on the character of face-to-face relationships or the historical character of the place’. Elective belonging in the North West does seem to involve a commitment to putting down roots. Significantly, the respondents saw themselves as part of a northern English white middle class and did not adopt a national frame of reference. There are many highly significant implications of a comparison between the differences in ‘communities-in-the-mind’ between North and South, that I would like to make but which go well beyond my present concerns. We are certainly fortunate in having such a wealth of fine sociological reporting and analysis to draw on.

In the past, geographical isolation did not necessarily imply social isolation: nor does geographical proximity now in itself produce social cohesion or ‘community’. Before returning to this issue, I need to introduce the notion of personal communities, which is the central concept in the book by Liz Spencer and I, where we explore the hidden solidarities which are linked, but not tied, to geographical places. These are emphatically not social networks, despite the attempts of some of our commentators to make them so.

We did not invent the notion that significant social relationships are not necessarily tied to specific places. From Mel Webber in the 1960s to Manuel Castells in the 1990s, geographers, planners and sociologists came to recognise that community is ‘not a place or simply a small-scale population aggregate, but a mode of relating’ (RF44). The term personal community had been used by Barry Wellman and others to refer to people’s ‘intimate and active ties with friends, neighbours and work mates as well as kin’ (RF43-4). Perhaps the clearest way to illustrate how this works out in practice is to describe the way in which we constructed these personal communities of a broad cross-section of the population selected by a purposive nationwide sample covering differences in age, class, geographical location and so on. Without making any a priori assumptions or judgements, we simply asked our respondents to consider who were the people that were ‘important to them now’. They were then asked to identify these by age, location, occupation and the nature of the particular tie that linked them to them.

Respondents put these details on sticky labels that we provided them with before the interview. Then, when we visited them, we brought large sheets on which we had drawn a set of concentric circles. Much of the interview was taken up in getting the respondent to place their labels within the different circles and to provide accounts of why some should be placed more centrally than others. We also asked them to consider those placed in the same band and to reflect on what were the elements that brought these people together in the same category. We explored the history and function of different relationships and attempted to unpack what was meant by common terms such as neighbour, best friend or acquaintance. Given the nature of our initial question, most people did not consider acquaintances or most of their fellow work-mates as being ‘important to them now’.

Through this relatively simple method, we succeeded in generating a rich diversity of personal communities, with wide variations in structure and overall composition. The smallest personal community in our study contains just five people, the largest forty-one; the number of family members ranges from two to thirty-one, of friends from one to twenty-four. In some cases friends outnumber family by as much as ten to one, in others there are four times as many family members as friends. In some maps, friends are placed alongside family in the centre, whereas, in others, friends do not feature until the third ring. Some people put all their friends and family in the first two rings, others make use of all five rings on the map. In addition to friends and family, other relationships such as good neighbours, workmates or colleagues, fellow church members, golfing partners and so on are sometimes listed. Occasionally, a godchild or godparent is included, and some people placed counsellors, care workers, therapists or child minders on their maps.

We devised a complex typology of personal communities, which I have not time to elaborate on here. Suffice it to say that what we called ‘family-enveloped personal communities’ seem to be the most locally embedded, with the majority of relationships based in the same neighbourhood or a short journey away. By contrast, ‘friend-like’ and ‘friend-enveloped personal communities’ appear to be the least local.

In general, all the people we interviewed throughout the country had local ties providing a variety of functions – a source of fun, support and intimacy. However, people also sustain significant non-local relationships over time and space. Hence it would be quite wrong to assume that people do not have enduring attachments based on long-term commitment, even when they have been socially or geographically mobile. I have to resist the temptation of summarising more of our book, as this would distract from my concluding section. Rather baldly, I have to say that there was a tendency for what we call ‘friend-based personal communities’ to be found more in the middle class. These are communities where people are chosen more for the intrinsic quality of the relationship than for normative or cultural reasons. Friends outnumber family, and chosen ties or ties with some chosen-like qualities predominate, including simply friends, friends-who-are-like-family and family-who- are-like-friends. These significant others may or may not be geographically close. Sometimes siblings or best friends live close by. Others may live further away so that visiting a sick friend could involve regular weekend journeys of 500 miles or more.

Constructing these personal communities enabled people to see their meaningful social worlds in a new way. Ties of loyalty, love and affection stretched throughout Britain and in many cases, particularly for immigrants, overseas. They were real, but not geographical, communities. Furthermore, they are emphatically not a specifically middle-class phenomenon. All our respondents had their distinctive personal communities, ranging from the highly localised to the jet-setting celebrities I interviewed for another study.

