Patterns of Neighboring: Practicing Community in the Parochial Realm

Margarethe Kusenbach

NEIGHBORING AND COMMUNITY The worlds formed by intimate interaction and primary relationships have been thoroughly studied and theorized throughout the history of sociology. In recent decades, urban scholars have provided solid descriptions and analyses of the social sphere dominated by strangers, the public. In the past, sociologists have also investigated a third social realm quite extensively, one of “communal” or “parochial” interaction and relationships. However, theorizing in this particular area remains underdeveloped. In this article, I aim to advance scholarly understanding of this realm by investigating the normative patterns of neighboring.

The conceptual gap noted above is significant because communal interaction and relationships make up a substantial portion of everyday social reality. We all engage in communal interaction, for instance, neighboring; we all develop and sustain communal relationships, whether they are with neighbors, coworkers, or other kinds of acquaintances. Arguably, most of our life outside the home takes place in communal territories such as neighborhood streets, workplaces, coffee shops, and bars— the latter two niches carved out from public territory, aptly named “third places” by Oldenburg (1989). From Lofland (1973), we also know that people tend to transform public territories into more homey environments in order to maximize personal comfort and benefits. Far from being derivations of the private or the public, communal worlds are distinct, vital, and ubiquitous fixtures of everyday social reality, deserving of independent investigation and theorizing. One aim of such inquiry is to shift sociologists and others’ preoccupation with the dichotomy between “public” and “private” (Sheller and Urry 2003) toward a more complex and more accurate conception of social reality. Building on Hunter’s (1985) model of three social orders, Lofland (1998) provides a new “rudimentary geography” of the lifeworld as a composite of three social realms: the private, the parochial, and the public. She defines realms as social territories, each characterized by a distinctive “relational form” that refers to how individuals interact with one another. An intimate relational form indicates the existence of a private realm, a communal relational form suggests a parochial realm, and a stranger or categorical relational form corresponds with a public realm (p. 14). While, theoretically, any realm can appear anywhere, empirically, certain environments tend to anchor specific realms: “To oversimplify a bit, the private realm is the world of the household and friend and kin network; the parochial realm is the world of the neighborhood, workplace, or acquaintance network; and the public is the world of strangers and the ‘street’” (p. 10). Lofland’s new geography of the lifeworld is tremendously helpful in identifying and overcoming misconceptions in past studies of urban life. Most revealing is her observation in a footnote that Chicago school ethnographies, while routinely considered to be the quintessential body of research on urban and thus public life, are in fact rooted in neighborhood environments dominated by communal forms of interaction (p. 22; cf. Lofland 1983). Elsewhere, she suggests that most of what sociologists diagnose to be calamities of the public realm are actually social control problems pertinent to the parochial realm (Lofland 1994:30). In short, one payoff of a more-differentiated social geography is a better understanding of social territories— their boundaries, structures, functions, and problems—as expressed through interpersonal conduct. Perhaps even more important, by emphasizing social interaction, Lofland’s model can inspire a paradigm shift in the conception and study of “community.” Despite the legendary ambiguity of the concept of community, previous overviews (Altman and Wandersman 1987; Driskell and Lyon 2002; Hillery 1955; Hunter 1975; Karp, Stone, and Yoels 1991; Lyon 1987) largely agree on three basic components that have dominated definitions of community in the past: first, the presence of a shared territory; second, the presence of significant social ties; and third, the presence of meaningful social interaction. I argue that most scholars of community have prioritized the first and second elements—either separately or in combination— over the remaining one. Proponents of a predominantly territorial definition of community have long diagnosed and bemoaned the continuing “eclipse,” or “loss,” of community in our society (e.g., Nisbet 1953; Putnam 2000; Stein 1960; cf. Lyon 1987 for an overview). Over the last three decades, Wellman and other promoters of social network theory (Hampton and Wellman 2003; Wellman 1979, 1996, 1999, 2001; Wellman and Leighton 1979; Wellman and Wortley 1990) have developed an alternative approach that considers community to be “transformed,” “liberated,” or even “saved” instead of being lost. This definition virtually abandons a territorial understanding of community and provides for a radical despatialization and individualization of the concept. Between these two opposing positions stand the many urban scholars who embrace the conceptual gains the social network approach has made, yet who are not ready to fully retire the spatial reality of communities (e.g., Hunter 1974). Numerous empirical studies have substantiated the existence of functioning neighborhood communities. In fact, a recent shift toward community optimism and chronicling neighborhood success stories can be observed among urban scholars of various convictions (Hoffman 2003; Keller 2003; Putnam and Feldstein 2003). Compared with the scholarly attention paid to shared territory and social ties, the third definitional element of community, social interaction, has been relatively neglected. Beyond establishing the existence of parochial social relationships, few urban scholars have focused on examining the exact “nature of social ties” (White and Guest 2003:241) in neighborhoods or, in other words, the patterned social practices and interpretations that generate and sustain social ties. Lofland’s model, while resonating with previous work by urban scholars in the symbolic interactionist tradition (Karp, Stone, and Yoels 1991), provides a fresh impulse for such an investigation. Defining community as a genre of social conduct calls for microscopic analyses of the snippets and strands of communal interaction as the smallest building blocks of community “DNA.” Such a “community magnified” perspective will ground and hopefully invigorate ongoing debates. It will enhance the investigation of “interaction spaces and urban relationships” that Lofland (2003:949ff.) identified as one subarea of urban sociology that particularly benefits from symbolic interactionist scholarship. In more detail, such a perspective can advance theorizing and research beyond current limitations in at least two ways. First, it encourages the inclusion of seemingly nonsignificant interaction and relationships, thereby filling a noticeable conceptual void. Second, it allows one to problematize the nontrivial role of territory for community, not as externally fixed space but as places, that is, complex and layered chunks of environment ripe with individual and collective meanings. Yet of what does the work of neighboring actually consist? What is neighboring? In 1968 Keller offered a basic definition of the concept that is still useful today:

“Neighboring refers to the activities engaged in by neighbors as neighbors and the relationships these engender among them” (p. 29). Informed by Keller’s definition, and Warren’s (1981:73) reminder that neighboring actually follows rules, I define neighboring as a normative set of interactive practices that characterizes neighborhoods as one kind of parochial territory. Generally speaking, I view neighboring as a vital ingredient in the development of local community. Below, I analyze four distinct practices individuals enact to treat each other “as neighbors”: friendly recognition, parochial helpfulness, proactive intervention, and embracing and contesting diversity. In the following pages, I briefly review the literature, describe my research methods and settings, present my analysis, and conclude with a summary and some general comments.

Source: Symbolic Interaction , Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 2006), pp. 279-306 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

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