Me, Me, Me? In Search of Community

Jon Lawrence set off with a cracking idea. One of the most important intellectual projects of the last decade has been the so-called replication crisis, the effort to find out if major psychology experiments’ results can be repeated. It turns out they can’t; a combination of stubborn prejudice, poor statistical methods, and academic career incentives means that the whole field is gummed up with pure nonsense and quite a bit of scientific fraud. So what about sociology? As a field based on participant observation, it’s not meant to run experiments and a lot of its thinking is about either not experimenting on people, or else coping with the fact that just observing them is itself an experiment of sorts.

Historians, though, have a method for that – pull the original field notes, recordings, and photos from the archive and subject them to source criticism. What did Michael Young see, or at least record in the moment, in 1950s Bethnal Green? How did it differ from what he wrote up? Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-war England is built around this project – to go back to the sources of the classic post-war sociology projects and see if the fieldwork really did support the mightily influential conclusions. It would have been amazing to really go back to the sources, and re-interview the original subjects, those of them who are still with us, but the book’s end-notes suggest this is a big ethical no-no for reasons I don’t understand.

The first big point that comes across is that the classic-era sociologists themselves come across badly. There’s a persisting myth that some architect, usually Erno Goldfinger although the myth is often attached to Robin Hood Gardens and that wasn’t his work, spent just one night in a new council estate before returning to Hampstead. This myth may have been Michael Young’s fault; he really did live in Hampstead through the whole of the fieldwork for Family and Kinship in East London and left the job of keeping the Institute for Community Studies’ permanent presence on the ground to underlings.

This is far from the worst. Time after time, successive principal investigators pushed out into the field deeply convinced of what they were going to find, found it, found plenty of other things, and wrote up what they came to find. Not rarely, their students found all sorts of other things, including ones nobody had remotely expected, and found their work relegated to obscure appendices if not completely ignored. The field was dominated by egotistical stars with strongly held opinions, who influenced each other through their relationship with the media. Raphael Samuel’s notes from Stevenage are by far the worst; he went in having decided through a debate in the New Left Review that everyone had gone soft because of consumerism. His field notes are glaringly different to those of colleagues who took part in the same interviews and express gross class prejudice, ironically prefiguring Alan Clark’s crack about Michael Heseltine buying all his own furniture. As one of the interviewees says, of course the people moving into the new town bought furniture – they hadn’t had their own homes before and that was the point. The 60s era players, and especially Samuel, invariably glare down on their subjects from their own newly won class status and invariably blame the women.

Things got better. In fairness, the sociologists were working out a body of methods and principles that their new academic departments would teach to a new generation of students. The generations of researchers the book covers are each better than the last, clearly benefiting from a discipline recognizing its possibilities and its limits and developing horizontally into new perspectives. They show more empathy with their subjects, more sceptical rigour, more awareness of the rich variety of people they were trying to study.

The second point that spikes through is the degree to which everyone agreed about community. If the society Lawrence is writing about was asked to come up with a three-word republican motto, I am certain one-third of it would be “Community”. The sociologists tended to be obsessed by community and whether it was being preserved or destroyed by modern forces grinding towards individualism – it’s only late in the book that any of them turned to whether new forms of it might arise – but Lawrence’s remix of their sources suggests that the apparent binary axis between community and individualism didn’t really exist. Instead, the people they talked to valued community very much but wanted to take part in it on their terms, with their consent. (Lawrence calls the political version of this vernacular social democracy, although I feel I’m losing people with that.)

They appreciated their friends, but insisted on choosing them. They respected family ties, but didn’t want nosey relatives barging into their homes and judging them. They enjoyed the life of the street and the pub but were well aware it was the flip side of J.K. Galbraith’s private affluence and public squalor, an enforced adaptation to otherwise intolerable private squalor that unavoidably exposed them to the thug, the bore, and the creep. Interviewees from the 1940s Rotherhithe study come right out and say this. The squalor wasn’t private as such but just home-based, as a major element of it was precisely the absence of privacy, understood in a very modern sense as the right to choose the audience of your life. An interesting point that keeps coming up is that so much mass consumption was at least in part aids to sociability – TV, hi-fi, and opening up interior spaces were all things that could be enjoyed together, with the people you wanted to see.

This crucial point – that decent housing was central to real community, whether that was defined against rural and exurban isolation or hyperurban squalor – meant that the whole project of seeking community on one hand and worrying that it might die out on the other was closely linked with architecture and postwar reconstruction. The Scandinavian-influenced builders of the New Towns hoped to create community from scratch. The Brutalists in the next generation were influenced by sociologists who believed, wrongly, that the first generation’s efforts destroyed community, and set out to preserve existing community. The Post-Modernists believed that if you designed buildings to signal there ought to be a community, it would sprout. Oddly, Traditionalists seem to completely agree with them.

The sociologists fanned out in the wake of the planners, the architects, and the builders. Unfortunately, they generally found what they expected to find, and at the zenith of their influence, set the agenda for the media’s response. Lawrence pulls up case after depressing case of journalists picking up on crude popularisations of their work, itself crude imitations of, say, Georg Simmel, and publishing vast amounts of sensational outrage that nobody in Stevenage or Basildon could recognize as it hadn’t in fact happened. This had consequences. The continuing building programmes chased after problems that probably didn’t exist, created ones that did in so doing, and the cumulative impact led to the abandonment of the whole idea.

The book begins with a moving account of Lawrence’s own family, intended to place the author in the complex space of class identity. I found this disarmingly familiar. His folk didn’t have such a thing until relatively recently – instead they lurched up and down and across in a succession of exhausting jarring transitions. So did mine, although stability arrived earlier – rocketing upwards to war-profiteer riches and crashing so far they abandoned their children, getting lynched in the Russian Revolution of 1905 (incorrigible hipsters, we clearly preferred their earlier work), building state-of-the-art automated telephone exchanges, living in villages that didn’t quite get the Industrial Revolution until the Second World War, choosing between domestic service and working next to Hugh Scanlon at Metro-Vickers. It took the postwar project to bring precious, hard-won stability to one side and mobility to the other, something all its critics could never credit at its full value. Sure, it ironed out all that history into flatness and the fluidity into stereotypes, placing my grandparents into the labour aristocracy and us into the middle class, but on the other hand all that history was at last, history.

The Basildon pioneers in my family were enduringly furious about the press coverage of the town they helped to create. The papers claimed it gave its inhabitants new psychological diseases or caused them to adopt reprehensible sex lives that were also handily sensational. This went on until really very recently. After the 1992 elections the Guardian ran a News from Basildon column for years – the stick that Matthew Norman’s diary column later went in – that announced things it had just made up, like the council supposedly choosing a hamburger as its logo, a rolling indulgence in crass snobbery. My grandparents switched to the Indy and never read the Guardian again, although I hate to think what either of them would have made of that paper now. If you wonder where the idea of smug liberals who look down on everyone else comes from, well, there you go.

(On the other wing of the family, I was really fascinated to see from Lawrence that someone did a fieldwork study on their patch in western Hertfordshire, and that they got at why the place is so different. Maybe for another post.)

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