Thus, these personal communities provided enduring strength and continuity for people in a wide variety of social and geographical contexts. We found no evidence that they replaced geographical communities but they certainly affected the way people behaved in their local contexts. Some people’s personal communities may serve as a kind of social capsule: it provides them with a wide range of social support from the closest ties of friendship (often with members of their own families) to the fun and sense of continuity provided by long-standing friends now, perhaps, living some distance away. It provides them with both a sense of identity and a sense of belonging detached from any specific milieu. However, if we get too steamed up within our capsules we may reduce the sharpness and clarity with which we view those whose claim upon us is based solely on propinquity or linked through the cash nexus.

Whilst I have provided something by way of an answer to the title of this lecture, namely that the one complements the other in complex ways, I want to conclude by making some remarks on the contemporary political significance of community. We have, after all, a full-blown Government Department devoted to Communities and Local Government. It is interesting to see what our elected representatives are seeking to achieve on our behalf. The DCLG web site provides definitions to make this clear:

‘Active communities are communities in which citizens are empowered to lead self-determined lives and in which everyone regardless of age, race or social background has a sense of belonging and a stake in society.’

From the evidence of our research on personal communities I would say that most people do get a sense of belonging from these, but how we interpret ‘a stake in society’ is more problematic. The Department has also provided a list of desiderata for sustainable communities which are expected to be

‘ Active, inclusive and safe – Fair tolerant and cohesive with a strong local culture and other shared community activities. Well-run – with effective and inclusive participation, representation and leadership.’

It also includes the usual planners’ list of accessibility to services and facilities, being aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sensitive and so on. In physical terms Barnsbury and Telegraph Hill could claim to be sustainable communities but in social terms, being small, self-contained islands of PLUs, they are more examples of acute inner London social polarisation.

Whereas in the past the basis of agriculture or industry tied people from different classes to the same village or town, now the gap between the affluent time-squeezed colonisers and the low paid ‘others’ on the council estate or in social housing lacks a common link to provide a bridge. Much of the middle mass has moved out of central London leaving a polarised occupational structure. Even if the colonisers had the time and inclination to behave as a latter day gentry, they now seem to be deterred by the sheer otherness of those in close proximity to them.

The DCLG is much concerned about the lack of social cohesion and sponsored the Report Predictions of Community Cohesion by James Laurence and Anthony Heath at Oxford. This used the 2005 Citizenship Survey to do a comprehensive multi-modelling exercise to predict community cohesion. For the purpose of this exercise, the geographical context was defined as a local area encompassing a walking distance of some 15–20 minutes. The authors show that irrespective of the level of ethnic diversity, disadvantage consistently undermines perceptions of cohesion.

However, as we have seen, advantage undermines it too. The aspirational middle class has been supported by successive governments to exercise more choice. However, the more effectively they seem to exercise such choice, the more they end up in communities of PLUs. For them, this is the basis of their community of choice, and whether we call this ‘elective belonging’, ‘communities of limited liability’ or ‘protective enclaves’, there is little or no evidence of a move towards a contemporary form of gentrification.

One is led to the suspicion, or even the fear, that the DCLG sees active communities as a form of social control that will help to keep the lower orders quiescent and better behaved. As part of the latest toughening of immigration controls announced a few days ago, ‘Migrants will also have to demonstrate a degree of integration into the local community by engaging in activities such as charity fundraising events, local play-groups, school governorships and helping run a local sports team.’ (FT, 21/02/08) It seems odd that we expect newcomers to this country to behave in ways that the senior salariat is unable or unwilling to do. Can we really expect migrants to be less time-squeezed? Are they likely to be any less pressured by the demands of the labour market? However much is made of ‘effective and inclusive partnership,’ by Mrs Blears and her colleagues, this does not seem to be of much interest to the aspiring middle class. Since the Prime Minister has said repeatedly that his Government wants to support and to encourage people’s aspirations, this may unintentionally serve to undermine the ideas of solidarity and mutuality that the DCLG desires. The more the senior salariat and upper middle mass expands, the greater the desire for ‘elective belonging’ exercising the choice and fulfilling their personal aspirations, as they are being encouraged to do. They may choose the outward trappings of gentility without the concomitant social obligations. In order to maintain and reproduce their social and cultural position, they may feel obliged to devote considerable time and energy to their individual lifestyle interests and the development of their children’s cultural capital. This inevitably implies that their direct involvement with local social responsibilities is squeezed out, even if they feel something of the social responsibility of a pseudo-gentry.

If we are truly to come to terms with the idea of community in contemporary society, where mobility, choice and aspiration are widely encouraged, we must build on the reality of people’s personal communities. These exist universally and are all, to a greater or lesser extent, geographically based. If people choose, or are allowed, to have the time to behave more like the 19th century gentry and become local councillors and leaders of their local communities, then I fear that they will be keener to do it for PLUs than the disadvantaged others. The DCLG idea of community appears to be more for those without choice who have not yet acquired the means for ‘elective belonging’.

June 2020
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