What I want to do this time is try and explain what the effect of having a poor civic culture is in wider terms and what it is producing in society today. So I am going to do it as several stages. First is to argue that have a strong civic culture thickens our network of relationships, secondly look at some symptoms or outcomes of having a weakened civic structure.
How does a good Civic Structure Work?
In my thesis, I argue congregations seek to sustain their identity through the creation of strong links between congregational members. These links are complex. In part, they want to reflect back at them their own culture and in part, they seek to conform. They also seek to define those outside the congregation as distinct from them. The negotiating and renegotiation of these bonds and divisions, because it is never settled, forms the core way that the congregation seeks to maintain its identity.
I am going to suggest that civic society is subject to similar processes to this. In this I a picking up the work Zygmunt Baumann’s work on Liquid Modernity but whereas Baumann is trying to say modern culture is fluid like, I am wanting to explore the metaphor further and ask what makes culture more fluid or less fluid. When I explored fluid dynamics I found that the difference between a solid, liquid and a gas was the connections between molecules. These connections include Van der Waal forces but also have weaker ones due to the physical packing of molecules together. The more these forces interplay the more viscose a liquid becomes and the harder it is to deform. In the gas state, these bonds are all broken and molecules separate out from each other.
The difference in society is not I would argue between solid states and liquid states but between societies that are strongly viscose and those that are weakly viscose. There are some reasons for this change of metaphor. There is no clear boundary between solids and liquids, nor between liquids and gases. The level of viscosity is determined by how strongly molecules are connected to each other and how many connections there are. What is more important is those we have connections with we tend to move in the same direction as. Those we do not have connections with we tend to slip past.
Now a financial arrangement is a weak connection and highly temporary. Once the financial transaction is over you have no further ties. The family is only a relatively small group of social atoms. A society which is dominated by these sort of connections is a society that is not cohesive. What we need as a society is a structure that creates bonds that are wider than the family but are stronger than financial. This is the gap what I mean by civic society.
To that extent, I include in it all groups in society that are wider that purely friendship/social groups. I include hobby groups, drama groups, campaign groups, charities, local societies, adult education classes etc. What these do is connect families and friendship groups to other family and friendship groups. Let me give you an example, the majority in Writers Group will support Sheffield Trees Action Group not just because it is a good cause but because actually one of the protestors, Jenny, used to attend our group. Jenny stopped coming to the group only when the campaign started taking over. This then spins out to other people we are talking to and so the network expands. However what if Jenny had not come to the group. No doubt some of us would be angry by what is happening but the extra pull of knowing someone so deeply involved brings an added dimension to that commitment.
Symptoms of Poor Civic Structures
I want to pick out four specific symptoms that occur when these wider structures are weak. That is differentiationism, loneliness, marginalisation and echo chambers.
Alright, I have just created that word. It might be individualisationism in other settings but that is a process that concentrates on the actualization of the individual, how they are established as different from the rest of the community. This is rather a process that seeks to separate society into communities of similar individuals which have little or no contact with individuals who differ from them. At its extreme, we are all communities of size one. As this is largely done through specialisation I have used differentiation as an analogy from cell differentiation. What is happening is bonds are being formed within more and more limited groupings. For instance, cross-generational friendships are becoming rarer. Some of this is deliberate such as the development of gated communities but other bits of it are not. The illusion is created that these differentiated communities are independent of other communities within society. That the differentiation is partly due to specialisation makes this an illusion. However, if the people you are meeting commonly are similar to you and those who are not then your contact is limited so that the illusion is kept, then it is very easy to imagine that society is run by people like you. This is aided by our own natural egocentrism; the belief that society primarily functions for people like us. Unfortunately “like-us” is getting more and more specialised and acknowledged links between parts of society are fewer and fewer. Society is fragmenting.
The problem is that when you have few relationships between you and other people then you tend to put more into those relationships. When they break for whatever reason it is then harder to start and find new relationships. Equally, if the basis of those relationships is financial then it can be easily fractured. If something happens that breaks a relationship that people have they have fewer relationships to fall back on. Things such as losing your job or suffering a disability are likely to have not just financial implication but also social ones with the number of relationships decreasing. What is more, the very fluidity of modern culture is adding to loneliness. If you look at how University of Sheffield academics calculated loneliness you will note they include the number of people who had lived at their present address less than one year and the number of people in private rented accommodation. Moving and not seeking to put down roots are feeding our loneliness. It is hardly surprising that Britain is a seen as a loneliness capital of Europe and it is not just the elderly, young people are more likely to experience loneliness.
If loneliness happens because we are having fewer connections and connections depend more and more on having then finance to maintain them, then marginalisation is what happens when the connections break and you do not have the finance to support or create new ones. What is more for the marginalised it becomes harder to perform those acts that build alternative because it becomes harder to get the things for everyday life. For instance, if for some reason you do not have a car, e.g. you lose your license. Then shopping becomes a lot harder. You can take one of three options:
- shop locally though this limits your ability to shop for the cheapest
- walk further and carry it home which takes time and energy
- use public transport, taxis or shop on the internet all of which have clear overheads both in time and money.
This happens for every single day to day task, which makes building up social capital through volunteering or participating in low-cost activities much more difficult.
If marginalisation is what is happening to those who end up disconnected from society, then echo chambers is what is happening to those with more money. The thing is that we are putting more energy into a smaller range of activities within the civic sphere. That means that our friends are drawn from a smaller pool of possible friends. We today seek out people more closely like us. The algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and Google probably don’t help but they are just exacerbating a process that was already going on. Other things are contributing as well. Take the fact that amongst the middle classes children rarely live in the same town as their parents as they follow work opportunities. We have cars so it is easier to travel those distances to meet up with other family members. However, it is not as simple as popping to the next street so three things happen and you are unlikely to bump into your family by chance. Firstly, those meetings are fewer simply due to the effort. Secondly, you are away from your local setting more often so less connected there. Thirdly, social sphere outside the family are different for parents and adult children and so crossover relationships become rarer. Indeed one of the pleasant things about social media is that these crossover relationships can start to occur again. The result is that people are becoming encased in a holy huddle (not necessarily religious) of people who are similar enough to them and are often enabled to ignore people who are different.